Personal Development

On Breath and Tempo

For the last year or so I have been attending tai chi classes in local parks. I tried it on a whim when I was looking for things to take me away from my screen, and have kept doing it both because it is enjoyable during the session and I always feel good afterwards. It’s good for a sense of balance, both physical and mental.

Recently our teacher, Perry, was making some interesting observations about breath and tempo in the context of the Form (the extended sequence of moves that always features in the last 15 minutes so of the class), and I found myself wanting to reflect on parallels with musicking. Breathing and tempo are, after all, pretty central to our craft too.

Helping People Back to Choir

VFPlogoI don’t know if there has been any attempt to gather data about the overall state of choral singing since covid, but all the anecdotal information I’m coming across suggests that choirs are mostly back up and going, but depleted. A few groups didn’t make it through and disbanded – not necessarily directly because of the pandemic, but the stresses of the situation brought underlying problems to breaking point. A few groups, meanwhile, have come back with increased numbers and are facing the enviable challenge of integrating a high proportion of new singers all at once.

Most, however, seem to be reporting a drop in numbers of about 30% from pre-covid levels. The first ones lost were those who opted out during the zoom era, either finding the whole online rehearsing thing presented too many obstacles for them, or dropping out after a while because they found the experience unsatisfactory. Some of these singers have come back on return to live singing, but not all.

Understanding Overwhelm

Before I start reflecting on my second barbershop Convention of the month, I’d like to share some of the thoughts I had while trying to understand the impact the first one had on me. Not having the stamina to do either as much listening or socialising as I would normally expect is quite easily explained by the phrase ‘out of practice’ – but what does this mean in this context? Why have activities that don’t require a huge amount of exertion become cognitively demanding?

According to Lisa Feldman Barrett, the process by which we handle input from our senses as we live in the world is one of prediction and verification. That is, we don’t just wait for sights and sounds to come in through our eyes and ears and then try to make sense of them, we carry round a model of how we understand the world to be, and just check the incoming sensory data against it to see if we were right. Most of the time it is: I turn my head and my coffee cup is still where I left it, and thus requires no new cognitive resources dedicated to it.

What is Vocal Freedom anyway?

VFPlogoHaving shared some of the background to The Vocal Freedom Project in a previous post, I thought it might be helpful to explore in a little more depth what I mean by the phrase ‘vocal freedom’ in this context. It is one of the ideas that is both multidimensional and holistic – you can think about it from a number of different angles, but in practice they all work together in a single, unified experience.

The Physical Dimension is the most obvious, in that it is the one we are most likely to directly perceive in ourselves and in others, both visually and aurally. We find physical freedom by shedding extraneous muscular tension – that is, muscular engagement that isn’t doing anything productive. Tongue, jaw, neck, shoulders, glutes are all areas we tense up when under stress then never quite loosen off again when the immediate stressor goes away. Our bodies get locked up, our breath becomes shallow, and we hear this in our voices as strain and loss of resonance. Vocal Freedom Project workshops start with the body as the dimension which is both most accessible and usually the most urgent to address.

Introducing the Vocal Freedom Project

VFPlogoToday tickets have gone on sale for the first of what will probably become a series of workshops called the Vocal Freedom Project. We’ve got quite detailed info about the VFP’s rationale and aims over on the project page, but I thought it might also be useful to give a little background into its genesis.

The project was born in a conversation back in early December with my friend Myra, who sang with me in Magenta for ten years. I can’t remember exactly how she phrased her expression of her need to sing, but she crystallized a lot of the observations I had been making over the months since live singing had restarted in the UK about what the lockdown experience had done to people’s voices.

The Performer’s Inner Family

bodykeepsthescoreI’ve recently finished reading The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. Its primary focus is the treatment of trauma, a specialised pursuit that has no direct relevance to my personal or professional lives. But in the process of explaining the difficulties experienced by people who have been damaged by shock, tragedy or abuse, he gives many and varied insights into how our internal landscapes - our memories, our sense of self - work.

One chapter particularly resonated with an experience of musicianship I have observed in both others and myself and called out for some reflection. Chapter 17 deals with a form of treatment called Internal Family Systems therapy, and is predicated on the idea that the self isn’t a single, unitary entity, but rather a mosaic of different parts.

Stepping off the Treadmill…

Despite having left full-time work in academia in 2009, I still experience September as a moment for fresh starts. And this year I have come back from my summer holiday to find the surprising thought that I would like to relinquish the discipline I have maintained for nearly 13 years of publishing a blog post every four or five days.

There are a number of interrelated reasons for this, all to do with how this blog interacts with my lived experience.

It has always been the place where I process discoveries, and clarify to myself what I have learned from my various musical adventures. And I am at a moment when I suddenly find I’m not having the intensity of new experiences to generate the regular need to write. Whilst I am – thankfully! – now getting regular opportunities for in-person musicking with my own chorus, the other groups I'd normally work with as a visiting coach are mostly likewise at the point of restarting live rehearsing, so they’re neither quite yet ready for in-person coaching nor wanting to spend time with me on zoom.

On Privilege and Mediocrity

A chance encounter led me to reflect on a correlation I have noticed periodically over the years between self-satisfaction and mediocrity. There are people who present as plausible and urbane, charming and confident, yet whose actual achievements are rather ordinary.

Their written prose has the rhythm and cadence of authority, but the ideas remain shallow, smoothing over the surface of received opinion rather than offering any penetration of insight. Their musical performances likewise offer the general shape of what a good performance would sound like, but lack depth and nuance, and indeed are often also somewhat inaccurate – lack of attention to detail manifesting in multiple dimensions at once.

It occurs to me that most of the people I have encountered who fit this profile are male, all of them white, and they all speak with accents associated with levels of affluence that afford private education. They all, that is, enjoy multiple levels of social privilege. For the record, I’m generalising from a list of 7 or 8 specific examples here – a small sample in some senses, but enough to allow a pattern to emerge.

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