The Myth of the Power of Singing: Part 4

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The previous two posts in this series examined, respectively, the problems in using pseudoscience to promote singing, and the negative aspects of choral culture that the Myth of the power of Singing serves to hide. This post examines the issues the Myth presents for the scholar-practioner, creating a structural conflict between the two halves of the role.

The scholar-practitioner’s dilemma

The scholar-practitioner arguably always has a tricky line to tread. As a scholar they are committed to ideals of objectivity and transparency; as a practitioner they clearly have skin in the game. The prevailing narrative that singing is always and inherently a Good Thing amplifies this conflict of interest by eliding the distinction between practice and advocacy for that practice. The result is a tendency to build mythological assumptions into research design.

In my experience, first as teacher, later as examiner and peer reviewer, there are two species of agenda-led research proposal which passionate and dedicated musicians coming into research need to be persuaded out of. The first takes the belief that music in general, and singing in choirs in particular, is good for you, and seeks to find a method to prove it. The second takes a particular element of choral practice that is cast in the rationale either as widely-done but wrong, or rarely-done, but better, and aims to generate evidence to support the researcher’s position.

In both variants, the appeal may be to empirical, or at least systematic, methods, but the narrative is essentially evangelical. The researcher sees themselves on the side of the saviours of humanity: if only everyone could have access to vocal training, or learn Kodaly, or use this particular style of beat pattern, then the world would be a healthier and happier place.

This style of research proposal places the early-career researcher as David against an imagined Goliath of unenlightened educationalists or fuddy-duddy traditional choirs or pink-fluffy-cloud unscientific approaches to vocal technique. (Actually, the last one of these draws attention to how much the drive to adopt empirical methods in choral studies has itself operated evangelically, as a movement to rescue singers and directors from the chains of conventional wisdom.) And of course it is easy to see yourself in that role at the start of your research career, when you genuinely have not yet acquired much institutional power, especially if you come from a craft like choral music that has such a culture of celebrating charismatic leadership, itself an essentially evangelical persona.

But the contradiction between the passionate narrative driving the researcher’s agenda and the needs for verifiability in the production of knowledge in the academy perpetually hobbles these studies. They are built on a grand vision, but a viable research project needs a scope that allows it to be completed in a limited time. So the focus of attention gets nibbled down to specifics: this number of subjects, undergoing this carefully defined experience, yielding this analysable pool of data.

And sometimes this data tells us interesting and useful things, to be sure, in those cases where the project is successfully honed into an executable plan, and the conclusions drawn survive the examination and peer review processes. But you can still see the traces of the conflict between agenda and method lurking in the discussion sections of projects that have struggled with this conflict, in two classic tell-tale signs.

The first is slippage between evidence and argument: where the conclusions make recommendations for praxis that are not directly derivable from the results presented. This is where you see what the researcher’s original agenda was, leaking out between the restrictions of the process that has squeezed their vision into formal academic dress. This describes an article I peer-reviewed last year, by the way: I liked the suggestions - the author seemed like a genuine and good-hearted musician I would enjoy singing for – but they weren’t derived in any clear way from the material presented.

The second tell-tale sign is in extensive lists of further research needed. This is where the study has successfully been honed down to something that is empirically watertight, but has thereby become too particular actually to lend much if any support to the belief from which the research question was derived.

Persuading choral practitioners into research questions that don’t rely on the Myth of the Power of Singing for their validity can feel a little like it used to when trying to persuade a devoutly religious postgrad student to write a Musical Philosophies essay that would also make sense to someone from a different faith, or none. It’s not about denying or ignoring your belief system, but the knowledge we generate in academia needs to speak beyond it.

The final post in this series moves on from material based on my Dublin paper, to explore ideas that have started to emerge more recently about Choral Exceptionalism.

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