Reinventing Dixie: Book Review, Part 2

My last post gave an overview of some of the ways that John Bush Jones’s book Reinventing Dixie: Tin Pan Alley’s Songs and the Creation of the Mythic South is both useful and problematic. Today’s will consider his central thesis, that the mythic South constructed within Tin Pan Alley songs is a vision of a south contemporaneous with the songs’ own times, not nostalgia for a South of the past.

One of the strengths of this book, as I mentioned before, is that it provides plenty of specific detail with which to test the author’s analysis, and the evidence to support this thesis is mixed at best.

There are some specifically contemporary references in the war songs – those songs about Dixie boys, or indeed Alexander with his band, going over to France are clearly topical for the years of World War I. And one could make a case for the promulgation of contemporary styles of popular music such as ragtime to support the contemporary thesis, though Jones mostly confines himself to discussion of lyrics, with only passing mention of musical content.

Reinventing Dixie: Book Review

reinventingdixieIn the light of barbershop’s current debates about the role of Dixie songs in its repertoire, I was interested to hear of a book published a couple of years ago about exactly this corpus of songs. Reinventing Dixie: Tin Pan Alley’s Songs and the Creation of the Mythic South sounded exactly like the kind of thing I should be reading!

I have not yet worked out whether I would recommend it in turn, for reasons that I aim to tease out in the next blog post or two (there may be more to talk about than will fit in just one). Overall I’d say it is more informative than explanatory – it told me lots of stuff that I didn’t otherwise know, but the analysis is weak, in places embarrassingly uncritical.

Basic Conducting Skills with abcd

Our venue for the day: Polish Millenium HouseOur venue for the day: Polish Millenium HouseI spent Saturday in central Birmingham leading a one-day course in basic conducting skills for the Association of British Choral Directors. We had participants representing a wonderful range of choral backgrounds – school choirs, church choirs, barbershop choruses, community choirs of various flavours, musical theatre, chamber choirs, a composer wanting to direct her own work. I had worried a little about meeting everyone’s needs, but in fact the breadth was very useful as it meant that nobody felt like the odd one out in terms of background or activity.

One of the things I particularly enjoy about teaching for the abcd is the way our courses are resolutely practical. Yes, there are topics that need discussion – repertoire choice, rehearsal planning, leadership and people skills – but the hand skills that are both central to and unique to conducting remain at the heart of what we do. Every participant has the opportunity to be coached as they lead the rest of the group in song, and everyone subsequently has the opportunity to review video footage of all the coaching sessions to aid their reflection and onward development.

BABS Directors Academy 2018

Donny and Amy introduce the weekendDonny and Amy introduce the weekend

One of the perks of my new role as MD of the Telfordaires is that I get to attend the annual training event that the run for their chorus directors. As you might imagine, it is the kind of occasion that fills your notebook with ideas to unashamedly steal, (or, shared best practices if you like to sound grown-up), and I’m sure my posts over the coming months will have many opportunities to refer back to it.

For today, though, I’d like to reflect on the opening session led by our primary guest educator, Donny Rose, who is the Education Director for the Barbershop Harmony Society. (We also had input from Amy Rose, who was there wearing two hats – as co-coach with Donny, and as social media expert for the BHS.)

On Saying the Same Things Every Week

Every so often you will hear a choral director express frustration at ‘having to say the same things every week’. And I’m sure that sentence has many heads nodding in sympathy. It is disheartening to keep having to cover the same ground over and over again, when you want to be moving forward.

But, here’s the thing. If we’re saying the same thing each time, and each time the change we want to make disappears between rehearsals, then saying that thing isn’t working. The problem is not necessarily the choir’s idiocy, the problem is the ineffectiveness of the method we’re choosing to use with them. Well, the choir may be idiots (aren’t we all in our way?), but it’s still up to the director to find a method that will work on their particular brand of idiocy.

Continuing the Journey with Bristol A Cappella

Warm-up pic with hats and coatsWarm-up pic with hats and coats

After my visit to Signature last week, I took the train across to Bristol for another session with my friends at Bristol A Cappella on the Sunday. They had spent the Saturday working with performance coach Sandra Lea-Riley, so I came prepared to spend at least some of the time helping them process and consolidate what they had covered with a coach they had just worked with for the first time. It’s great to get input from different people, but it’s important that we don’t stand in each other’s light.

Sandra had done a great job with them – really transformed their levels of individual expressiveness – and we had some useful discussions reflecting on how she had achieved it, and how they could continue to develop these skills and transfer them into the rest of the repertoire. She had also identified a need to develop their techniques of articulation/enunciation, which chimed with their feedback from the Nailsea Festival in the autumn, and so helping with that became my primary task for the day.

Developing New Music with Signature

Name that tune...Name that tune...

Saturday was the second of a series of visits to Signature Singers to work with them on a new arrangement they are preparing for LABBS Convention in October. Last time I saw them, they had only just wrapped themselves round the notes and words, so we were doing deep groundwork, building the vocal and musical foundations for the song to be built on.

Two months on, and things were, unsurprisingly, much more developed. We still had a little undergrowth clearing to do in places, especially coordinating parts at structural boundaries and tempo changes. But in general we were getting much more into the expressive detail.

Gesture is a well-documented rehearsal technique to help singers feel musical shape, for purposes of both accuracy and expression. (Ramona Wis, for instance, wrote a splendid PhD dissertation on this, using Lakoff and Johnsons’ theory of metaphor.) It has all kinds of benefits – helping the singers get inside the musical effects, helping them coordinate to each other, allowing the coach to identify who needs extra help to find their way into it.

Rehearsal Vocabulary: To Try or Not to Try?

In the imperfect and work-in-progress world of the choral rehearsal, people spend much of their time trying to do things. That is a given. But it is worth reflecting on how, as directors, we use the word ‘try’ when giving our instructions. There are certain circumstances where it is a genuinely helpful word to use, and others where it is actively counter-productive.

I’m writing about this because, as is so often in the life of a coach, giving someone some advice about this has got me self-monitoring avidly to see if I am actually doing what I suggested he did!

The thing about the word ‘try’ is that it gives permission to fail. Once you have lived with that thought a while, you find that the things you ask singers to do in rehearsal fall quite neatly into those where it helps to gives that permission, and those where it doesn’t.

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