Genius and Bad Faith

battersbyThe conversations about race and repertoire that I mentioned just after the Sweet Adelines International Convention continue to thrive in both public and private spaces, and continue to present all of us with much food for thought. Today's post is in the genre of 'trying to nurture a vague hunch into full thought-hood'. If you are reading this, then I managed to articulate it enough to have something to publish...

The hunch is this: that the way classify certain cultural artefacts as 'art' or the product of 'genius' serves to protect them from genuine critical scrutiny. We may analyse them and discover cultural values that encode oppressive social relations, but that analysis does not dent the work's reputation or place in its canon. If anything, it just makes it look more important to be subject to all that attention: musicology as clickbait.

Rehearsing Performance

I had an email recently from a regular reader whom I’ve had the good fortune to become friends with in person through some of my European trips over the last 15 months. She is about to take up her first chorus director position in the new year, and had an excellent question, which she correctly diagnosed as the kind of thing it would be useful to share here.

I’ll quote her at length, because she has done a good deal of the analytical groundwork for us, so I can get straight onto the pragmatics:

One of the central takeaway messages for me from both the German and the Dutch harmony college this year was that performance is fundamentally different from rehearsal. During rehearsal you may focus on technical stuff whereas during performance you have to accept the technical level of singing that you're at and essentially forget about the technical stuff. Performance was characterized by having fun, staying in the moment, trying to connect with the audience and so on.

On Stage-worthiness

Back in April, when Sandi Wright introduced the Barbershop Harmony Society’s new judging category of Performance to delegates at LABBS Harmony College, she used three key concepts to explain its central values:

  • Risk - vulnerability, courage
  • Skill - absence of distraction
  • Stage-worthy - content that is significant and relateable

Interestingly, whilst there is a good deal of material online explaining the change from the old Presentation category, as of the date of writing, the only documentation of the new category itself that I can locate is a draft dated September 2015. Which only contains mention of the second of these, skill. So my plan to write about how interesting and exciting the adoption of the concept of ‘Stage-worthy’ into the category is rather undermined.

Choral Conducting Book Video Clips Now Available Online

Choral Conducting book coverAs I reported recently, both my books have been reissued in paperback. This is great news for anyone who was interested in them but put off by the cost of academic hardcovers.

However, the new print run hasn't included the DVD that accompanied the original publication of the second book, the one on choral conducting. This included footage of four conductors in action, each working in a different choral tradition, and formed the primary material for the detailed discussions in Part III of the book.

In order that new purchasers don't have to miss out on the full experience, I have uploaded all the clips to a youtube playlist. I have left this unlisted - so you can't just find it by searching - as the original filming was done for the purpose of accompanying the book, not general distribution. But I'll be more than happy to send a link to the playlist to anyone who has bought the book and doesn't have access to the video clips - just drop me an email to ask.

The Conductor’s Body Parts

There’s an improvisation game called ‘Conducting’ I learned from my friend Steve Halfyard when we both taught musicianship at the Birmingham Conservatoire. One person acts as the ‘Conductor’ (you’ll see why the inverted commas in just a mo). Everyone else picks a part of the conductor’s body to follow, and decides what instrumental or vocal sound they will make when that body part moves. The conductor then starts moving experimentally to discover what sounds the different parts of the body elicits, and, as they figure this out, they can ‘play’ the corporate instrument.

It’s a great game. These days I use it when working with conductors, particularly novices who often need something to break the ice. But apart from loosening everyone up and getting them into the musically imaginative part of their heads, it is a brilliant way to draw attention to the fact that, as a conductor, all of you is visible.

On Stereotypes and Agency

A participant in the debate about race and repertoire I reflected on recently made one of those passing comments that don’t pass, but insist on staying in your head demanding to be thought about. It was about when Black singers perform music that portrays Black stereotypes: ‘but she is African American and it is her choice to make for whatever reason’.

Now, it is clear what the tension is here that people are trying to resolve. The portrayal of African Americans in blackface is quite transparently imposing a dominant culture’s representation on people who are afforded no agency in the cultural process. The reputational damage is direct and undisputed. But if African Americans themselves sing lyrics that might be thought to evoke such stereotypes, does this suggest that objecting to those stereotypes is being over-sensitive? Can we use the performances of Black singers as information about what kinds of lyrics are okay?

On Voicings for Mixed Barbershop Choruses

Heavy Medals from BinG!: Leading the world in mixed-chorus barbershopHeavy Medals from BinG!: Leading the world in mixed-chorus barbershop

I had a couple of conversations at the recent LABBS Convention about repertoire for mixed barbershop choruses, and the specific needs/constraints on voice ranges the genre produces. I realised part-way through one of these conversations that the question is more precise and intricate than I had headspace to work through in a mid-contest coffee break, so I have come home to work it out in detail.

The mixed chorus is curiously both more and less flexible than the mixed quartet. In a quartet, the four voices you’ve got available are your absolute constraints: anything out of range for one of them means a chart isn’t usable. In a chorus, you can shuffle people about between parts to an extent, and thus in some ways get more of the benefit of the extended range of having both male and female singers. At the same time, though, the fact that you have both male and female singers on a part means you have to be careful at both top and bottom of the range.

Loved-Up with LABBS

LABBS Beacon of Harmony: displayed in the Convention history roomLABBS Beacon of Harmony: displayed in the Convention history roomLast weekend saw the 40th-anniversary celebrations of the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers culminate at our annual Convention. I chose my title to report on it for both personal and analytical reasons. I’ll be selfish and talk about the personal stuff first, and then leave you with the broader analysis of the event, as the more useful take-away for other people wanting to craft wonderful experiences for their memberships (or, as I felt it this weekend, their tribes.)

So, I was feeling specifically loved-up as an arranger. The most obvious reason for this was being honoured with one of the 40th anniversary awards for contributions to the association, specifically for my arranging efforts. Which was lovely in itself, but they also said a whole load of other nice things about me before calling me up to receive it. There is nothing like being told publicly that you’ve made a difference to make you feel like you belong. Oh, I’m getting all teary again just writing this. Do excuse me.

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