BABS Directors Academy 2021

BABSDA2021Saturday held the annual director-training event from the British Association of Barbershop Singers. As with everything these days, it was virtual rather than live, and also therefore rather shorter than usual – 5 hours rather than nearly two days. And, as with everything, this brought some brightsides along with the dilution of experience.

We inevitably had much less opportunity to bond with and learn from our fellow directors (so much learning normally happens in the bar after dinner!), though it was still lovely to see their faces. But it did mean that we could enjoy two visiting educators from the US, Cindy Hansen and Greg Clancy, rather than the one that the budget would usually run to.

Along with a contribution from Linda Corcoran, director of the Great Western Chorus of Bristol, this generated some really interesting connections between sessions, and interactions between presenters. This was clearly not entirely an accident – there were clear connections between the themes of Greg’s session on musical identity and Cindy’s on branding – but Linda’s presentation pre-figured elements of both and gave a useful concrete case-study for everyone to refer back to.

On Schenker and Schenkerians

Sometime towards the back end of last year (I only happened across it in the last week) a group of European music theorists published an open letter in response to the events surrounding the Journal of Schenker Studies edition last summer about Phillip Ewell’s work. There are many aspects of it to raise an eyebrow, but I tripped over the first sentence of the second paragraph and got stuck there:

We were at first surprised that Prof. Ewell chose to illustrate his legitimate concern with the situation of the SMT and of American universities mainly by an attack against Schenker, who died almost a century ago.

My immediate response to this was:

We were surprised that anyone objected to the Confederate flag being waved inside the Capitol Building, as the civil war finished over 150 years ago.

Thoughts on Barbershop and Musical Comedy

The shibboleth in barbershop circles is that any attempt at comedy has, first and foremost, to be sung well if it is to work. The better it’s sung, the funnier people will find it. This post unpicks this assumption: there’s something to it for sure, but I don’t think it tells the whole story.

The reason why this generalisation seems generally plausible is, I think, because ‘well sung’ functions as an effective proxy for ‘thoroughly-rehearsed’ and ‘has high standards’. Ensembles that develop their skills in one of these dimensions typically improve in the others too. Lurking behind the truism is the memory of mediocre performances that were not very well executed as comedy, didn’t have enough jokes in them (those they did have being rather obvious), and that were also not very well sung.

But this is a case of correlation, rather than causation. It’s not necessarily the fact that they’re singing better that makes a successful group more funny. In fact, these two dimensions are at least moderately dissociable once you’re beyond the base level of ‘does the audience trust your skillset?’

Performance and Skill-Development

During the Telfordaires’ penultimate live rehearsal session of 2020, I found myself uttering words that I had not used since early February: ‘That’s about ready to perform, now.’ Not that we had anyone to perform to as yet – whilst we have negotiated our way round the logistics of covid-safe rehearsal, we are leaving the complications of adding an audience to the occasion until the Spring, when hopefully case numbers will be down and social occasions commensurately easier to manage.

[Edit: and between scheduling this post and its publication we went back into lockdown so we're not going to be rehearsing live for a bit now either. Deep sigh. Hang on in there, friends.]

But that moment got me reflecting once again on the relationship between performance and skill-development. I’ve written before about how the experience of performing repertoire contributes to its development in ways rehearsals can’t reach. To say something is ready to perform doesn’t mean that it’s a finished product (we’ve got plenty of work still to do on that song), but that it is at a stage when not only is it good enough to be worth sharing, but performing it will make it better.

The first thing that struck me was that the extent to which this process contributes to a choir’s development varies considerably depending on your typical performance patterns.

And joy be to you all...

Signing off for the Holidays

Usually my last blog post in December is full of talk about how choral folk will be looking forward to a rest after the busiest time of year for performances. Not so much this year, eh? But we all deserve a bit of a break nonetheless. There’s been an awful lot of screen time this year, and our eyes deserve a rest. So, other than Skyping with your family, maybe now’s a good time to spend less time online and think about curling up with a good book or a craft project instead.

There’s little one can say about 2020 that won’t sound obvious. It’s been strange, it’s been tough, we’ve all grown in ways we couldn’t have imagined this time last year. Some of the changes we have had to embrace we may choose to carry onwards with us into the future, others we will gladly abandon as soon as we possibly can.

Changing Choral Expectations in the Covid Era

In my recent post about a set of wide-ranging questions from a reader, I deferred the question about how expectations of our singers have changed under covid, on the grounds that I needed to do some more thinking about it. This post is where I will do that thinking.

When someone asks you a question about a subject on which you know you have some knowledge, you look into your brain, and usually find, if not a ready-made answer, then some useful examples from which to start to derive one. On this occasion, that process revealed… not very much. For all I’ve spent a much larger proportion of my time than usual plugged into various choral community support networks this year, I’ve not seen very much discussion about this.

Socially Distanced Singing, and Other Practice Gadgets

Socially-distanced rehearsingSocially-distanced rehearsing

One of the responses to my recent post On Singing Solo Safely talked about how the rehearsal protocols we need for live rehearsing also affect the sense of safety singers experience in rehearsal:

Singing in masks and socially distanced is another example where the safety of the wall of sound disappears and singers can often only hear themselves.

To which I’d add singing outside and in smaller groups as other things that dilute the sonic envelope around us. Indeed, of all of these, singing in masks is the least of our problems; they may feel like they symbolically gag us, but their effects on the music are minimal compared to the effects of the inverse-square law of sound.

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