Time to Pause…

One measure of a successful blog post is how many book recommendations I receive in response to it. On this basis, I consider my recent reflections on the value of downtime in rehearsal to have been particularly effective, in eliciting suggestions for two books with distinctive takes on the value of downtime in life.

Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less makes its case through an argument that mixes reports of research in psychology and health with anecdotal accounts of the working and resting practices of various famous figures with productive track records. There were some things that made me want to shout back at the author - not least the essentialising way he wrote about ‘creative types’ as if they special, different people, at the very same time that he was documenting behaviours that facilitate creative work. But I got over myself enough to find his analysis interesting and useful.

The Body in the Compositional Mind

My undergraduate education, especially as a composer, was firmly within a Modernist aesthetic, and one of its tenets was that you should learn to compose direct from your mind’s ear to paper, rather than at the piano. The reason given for this was that your pianistic habits would lead you into familiar musical gestures and thus become an obstacle to creating new, hitherto unimagined musical ideas.

(Note, by the way, the assumption that all musicians should be good keyboard players. Nobody ever warned you off composing though noodling on the guitar or oboe.)

Now, there’s something to this. Every so often I’ll see a novice arranger produce a chord for an a cappella group that tells me that they’re a pianist and we have to have a conversation about voicings that will work better for a vocal ensemble.

On Priming Effects

Priming effects are the name psychologists give the phenomenon whereby an idea or a behaviour comes much more readily to mind if you’ve had some kind of trigger or reminder shortly before encountering it. The experiments that investigated it often make it seem like a weird form of suggestibility: people walking more slowly after being primed with words that remind them of old age, for instance, or students doing better or worse in tests depending on whether they’ve been primed with stereotypes that evoke intelligence or academic weakness.

Daniel Kahneman explains priming as a way of tapping into our System 1, associative mode of thought, helping the speedy, intuitive part of our brains to access a whole web of connotations, rather than painstakingly working through ideas one at a time. Whether this works positively, producing nuanced, holistic insights, or negatively, making us leap to conclusions based on stereotypes, varies from context to context.

Barbershop Actually!

I forgot to take a pic on Friday, but this one is nicer than anything I'd have managed!I forgot to take a pic on Friday, but this one is nicer than anything I'd have managed!

Friday evening brought the quartet Barbershop Actually! over for a coaching session. They are preparing for the mixed quartet contest to be held in Llandudno at the end of October, so are at a stage where they have a reasonably settled concept of what they’re doing with their songs. Our task therefore was get the most of that concept – the polishing, rather than the exploration phase.

There are certain exercises that never stop giving. An early session of bubbling gave all its usual benefits: by connecting the voice securely with the breath and increasing the continuity of resonance, it brought clarity to the sound and made it much easier to hear the detail. It can sometimes be tricky to coordinate the ensemble when you take out the word sounds - indeed, this is another of the useful ways bubbling makes a group work, in a musical rather than vocal dimension. So we found that taking a single phrase, then alternating it in bubbling and with word sounds helped everyone find their way round it.

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