Musical Identity

On the Fear of Improvement

I have often quipped over the years that many people find increasing their skill levels to be an experience like the old song, ‘Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die’ – as in, everyone wants to get better, but nobody wants to change. But I have been reflecting recently on a phenomenon that lies behind this inertia: some people seem actively to fear getting better.

Phrase it like that, and it sounds bonkers. Why would anyone shy away from being more competent and assured at doing the thing they love? But it is an observable phenomenon, and one which I need to understand if I am to succeed in my life’s aim of helping people make music with more confidence, skill and joy.

You have to look quite carefully to make the observation, of course. People don’t come straight out and say that they’re not going to use a technique that will improve their breath control or range or expressive power because they’re scared of it. Rather, it emerges in various forms of blocking behaviour: self-sabotage, distraction, attacking the legitimacy of the technique or the person who’s teaching it, picking a fight over something completely unrelated.

Choosing Repertoire in the Era of Post-Dixie Barbershop

The discussions about how and to what extent barbershop as a genre and as a community moves away from repertoire that glorifies the Old South is ongoing, and likely to continue for some time. This post is about the more practical question of working out which of the songs in the established barbershop repertoire are likely to be problematic.

I’m assuming that it’s mostly people outside the US who need to walk through this. We have imported a genre, and through mastering its craft have allied ourselves with a worldwide family with whom we identify and share emotional, cognitive and visceral patterns of being. But the repertoire we have imported along with these ways of being doesn’t always bring all of its meanings with it.

The Moral Hazard of Dixie Nostalgia

Moral hazard. Noun. Economics.
Lack of incentive to guard against risk where one is protected from its consequences, e.g. by insurance.

I looked up the term moral hazard as I thought it might make a catchy pun for my title in relation to a topic that’s going to turn up a bit later in this post. On checking the definition, my first thought was: well, maybe not – it’s quite specific to its context. But as I reflected, I realised that actually it works better than I first thought as a metaphor in cultural spheres outside economics.

Moral hazard. Noun. Real Life.
Lack of incentive to guard against risk where one is protected from its consequences, e.g. by white privilege.

Inclusiveness Versus Diversity

‘Versus?!’ I hear you cry. It’s true that we usually use these two words interchangeably when we talk about opening up our choirs (or our schools or our boardrooms) to attract people from a wider range of demographics than hitherto. But the two words approach the same project from interestingly distinct angles, and once you start thinking through the differences it can affect how you go about that project.

The immediate context for this is the Barbershop Harmony Society’s new strategic vision, which I both praised and critiqued a few weeks back. The topicality is far wider than this, of course, but it was this set of debates that had me thinking about this in a more focused fashion, and coming to the conclusion that, if you want to get ‘Everyone in Harmony’, inclusiveness is a more useful term to focus on than diversity.

On Singing All the Lines

It was almost 7 years ago when I wrote in detail about Making Parts into Lines. At the time I had just been working on the Mary Poppins set for Cottontown Chorus, and it remains a landmark moment in my development as an arranger. Not just because this was the first time any of my arrangements had won a contest gold, but because the process of working through the technical and artistic detail gave me musical insights that have informed my work ever since.

This was also the place where I first articulated the performer’s two roles – as Manager and Communicator – which have become very useful concepts in my coaching as well as my arranging.

Diversity, Revisionism and the Pitfalls of Ambition: A Barbershop Case Study

Music history, like any history, isn’t a neutral portrayal of the past, but the result of a value-laden selection process. Somebody decides what counts as salient historical fact worthy to be included in the narrative.

Revisionist history comes about when someone notices that the choices underlying the narratives we have inherited about our pasts no longer chime well with the values with which we aspire to live our presents. They then go and dig out information about people and events that had hitherto been omitted, and they re-interpret those already included, sometimes finding quite different meanings in them.

Thoughts on the Shapes of Events

Since the British Association of Barbershop Singers Convention the other week, I’ve been mulling about the emotional shape of events, and what happens when you make changes to them. The specific case is the addition of the Mixed Chorus contest to the last day of the BABS Convention in the last two years, the day after what has traditionally been the emotional focal point of the event, the Quartet Final on Sunday afternoon.

A friend remarked that it felt a bit like the end of Wimbledon, when the men’s final had finished but the mixed doubles were still playing. I think this is an interesting comparison, not least because it captures the sense in both that the mixed genre has lower status.

There are several things that create this sense of being secondary, many of which derive from the timetabling, which does directly disadvantage the participating ensembles. They have a much smaller audience than the other contests, for example, as many people leave on the Sunday night. It is also the only contest not to be followed by an afterglow, which means that the participants don’t get to network with each other very much, or get integrated into the wider barbershop community.

On 'Non-Singers' and Climate Change

I wrote this post some time ago, and had it on the ‘is this just too whimsical to publish?’ pile. But with last week’s alarming news about the US withdrawing from the Paris agreement, it found itself reclassified as, ‘whimsical but weirdly topical’. So here goes.

You may think that ‘non-singers’ and ‘climate change’ are two completely unconnected concepts. And in a general sense, you'd be right. I'm not about to develop a theory that that singing could halt global warming if everyone started doing it. Fun though it would be to try.

No, it's just that I've been thinking about processes of identity-formation again, and I've been intuiting some resonances between the non-singer and the climate-change denier in terms of how they construct and maintain their internal identity narrative. I'm not suggesting there is any connection between the content of those identities. I don't think I know many climate-change deniers, but I'm sure there must be some who are also happy choir-members. Conversely, I know a good many folk on the Green end of the political spectrum, some of whom love to sing, others of whom feel anxious at the very thought of it.

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