The Robot/Human Dialectic

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There’s an exercise I like to do with ensembles in which they toggle between singing as if they were a robot and as if they were a human being. It’s interesting because you think before you start that it’s primarily about expressiveness – turning both vocal and facial empathy for the music on and off. Which it is, but it also turns out to be about technical control. The robot mode typically displays not only a more angular rather than flowing sense of shape, but also much cleaner synchronisation of rhythm and word sounds. You lose something by turning off your humanity, but you gain something too.

I recently had a conversation with an individual singer about managing his relationship with these two states. He generally gives his primary focus to accuracy (an attitude that you have to like), but feels this can result in a robotic delivery: ‘I don’t think I know how to sing a melody like a Lead, while still doing all the stuff on placement, timing etc,’ he said.

This tension between the technical and the artistic goes to the heart of what we do as musicians. It’s there in the personification of the Manager and the Communicator. It’s arguably inherent to music’s very structure as both product and process, or as both particle and wave as I mused in the early days of this blog. (Hmm, those who know David McNeill’s work on the analytical vs holistic dimensions of language will see an intellectual debt not acknowledged in that post. You’ll find full credit to him and then some in my second book.)

Interesting as I find these philosophical questions, my aim today is to consider the practical challenges this dichotomy presents us, and to suggest some approaches that will help navigate between the two necessary dimensions of musicianship. But it turns out that the philosophical diversion has furnished what may turn out to be a very useful guideline.

Since the communicative, human dimension (wave) is associated with the gestural/holistic/dynamic aspect of music, it is best approached synthetically. And since the technical, robotic dimension (particle) is associated with the static/analytical aspect, it is better approached by segmenting things down into their constituent elements.

So you’ll start with the big picture, as you need to have a sense of what the whole is doing to make any kind of sensible analytical decisions. But as soon as you encounter any technical obstacles (that is, any place where the physical act of producing the music is getting in the way of what you might say with it), that’s a signal to chunk it down into smaller units.

What smaller units? Well, it depends on the needs of the moment: what is causing the obstacle? I spend a lot of my life getting people to hang out on individual chords so that they have time to hear how the individual notes cohere into harmonies. I also spend quite a lot of my life doing spoken call-and-response on units of a bar or two to home in on rhythmic patterns. The singer I quoted above will probably devote quite a lot of time to exploring placement at the shifts between register, because that’s something he’s been thinking about a lot.

However you slice-and-dice the music to expose the areas that need technical attention, you’ll find the process is always to take progressively smaller chunks, and to slow them down, you isolate and repeat. And if you’re still stumbling, that’s your sign to go down deeper. You know you’re at the heart of your praxis when you find yourself down at the most basic elements: a single note, the motion of a single body part. In programming your robot you sometimes need to delve down to individual lines of code.

And then you need to chunk it back up again, putting the detail back into context and turning your attention back to the bigger picture. What you’ll find is that once you can put more trust in your technical control, you are able to discover a lot more shape and meaning in the holistic dimension, and the human, imaginative part of you has a lot more scope to play.

That’s the overall process, but it never happens as a single pure cycle like that. It’s more of a fractal effect, with the larger global-analytical-global process containing medium-sized and micro-cycles en route. And this is true of both the process over weeks and months as you work with a piece and an individual practice session.

To return to one of my favourite metaphors for this: it’s like walking. You only get so far by only moving one leg forward. After a bit you need to put your weight on it and move the other one. Which sounds glib, but it also captures the essence of the two basic types of practice inefficiency.

My weakness in my formative years (and the one I need to keep guarding against even now) was to focus too much on the global and communicative and not give enough attention to detail. Others find it hard to let go of the technical long enough to give quality attention to the whole, and thereby deprive themselves of a meaningful gestalt that may support their technical work and make it easier. Learning to shunt flexibly between macro and micro is the holy grail of expertise.

Tldr: the answer to singing melodically whilst also thinking about placement, timing etc is actually not to try and think about all of them at once, but to let your human and your robot take it in turns.

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