Reflections on FICA19

Overall winners: Cantairí Óga Átha CliathOverall winners: Cantairí Óga Átha Cliath

I know I said I wasn’t going to be blogging until I’d written and presented both the papers I’m committed to in November, but I have some processing to do after last week’s extravaganza in Aveiro, Portgual. The event combined the annual Festival Internacional de Coros, hosted by Voz Nua choir, with the inaugural choral stream at the Hands On Symposium, running in parallel with piano and guitar streams. I was presenting a keynote at the symposium as well as forming one third of the jury for the festival competitions.

It’s the first time I’ve been directly adjudicating (as opposed to overseeing examination processes) for a few years, and it turns out that my handwriting hasn’t improved any in the interim. I endeavoured to be generous in my comments; I just hope I was also legible. I am sure the competitors will get in touch about anything that’s too cryptic!

Time to Pause…

One measure of a successful blog post is how many book recommendations I receive in response to it. On this basis, I consider my recent reflections on the value of downtime in rehearsal to have been particularly effective, in eliciting suggestions for two books with distinctive takes on the value of downtime in life.

Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less makes its case through an argument that mixes reports of research in psychology and health with anecdotal accounts of the working and resting practices of various famous figures with productive track records. There were some things that made me want to shout back at the author - not least the essentialising way he wrote about ‘creative types’ as if they special, different people, at the very same time that he was documenting behaviours that facilitate creative work. But I got over myself enough to find his analysis interesting and useful.

The Body in the Compositional Mind

My undergraduate education, especially as a composer, was firmly within a Modernist aesthetic, and one of its tenets was that you should learn to compose direct from your mind’s ear to paper, rather than at the piano. The reason given for this was that your pianistic habits would lead you into familiar musical gestures and thus become an obstacle to creating new, hitherto unimagined musical ideas.

(Note, by the way, the assumption that all musicians should be good keyboard players. Nobody ever warned you off composing though noodling on the guitar or oboe.)

Now, there’s something to this. Every so often I’ll see a novice arranger produce a chord for an a cappella group that tells me that they’re a pianist and we have to have a conversation about voicings that will work better for a vocal ensemble.

On Priming Effects

Priming effects are the name psychologists give the phenomenon whereby an idea or a behaviour comes much more readily to mind if you’ve had some kind of trigger or reminder shortly before encountering it. The experiments that investigated it often make it seem like a weird form of suggestibility: people walking more slowly after being primed with words that remind them of old age, for instance, or students doing better or worse in tests depending on whether they’ve been primed with stereotypes that evoke intelligence or academic weakness.

Daniel Kahneman explains priming as a way of tapping into our System 1, associative mode of thought, helping the speedy, intuitive part of our brains to access a whole web of connotations, rather than painstakingly working through ideas one at a time. Whether this works positively, producing nuanced, holistic insights, or negatively, making us leap to conclusions based on stereotypes, varies from context to context.

Barbershop Actually!

I forgot to take a pic on Friday, but this one is nicer than anything I'd have managed!I forgot to take a pic on Friday, but this one is nicer than anything I'd have managed!

Friday evening brought the quartet Barbershop Actually! over for a coaching session. They are preparing for the mixed quartet contest to be held in Llandudno at the end of October, so are at a stage where they have a reasonably settled concept of what they’re doing with their songs. Our task therefore was get the most of that concept – the polishing, rather than the exploration phase.

There are certain exercises that never stop giving. An early session of bubbling gave all its usual benefits: by connecting the voice securely with the breath and increasing the continuity of resonance, it brought clarity to the sound and made it much easier to hear the detail. It can sometimes be tricky to coordinate the ensemble when you take out the word sounds - indeed, this is another of the useful ways bubbling makes a group work, in a musical rather than vocal dimension. So we found that taking a single phrase, then alternating it in bubbling and with word sounds helped everyone find their way round it.

Abcd Research Developments, Part 2

Having contemplated some broad themes in my previous post about the research strand at the recent abcd Choral Leaders Festival, I’d like to pick out a few interesting cross-references between the papers. There were four speakers reporting on projects undertaken for advanced degrees in the strand sessions, plus the plenary keynote presented by Dr Katie Overy, all of which addressed topics that would make choral practitioners say, ‘Ooh yes, we want to know about that!’

But it’s in the resonances between them that you really feel the value of a event like this, rather than just reading their findings as published articles. Not that I object to reading articles, you understand. The published format offers other strengths – the opportunity for the author to cover more detail, and for the reader to take time to think about things en route. But it doesn’t offer the same kind of creative opportunities as a live event, where the ways in which the papers bounce off each other spark insights beyond what they each offer individually.

So, here are the things that I came away wanting to think about further:

Tracing Emotional Shape with Affinity Show Choir

affinitysep19

Sunday took me back to Stockport for a longer follow-up to last month’s session with Affinity Show Choir on their new contest set for LABBS Convention in October. Having established the overall shape of their delivery last time, this visit focused on developing narrative depth and clarifying the turning points in the story. I’m nostly focusing on their ballad here as our work on this was both more time-consuming and more complex, and so more useful for me to reflect on. But we also left their up-tune in a more sparkling state than we found it.

abcd Research Developments

Michael Bonshor's methodology diagramMichael Bonshor's methodology diagram

The recent abcd Choral Leaders Festival in Birmingham saw the introduction of a new research stream to this annual event. This is the brainchild of Martin Ashley (whose own research is well worth reading if you don’t know it already), as part of a wider project to facilitate a research culture amongst practitioners and develop a disciplinary community amongst choral researchers. Look out for the launch of a new journal in the coming months as another part of this initiative.

As you might imagine, a morning immersed in multiple researchers’ work filled more pages of my notebook than can be digested in a single blog post. Indeed, many of the things I noted will show more in the way they nourish my thinking over the coming months than in any immediate reporting. But there are themes that need thinking about, and this blog is where I do my thinking in public.

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