On Metaphors and Messing with People’s Heads

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[On executing a vocable using the syllable ‘ha’ without making the tone breathy]

Don’t let the h invade the vowel. You want to keep the salt on the edge of the margharita glass, not put it into the drink.

The coaching process produces all kinds of metaphors for different aspects of musical performance, many of them emerging spontaneously from the needs of the moment. One of the things, I am told, that Amersham A Cappella appreciate about my coaching is the vividness and idiosyncrasy of some of the metaphors that pop out during the process. One of the things I appreciate about working with them is knowing that they’ll go with whatever wild imagery comes to hand: not needing to filter insights for sensibleness on the way gives an incredible sense of creative freedom.

Amersham’s director Helen Lappert and I were chatting about this after our recent evening together, marvelling at how changing what people think about the music can have such an immediate effect on how they sing it, sometimes quite radically altering the sound. She made the throw-away remark that you could say any old nonsense and it would change how people sing. And as it was just as I was about to leave, there wasn’t time to say anything more about the thought she sparked than, ‘I must tell you sometime about my friend Victoria’s PhD,’ as I walked out the door.

So, this one is for Helen. Let me tell you about my friend Victoria Vaughan’s PhD. I am reporting this from my memory of her talking about it during the research process – I met her just before she started, so I knew about her work initially from her central question, and gradually learned about the answers she found over the following few years as she went about answering them. I have not however read the dissertation since the 1990s, so whilst I have a very strong impression of the interest and importance of her work as I’ve carried it round as part of my own understanding of music education for the past 25 years, the account I’m going to give you is filtered through that context of understanding rather than a recent or detailed reading of her findings.

So, if you go and read it and think I’m misrepresenting her work, that’s my bad. Maybe I should say I’m telling you about what I learned from Victoria about her PhD work, which might not of course be the same as what she thought she was teaching me.

Anyway, Vic’s starting-point was that, as undergraduate music students, we’d all been required to study music analysis, on the basis that it would help make us better performers. Okay, she thought, what kind of difference to a performance does studying analysis make? Oh, nobody exactly knows yet, I’d better design a research project to find out.

So she devised a series of empirical studies – a couple of pilot studies, then a more developed one – that asked students to perform a piece of music both before and after having studied various approaches to analysing it, and compared the performances. The headline finding is that people do actually change how they perform music when their analytical understanding of it changes. Big sigh of relief for all those who have invested time and energy in teaching and learning analysis in higher education.

But the bit that Helen brought to mind with her comment was a quirky little detail in these findings. In the stimulus material used, as well as standard analytical approaches as commonly found in the undergraduate curriculum, Victoria threw in a spurious extra item, intended as a kind of control. This was a short narrative about the background to the piece of music, interpreting it in terms of the composers’ childhood experience. It was in the genre of the life-and-works stories that so often frame our understanding of classical music, but was entirely made-up.

I can still see the delight in her eyes as she recounted how one of the student participants had responded really positively to this item, saying how it really helped them understand the music. The performances after this stimulus item likewise showed as much development as those in response to the real analytical methods.

It appeared that it was the fact of having something that made them think more deeply about the music that changed the students’ performances, rather than the actual content of that something. Or, as Helen put it, maybe you can say any old nonsense and it will make a difference.

Here’s the thing, though: all these examples – the valid analytical techniques, the invented composer biography, and my spontaneous metaphors – are all created in response to specific musical detail. The spurious story was plausible, and thereby useful, because it was invented to make sense of that particular piece. My metaphorical flights of fancy are sparked within a working relationship in which we are bound together not only by the musical content we are working on, but the immediate experience of the sounds we have just heard in bringing it to life. Even academic music analysis, dry and papery as it can sometimes seem on the page, is generated from deep and careful engagement with individual pieces of music.

So, it turns out that it’s not just any old nonsense that makes a difference. It’s musically relevant nonsense we need. But the musical relevance is far more important to this process than truth.

(The wording of my title, by the way, is based on my ‘describe your job in 10 words’ phrase: ‘People sing to me and I mess with their heads.’)

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