Musical Identity

Will it Shop?

My title is the name of an education session to be presented by the Nordic barbershop organisations in a week or two’s time, pre-recorded at the weekend. For those outside the barbershop bubble, this rather cryptic-looking question is shorthand for: ‘does this song lend itself readily to being arranged in a way that will meet the style criteria for barbershop contest?’ The fact that this quite specialised and complex question can be reduced down to three syllables tells you that it is a subject that often comes up in barbershop conversations.

I’m not going to tell you much detail about the content of the session, because you can go and sign up and get that directly, but I wanted to mull a bit about a few observations I made en route.

On Privilege and Mediocrity

A chance encounter led me to reflect on a correlation I have noticed periodically over the years between self-satisfaction and mediocrity. There are people who present as plausible and urbane, charming and confident, yet whose actual achievements are rather ordinary.

Their written prose has the rhythm and cadence of authority, but the ideas remain shallow, smoothing over the surface of received opinion rather than offering any penetration of insight. Their musical performances likewise offer the general shape of what a good performance would sound like, but lack depth and nuance, and indeed are often also somewhat inaccurate – lack of attention to detail manifesting in multiple dimensions at once.

It occurs to me that most of the people I have encountered who fit this profile are male, all of them white, and they all speak with accents associated with levels of affluence that afford private education. They all, that is, enjoy multiple levels of social privilege. For the record, I’m generalising from a list of 7 or 8 specific examples here – a small sample in some senses, but enough to allow a pattern to emerge.

Remediation vs Growth

While we’re thinking about balance, here is another example of dynamically-connected opposites we need to keep in equilibrium in the rehearsal process. To what extent should we be focused on remedial work, fixing problems, correcting technique, bringing people up to the standards we currently expect, and to what extent should we be stretching them into new areas of skill development and artistic ambition?

This is a perennial question for the choral director – it brings to mind Jim Clancy’s ‘type 1 and type 2’ rehearsing, but it is particularly salient now as people are gradually returning to live rehearsing after, in some cases, nearly 18 months of no rehearsing, or only being able to meet online. A lot of choirs find themselves out of practice in various ways; there’s a lot more remediation to be done than usual.

In these circumstances, the instinct is to focus on the basics. We need to get the voices connected back with the bodies and the breath, we need to retrain the ears to connect with the rest of the sound and the eyes to connect with conductor gesture. (And, indeed, the conductor needs to get their hands and ears connected back up to make that gesture effective again.)

The Balanced Voice – Part 3: More elements of balance

So far we have explored the more concrete elements of balance in a voice – those to do directly with the use of the sound-producing body, and those to do with the acoustics of the sounds we hear. It is time to move on to balance in the more experiential dimensions. Here we are clearly working more metaphorically, counter-posing ostensible opposites within the singer’s awareness.

Experience of Self

The first cluster of opposites all relate to the singer’s executive control functions: to what extent do sing with a conscious awareness of what we’re doing, and to what extent do we lose ourselves in the music?

Musings on Music and Sport

musicsportSince the middle of May the peculiar circumstances of England’s covid restrictions have brought a particular cultural trope to consciousness rather more explicitly than usual. The circumstances have been that singing in groups has continued to be severely restricted while major sporting events have gone ahead, bringing us images of large crowds not only in the stadiums but also in bars, public spaces and in transit.

The trope has been the idea that music and sport are rivals for attention and resources, and that sport is often handed an unfair advantage in this competition. The trope arises in normal times primarily through issues in the scheduling of school activities, which see clashes between for example choir practice and cricket matches, with the expectation that the latter will always take precedence.

Executive Summary of the World of Barbershop

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Last Thursday an invitation from Scunthorpe Choral Society had me giving a short presentation on barbershop choruses as part of their ongoing series of visiting speakers. I was given the remit of talking about what is different in barbershop from other choirs (there’s lots in common too of course), and with a time slot of 15 minutes, it made me think quite ruthlessly about what were the essentials to share.

So, I started off with a whistlestop account of the genre’s origins and history, which for these purposes could fit into 6 moments:

Greg Clancy on Singing Freely

I mentioned in my first post about BABS Directors Academy last month that I had a pile of notes about Greg’s thoughts on freedom in singing that deserved a post of their own in due course. The moment has come to revisit these and reflect on them.

This theme emerged when Greg was talking about the importance of the warm-up (something on which our hearts beat as one). His goal is to get the chorus in a certain spot, ‘vocally, mentally, spiritually,’ and will often undertake this himself. If you do delegate the warm-up, he added, you need to be sure that it is someone who really understands what you’re aiming for in this.

What I find so interesting with how Greg talks about his processes is that he so often starts with very practical matters – in this case, the Vocal Majority’s approach to vocal production – but these always connect into more holistic questions. So his discussion of how they focus on a sense of lift, both physically (cheeks, soft palate), and psychologically (imagine the sound coming from your hairline) morphed straight into considering the chorus’s emotional state.

Lenticular Vision as an Analytical Tool

mcphersoncoverToday’s post is reflection on a concept I learned from Tara McPherson’s Reconstructing Dixie - which I highly recommend as a detailed and nuanced analysis of the meanings accrued by the American South from the mid-20th century through to the 1990s. If you’re interested in the cultural construction of nostalgia, there’s a lot of food for thought there, but today’s theme is specifically her central image of ‘lenticular vision’.

A lenticular lens is one that magnifies different images when viewed from different angles, and is used to produce pictures which change with changes in the position of the viewer. McPherson introduces this concept via the example of a picture of an old plantation house which from one angle showed the White people that owned it, from another, the Black people who serviced it.

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