On the Art of Listening

earSo we all know that to be a good musician you need to be able to listen. The better directors can hear both the composite sound and the detail of what their ensembles produce, the more power they have to improve it. And the individual musicians within the ensemble need to be able to listen and respond to each other to achieve such desiderata as tuning, blend, balance, synchronisation - indeed, all the forms of interpersonal coordination we refer to collectively, if tautologically, as ‘ensemble’.

People care about the art of listening in other walks of life, too. Self-help books that promise to help your interpersonal skills tell you to pay attention to what other people say in conversation, not just spend the time you’re not talking planning what you’re going to say next.

And in specialist circumstances such as counselling and psychotherapy, it is central: not only does the therapist need to listen acutely to reach a diagnosis, the patient needs to feel listened to.

MasterMixing it Up

mastermixLast weekend brought a visit from mixed quartet MasterMix for a coaching session. I’ve worked with a few long-distance quartets in my time, but this one is raising the stakes rather in terms of logistics: not content with a journey between Derbyshire and Essex to sing together, they bring their bass in from Sweden. It seems appropriate, really, that their first two contests together will have been in Ireland (last autumn) and Spain (coming up in April).

Long-distance quartets typically have a skill profile in which the individual singers are operating initially at a higher level than the whole. They will often have considerable experience in other ensembles through which they have honed their skills, and are motivated to take on the extra travel to work together by the opportunity to sing with people who can bring this experience to the table. By the same token, their opportunities to learn how they are going to operate as a unit are relatively few compared to a local quartet, but commensurately more intensive. If they can only meet every few weeks, they make a proper weekend of it.

Impostor Syndrome and Conducting Technique

impostorI have written before about Impostor Syndrome, and how the whole ‘maestro myth’ can exacerbate it for conductors. A recent mentoring session revealed some interesting relationships between this aspect of musical identity as it shapes in our internal narratives of self and as it manifests in the physical actions we use to direct our choruses.

At the start of the session, it looked like a reasonably routine bit of work on technique in terms of calming down the amount of movement the director was using. It is a change a lot of us need to make in our earlier years as a director, and indeed, it can remain a central issue for many of us even as we get more experienced. I have a lot of sympathy for people with this technical flaw, as it is one I have had to work on a lot myself!

On Musicianship and Musicality

Every so often I like to baffle myself with philosophical questions, such as:

Is it possible to have moral integrity without intellectual integrity?

We’re not going to explore that one today, but I offer it to you in case you enjoy this kind of thing too.

Today’s question is possibly less abstract (in the way it is expressed, at any rate, if not in consequence):

Is it possible to be musical, but lack musicianship, and vice versa?

(Spoiler alert. I think the answer to both may end up as: to an extent, but not entirely.)

Making Dynamics Dynamic

You can tell when the music is going to turn right because it slows down...You can tell when the music is going to turn right because it slows down...When I was learning to drive, my father gave me the advice that you shouldn’t rely on other cars’ indicators to work out what they were going to do, but instead take note of their road position and speed. It’s quite possible for someone to have failed to cancel their indicator, or for them to think they are using it, but the bulb has gone, and if you rely on that misleading information to make decisions, you could cause an accident. So, he taught me, make your judgements about what other drivers are likely to do by seeing how they’re driving, and look at the indicators for confirmation. Likewise, drive in such a way that other drivers can tell what you’re going to do.

Much the same principle, historically, applies to dynamic markings in music. Musical shape (texture, harmony, voicing, contour) tells you a lot about how you should perform the music if you attend to it. Rose Rosengard Subotnik wrote about the proliferation of sforzandi in Beethoven’s music as indicating a ‘loss of semiotic certainty’, reflecting a need to add extra, paramusical information about the ‘how’ through a fear that it would not otherwise be played as it should be. Those 19th- and 20th-century editors who littered older music with extra layers of instructions likewise seem to evince a mistrust of performers’ judgement.

Training Conductors and Musicianship

Traditionally, conductors in the UK had very little training in actual conducting. The general belief was that being an outstanding musician was the prerequisite, and that those who were truly outstanding would rise into the profession by magic. (What in fact of course happened was that those with egos big enough to believe they were that special volunteered and learned on the job, while the more self-deprecating musicians let them get on with it.)

These days there is rather more opportunity actually to learn some conducting technique, which has to be good for the musical life of the country. (Though the infrastructure is still nothing like as developed as it is either in the US or northern Europe.)

But the old approach did at least have something useful to recommend it: the insistence that the central skill of conducting was in musicianship. Conductors were people with advanced training as instrumental performers and/or composers, which had necessarily entailed in-depth study of the stuff of music. They may have come to stick technique comparatively late, but had the foundation of aural, harmonic and rhythmic skills already built in.

The Dangerous Power of the Conductor

MahlerThe power dynamics of choral directing is a significant theme in my second book, which I explored using Foucault’s ideas of discipline and surveillance. It is a subject I have been mulling over again recently, in the light of a comment from Mark on my post about non-musical things choir members can do to transform their choir. Mark expressed a not unreasonable wish that directors would offer a quid pro quo of courtesy towards their singers.

There are interesting things to be explored here about the social contract of the choral rehearsal, but the thing that leapt out at me first from Mark’s words was the depth of feeling behind them. Directors have such a power to affect the experience and emotional state of the people they conduct, and I am not sure that we always remember this.

Drawing Lines in the Sand

lineinthesandA conversation with a director I had been doing some mentoring work with recently got me thinking about the question of the circumstances in which a director should draw a line in the sand. Metaphorically, that is. The only circumstance I can think of when you might need to do that literally would be if you were rehearsing on a desert island and didn’t have any manuscript paper.

The circumstance the director was dealing with was a singer who had a medical condition that was manifesting in ways that interrupted both rehearsals and performances. It was potentially treatable, but she wasn’t at that point engaging with the treatment, which in the first instance did rather diminish the sympathy I felt.

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