On Sopranos, Stereotyping, Sexism and Strain

I have been mulling over an interesting blog post shared by a friend recently. The writer, Mari Valverde, has some very interesting things to say about the misogyny implicit in cultural stereotypes of the soprano voice and the practical consequences for how composers and arrangers tend to write for it. I think she is really onto something, and she has made me think about the question of voice-part stereotypes (which I explore in various ways in both my books) in some new ways. I also suspect there are some aspects of the question she is tangling up, so I wanted to spend a post teasing out how my own thoughts are developing in the light of her ideas.

So, the following are factors that feed into the phenomenon of exhaustingly high tessituras in soprano parts:

On Kahneman’s Two Systems and the Acquisition of Skill

kahneman

Last time I wrote about this, I gave an overview of the Daniel Kahneman’s model of two types of thinking we use, their functions, and their relationship. Today I want to mull over the implications of this for teaching and learning.

The ultimate goal of skill acquisition is to get System 1 doing all your routine operations. You want to be able to do your thing fluently, automatically, with ease and pleasure. It’s not just that it feels good to work in this mode, it’s that complex tasks need so many decisions to be coordinated that even if you had the cognitive resources to make them all in real time, it would be too slow to work properly. This is how it feels performing on a bad day when your inner voice is hectoring you: you react too late, and then you over-react.

Back with Bristol A Cappella

Only chance to take pics was at the start, so this doesn't include the people bringing the last riser!Only chance to take pics was at the start, so this doesn't include the people bringing the last riser!Sunday took me down to Bristol for the first of three day-long sessions planned for the first half of this year with Bristol A Cappella. Whilst my last visit took to me into a building I had walked past many times as a student and never entered, this one took me into a building that has been built since I left. But it’s right next door to the Wills Memorial Building in which I spent so much of my time in those days, so that combination of familiarity and strangeness I remarked on last time was considerably amplified!

Bristol A Cappella are currently gearing up to their first experience with contest. They have entered a festival in March, which is in part a warm-up run before the UK’s first mixed barbershop chorus contest to be held in May.

Soapbox: On Background Music

soapboxThis is quite a specific rant. It’s not the general principle of piping music into shared public spaces that I am going to inveigh against, though I know of many professional musicians who do get a bit grumpy about it. I have seen a well-respected choral conductor in a provincial hotel ask for a full English, brown toast, and for the radio to be turned off.

I am not unsympathetic to the view that treating music as aural wallpaper cheapens the art form and desensitizes our ears to music played with intention. But, you know me, I try to be quite live-and-let-live, and I note that a lot of people seem to like it. Sometimes I even like it myself, as a change from the music in my head, which I can’t seem to get anyone to turn off. Unless it’s Jingle Bell Rock, of course, then I want to stab somebody.

Thinking Slowly About Daniel Kahneman

kahnemanYou know you really should read a book when you find several people you know from completely different contexts all independently saying you’d like it. And when the most recent recommendation comes just before a long journey, you’re primed to make an impulse purchase when you see that book in a shop at the airport. My friends know me well: Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow turned out to be exactly the kind of book I’d enjoy reading, and then mulling over repeatedly.

My purpose today is to organise my thoughts about his central model of two modes of thinking referenced in his title: the fast, intuitive, associative System 1 and the slow, effortful and painstaking System 2. There may be future posts where I work through the implications of this model in various contexts - principally the mechanisms of unconscious bias and the process of skill acquisition - but before I start to untangle those, I need to get my thoughts straight about the underlying concepts.

Choosing Relatable Music

It’s not hard to get people to agree that it’s good to perform music that an audience will be able to relate to. It’s not always the highest priority - some people might think first about beauty, or about spiritual depth - but a dialogue about musical values will usually find the common ground between these more abstract qualities and the importance of a meaningful experience that connects performers and listeners.

This does not necessarily make it easy, of course, to reach agreement as to what constitutes ‘relatable’ music.

I had two conversations in quick succession recently that brought this into relief for me. In both cases the issue arose through differences of opinion between a choir director and some of their singers, though in rather different genre contexts. It gradually emerged that people were using the concept of ‘relatable’ music as a code for ‘not that stuff you want to do that I don’t like’.

Self-Deprecation and the Conductor

self-deprecatingThese thoughts initially arose in response to working with the participants on the Association of British Choral Directors’ Initial Conducting Course at the weekend. But as I mulled on them on my way home I realised that, while there are ways in which that social context amplified the issue, it’s a general one for choral directors in real life. When I describe the form of behaviour I mean, you’ll recognise it.

So, this is what I was seeing: a conductor stands up in front of the singers they are about to direct, and in various verbal and non-verbal ways, they put themselves and their work down. They soften and lower their posture, and drop their gaze. They describe the activity they’re about to lead as a ‘little’ warm-up or ‘a bit of an exercise’. They express hope that it will work, and apologise for tiny stumbles that would otherwise not have been noticed.

(I say ‘they’; it may be ‘we’. I’m going to have to watch myself here.)

Goal-Setting in Action

Posting an article about goal-setting this week wasn’t purely a decision related to the New Year. I was also thinking about a session I was due to facilitate with the Music Team of Cleeve Harmony on Thursday. The chorus has just celebrated its 3rd birthday (indeed, they celebrated this week with a very well-attended Open Night), and are shifting from the new-chorus-doing-everything-as-novices phase into the now-we’re-established-and-have-a-sense-of-group-identity-how-do-we-want-to-develop? phase. Whilst they still feel they have plenty to learn, they have some solid experience and successes under their belts on which to build.

(I’m not sure that you ever really stop feeling that there’s more to learn, but being able to look back and measure the distance you’ve travelled since you knew even less does build a corporate sense of stability. And whatever the previous experience people come in with, the ensemble needs to do that journey together to generate that shared history.)

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