Soapbox: Against Note-Bashing

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soapboxNote-bashing must be about the most unhealthy concept in common use among choirs and their directors. It evokes an image of rehearsals spent in dull, joyless grind, with frowning singers marking time doggedly as their conductor beats the rhythm to pieces. Pitch errors are punished by repeatedly hammering the correct note on the piano. There is no thought of beauty of tone or of projection of text or of shape in the phrases: all that is deferred until such time as the choir has earned the right to delight in the music by working through the purgatory of note-accuracy.

The idea of note-bashing arises from the notion that you have to learn the notes before you can ‘put in the interpretation’.

And there is something to this, of course: cognitive needs are more basic than aesthetic needs, so people want to wrap their heads round the music before they attempt to communicate it. If you try to rehearse dynamics when your singers aren’t sure how their lines go, they huddle and confer until they’ve answered their own questions and only then look up to wonder what your agenda was.

The fallacy in this explanation, though, is the idea that it is possible to separate musical content – that is, the notes themselves – from meaning – that is, how the music goes. If people are struggling to find a particular note, it’s not because they can’t sing that note, it’s because they haven’t grasped how it fits into the overall musical narrative. Bashing at it out of context won’t help them find it; exploring how it fits with the harmony or with the poetic ideas in the text gives them more to work with.

On the broader scale, approaching the piece with a sense of style, of expressive flavour, or – to use an old-fashioned term – the composer’s intentions, motivates a much faster learning process. I mean this both in the emotional sense – when people are interested and engaged with what they are doing, they give better quality attention to it – and in the cognitive sense. Approaching a piece with an awareness of its artistic goals provides a framework for understanding that invests each note with its own purpose without a need to bash it.

Not only is note-bashing miserable and inefficient, though, it actively gets in the way of achieving the interpretive aims for which it is supposed to be the foundation. In the absence of higher-level artistic input, people’s imaginations don’t sit there as a blank slate waiting for the insights that are to come later, they actively develop a picture of the piece at a lower artistic level. They will come to experience and conceptualise the musical content in a ploddy, disconnected way. ‘Adding’ the interpretation will be hard work, because the part of their brain that holds musical shape is already holding an interpretation of the piece it learned in the note-bashing sessions. (This is a good example of The Blue Paint Problem.) Unfortunately, it isn’t an interpretation that anyone is very inspired by.

Instead of note-bashing, I propose the following term – actually, the following activity:
Learning how the music goes

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