Avoiding the Dangers of Us-and-Themness in Choirs

singing group cartoonMy last post was about why it is a problem when a choir starts developing factions. Criticism of one sub-group by another is an early-warning indicator that this might be happening - not least because that articulates the fact that the people doing the criticising are thinking of the others as ‘them’. So, our next question is: what can a director to inhibit such tendencies and to counter them should they appear?

The Dangers of Us-and-Themness in Choirs

usandthemMy recent post on the relationship between choral identities and musical behaviours included a passing comment that has stayed with me as deserving more thought. It was the point about people in one section being blamed by those in other sections for musical difficulties experiences by the whole ensemble. This bothered me; it feels like an unhealthy dynamic, with some members of a choir feeding their esteem needs from others’ vocal difficulties. And it’s a dynamic I have encountered often enough that it warrants some reflection on what’s going on, and why it makes me so worried.

So, in the case I cited, it was the basses who were subject to persistent bashing. It could be any part, though - I know of groups in which sopranos or barbershop leads have been subject to the same kind of treatment. Voice parts give an obvious opportunity to create a sense of us-and-them, but other fault-lines open up according to the circumstances of individual groups.

Those Pesky Melodic Non-chord Tones

Of course you can't go more than half a bar in arranging a cappella music before you find a note in the melody that doesn't belong to the prevailing harmony, so in some ways this post is about a central and obvious thing arrangers are always looking at anyway. But a couple of projects earlier this year (songs from Sondheim and the Beatles) have got me thinking about this specifically in terms of how questions of timbre affect our choices.

Non-chord tones in a vocal melody floating across a backwash of instrumental accompaniment have a whole different sonic effect from those same notes sung in a texture where the accompanying harmonies are of the same type of sound as the melody. Sung accompaniments pull the vocal non-chord tones into the chord where instrumental backing lets them stand apart. In a cappella textures, you are much more likely to find a melodic note infecting the harmony, changing its colour.

So, what strategies do we have to deal with this?

Adventures in Edinburgh 3: Venn Diagrams of Style

venn1The last event we went to before leaving Edinburgh was David Patrick’s Jazz Rite of Spring. It has got me thinking about cross-over aesthetics - why they work, why they don’t - but before I get into that, I’d just like to enthuse for a paragraph or two about the performance itself.

It was performed by an 8-piece jazz ensemble, and much of it was a very faithful transcription of the original score for these reduced forces. But every so often they’d hang out on a riff longer than Stravinsky had specified, and put in a solo. The transitions between the two modes were remarkably convincing. There was one where I felt the holding pattern of the riff and easing back onto the score interrupted a build-and-release passage such that the moment of arrival wasn’t as effective as it might have been, but then again you have to accept that not every person thinks of musical shape in the same way.

The nature of the ensemble mitigated towards a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat performance, even without the improvised passages. If you think about the usual scoring of the Rite, and then imagine the whole lot played by just 8 people...they all had a lot more work to do than your average orchestral player. Nobody got any down-time to speak of; all were on duty throughout.

Analysis and Intuition; Innovation and Experience

scaffoldingThis post arises from the same circumstances as my recent one about interpreting barbershop ballads. I was listening to some recordings of work-in-progress with the remit of giving advice about the musical choices they were making about a song's delivery. The nitty-gritty stuff helped me crystallise observations about musical delivery and pacing, but I ended up with a pile of left-over thoughts about the relationship between analysis and intuition in developing performances, which is what I am going to be sorting through here.

You see, I had been given that remit because I have certain technical skills. I can identify chords; I can use notation to infer not just what to sing, but how. A lot of the ineffective musical moments you encounter in barbershop world come from a lack of that analysis, an over-reliance on lyric to tell you everything about how a song should go, without working out what the melody, harmony, voicing and embellishment strategies are suggesting.

Adventures in Edinburgh 2: Pushing the Envelope

One of the events that got me thinking on my recent trip to the Edinburgh Fringe was the last of a series of lectures about comedy and culture from researchers at Brunel University’s Centre for Comedy Studies and Research. The one we went to was by Leon Hunt, and as well as focusing on the work a particular comedy duo, did some nice analysis of the concept of dark comedy. I do like a spot of theorising, as you know.

The thing that particularly got me thinking was the phrase ‘pushing the envelope’. This is a formulation that gets bandied around a fair bit in comedy, and you also hear it all the time in barbershop’s various debates about style. There are some interesting parallels and differences in the way the phrase gets deployed in these two worlds, and I have been saving the idea up to have a think about. Now I’m home again, it’s time to mull.

Soapbox: The Anti-Educational Ideology of ‘Talent’

I have written several times over the years about how ‘talent’ is a socially constructed narrative, and about the obsessive, dedicated work that goes into creating the skills that get labelled as ‘talent’. What I have been hitherto somewhat muted about is the damage that the mythology of talent does to our culture, and to individuals within it. This has come into focus for me in recent months as I have been writing about the phenomenon of the ‘non-singer’ as part of a book chapter for Oxford University Press.

The ‘non-singer’ is the inevitable by-product of our cultural construction of talent. We approach talent with a kind of magical thinking that sees the capacity for music (or indeed for all kinds of other specialist activities) as somehow both genetic and supernaturally bestowed upon particular, ‘gifted’ people, who are thereby set apart from normal mortals.

Adventures in Edinburgh


I am recently back from a trip to the Edinburgh Festivals, which offer what may be the richest, most varied and most genuinely international collection of common cold viruses in the world. Coming home with ‘festival flu’ is, apparently, all part of the experience. In five days we went to 15 events and 2 exhibitions; some were professional, some amateur; some charged for entry, others didn’t (interestingly, this is not quite the same division as pro/am); and covering comedy, music, theatre, visual arts and cultural commentary. I also came home with incipient artistic indigestion.

I’ll have some specific thoughts to tease out in response to some of these events (and/or in response to the peculiar juxtaposition of some of these events) in future posts. But in the first instance, I’d like to mull on some general points about the nature of the Fringe Festival in particular, and the effect it has on both the performers involved and the performances they produce.

Archive by date

Syndicate content