May 2015

BABS Convention 2015

Hmm, it was actually nicer walking along the seafront than this makes it look!Hmm, it was actually nicer walking along the seafront than this makes it look!

Like many of the UK’s barbershop population (and more than a few from overseas), I spent the bank holiday weekend in Llandudno for the British Association of Barbershop Singers Convention. It seems the convention is getting near to growing out of Venue Cymru - not only did they have to run the prime show twice there was so much demand for tickets, but the main arena is getting too small for the numbers who want to watch the contests. It was also significantly harder to get a table in a restaurant than in previous visits, which tells you something about the relationship between major venues and the surrounding businesses.

Converting Drains into Radiators

My friend Monica Funnell introduced me to the classification of people into radiators and drains in a recent conversation about how directors can build effective teams. It is one of those wonderfully self-explanatory concepts that sheds immediate light onto aspects of interpersonal relationships in real life. And, as these things are apt to do, it helped me identify what’s been going on in situation that has been a source of low-grade anxiety in my own life.

But the thing about these personality labels is that they’re more useful in some situations than others. If you are putting together a group of people to work together, yes it’s very useful. If you are going in for a spot of introspection, it could potentially be useful, depending on how self-aware you are. (One of my niggling questions is whether drains know they are draining; I’m reasonably sure the person I’ve been worried about thinks they are a radiator. This in turn fills me with self-doubt: does everybody else see me as needy and whining without my realising it?)

Why You Need to be Able to Demonstrate All the Parts

This is an addendum to my post on preparing music to direct. I had a response from a director saying that his section leaders are charged with demonstrating their parts in rehearsal, and that he thought his time would be better spent doing various analytical tasks such as harmonic or voicing analysis. Now, I’m not one to discourage harmonic or any other kind of analysis, so please do continue doing this. But his comment made me articulate to myself why you still need to be familiar enough with all the parts to be able to demonstrate them in rehearsal.

When I’ve asserted this before, it has been in the context of why you need to know all the parts, and the ability to demonstrate them has been the measure of when you know them well enough. But this comment focuses the attention on why you also need to be able to demonstrate anything your singers might have to sing as a distinct desideratum in its own right.

Guidance Notes on Preparing Music to Direct

I wrote these notes for delegates at the Directors Weekend I am working on for Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers. Those delegates will all have a session of hands-on coaching with a chorus, and I wanted to give them the best chance to go into that session well-prepared and therefore able to get the most out of it. But once I’d written the notes, I thought I may as well share them here, since they are valid - and I hope useful - for general music-making, not just for this event.

This is a description of what experienced directors typically do on meeting new music, although they may do a lot of it intuitively without laying it out on a checklist. I am listing it out systematically as an aid particularly for newer directors, but it’s also good for the more experienced to review what they do from time to time.

There are two main types of preparation you need, the first to inform your practical work of supporting the singers in learning and performing the song, and the second to inform your artistic work of making and communicating interpretive decisions.

On Bullies, Power, and Politicians

Some years ago I was walking in the park and met a group of children from a local nursery. One of them looked me in the eye and said, ‘You are wee-wee and poo-poo’. I confess I did not have an adequate reply to this; I was struck dumb by a combination of surprise to be so accosted, and the dawning revelations that followed on the nature of insults and their function in human relationships. The impasse was broken by one of the nursery staff who remarked, accurately, ‘That’s not very nice, Leon,’ and led him away.

Forgive me if I write a post that looks rather political, and therefore off-topic. Though it’s really about trying to understand human beings, and to process some things I’ve learned through the process of the UK’s recent general election. Helping us harmonise in the wider sense, so to speak.

Expressive Gesture, Part 4: Directing with Your Ears

How to hear your choir more perceptively is a theme I have explored before, both in its own right and in relation to elements of conducting technique such as stillness and mouthing the words. And my recent visit to the White Rosettes, with its opportunity to observe how a director can listen the music into tune, came at just the right moment for me to try and frame how these thoughts fit together as part of a practical guide to expressive gesture.

The issue is one of attention. If you’re entirely focused on your projection of the musical soundtrack inside your head, that will be too loud for you to really hear or respond to much of what is coming back to you from the choir. (You get the same issue with instrumentalists of course - often the issue going on behind a spirited but technially splashy and/or sketchy performance.)

Expressive Gesture, Part 3: Embodying the Music

Third in a series that starts here

The fluid interplay between Simon Halsey's speech-accompanying and conducting gestures was a fascinating case study in the research that feeds this postThe fluid interplay between Simon Halsey's speech-accompanying and conducting gestures was a fascinating case study in the research that feeds this post

The very term ‘expressive gesture’ encapsulates the idea of musical thought made physical. And it is an interesting question as to how this happens. Often in conducting manuals, you get lots of useful detail on technique such as the conventions for indicating musical structures such as metre, but notions of creating musical beauty are sealed off in a box marked ‘Magic: do not open’.

To an extent, this is not as much of a cop-out as it may seem. Spontaneous, speech-accompanying gesture is something we all do intuitively as part of the act of thinking and communicating, without needing to be taught how to do it. And musicotopographic gestures (i.e. those than emerge as part of the act of thinking in music) are equally spontaneous and intuitive. This is why I argued that the most important first step in developing expressive gesture was to develop the musical imagination.

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