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Tuning in to BABS Directors Academy

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Jay's selfie captures to joy in the roomJay's selfie captures to joy in the room

The weekend saw the first in-person BABS Directors Academy since 2020 (and my first since 2019, as I missed the last one). We had Dr Jay Dougherty as our guest educator, who brings with him a deep and abiding understanding of the barbershop style along with higher degrees and HE teaching experience in choral conducting. He is probably most known in the barbershop world for having taken over Joe Liles’s ‘Tune it or Die’ course at Harmony University, which he has made his own by drawing on research undertaken in his doctoral studies. He led front and centre with this material, dedicating three consecutive sessions on Saturday to it.

I particularly enjoyed his live use of spectrographic analysis software to explore sounds in real time. It offered the chance to process the ideas and thus develop a genuinely practical understanding of material I have mostly only ever seen presented in theoretical terms. For instance, his demonstration of the psycho-acoustic effect commonly known as undertones brought the phenomenon to life, transforming it from a rather mysterious, possibly mythical, concept to a vivid – though still remarkable – experience.

Another highlight in this session was when he was exploring the role of higher partials in the differentiation of word sounds, and cross-referenced it to an earlier point about range of hearing and its relationship with age. He stripped out the top end of overtones that one might lose in later years, which first gave an insight into what that sounds like for the person experiencing hearing loss in the upper registers, and its impact on comprehensibility of sounds. He then pointed out that if, as a coach or director, one ever demonstrated singing with a bright, over-tone rich sound, only to receive in return a breathier and/or darker response, the issue might be simply that someone who had lost the upper range was simply repeating back what they had actually heard.

A theme that arose in the tuning sessions, then reappeared in a fun, post-lunch session on ‘Audio Illusions and Paradoxes’ was the role of priming and framing in shaping perception. This affects both the capacity to hear what’s really there and the brain’s reconstruction of what might not be, with the experience of selective hearing living somewhere between those two categories.

So, the perception of overtones is largely a case of learning what to listen for. Once you know where to focus your attention, they become much more readily apparent. Conversely, in listening to a song you already know your brain will comprehend all the lyrics, even if the performers aren’t articulating them well enough for someone who doesn’t know the song to understand them.

A whole bigger can of worms opens up when we consider the way that our hearing is steered both by visual information and confirmation bias. Jim Clancy has talked about the way that looking competent in performance is key to the Vocal Majority’s success, as it readies the audience to hear them through a filter of confidently high expectations. Jay talked a little about how we can set up the audience experience of a particular song by the kind of context we share when introducing it. But of course we were all also aware of the many ways that pre-existent expectations and stereotypes can shape the reception of our performances in ways that are largely beyond our control.

Last time I was at Warwick University, it was for the LABBS Quartet Prelims last summer, after which I remarked on how interesting the MC’s view of the audience is – how you can see in people’s faces and body language how they are responding to the music they hear. I had a similar observation about learning at this event, since the main conference room we used was set out in an arc that allowed us to see a good many other delegates’ faces even while it focused us all on the central presenter. I’m not sure why this makes the learning experience so much more pleasurable – or indeed whether it’s a response I’d have even noticed prior to 2020 – but anyway I note it for future reference.

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