Musical Identity

More Musings on ‘Old Barbershop’

When I last reflected on the category of ‘old barbershop’ eight years ago, I finished up by wondering what sounded normal then that would sound dated 20 years on. Well, it’s only eight years on, and I found myself thinking about perceptible cultural shifts again at the BABS Convention back in May.

My musings last time were mostly about musical things like approaches to voice-leading and embellishment and performance things like styles of body language in the context of continuous performance traditions. I did mention subject matter in passing, but only mentioned the most ostentatiously outmoded lyrics in defining the category of ‘old’.

Now, by contrast, I found myself observing a clear division in song storyline and lyric between those that evoked social relations that we would wish to promote these days in an organisation that celebrates diversity, equity and inclusion, and those in which the social relations feel uncomfortably old-school.

On Vulnerability

The leadership literature, both conductor-specific and general (which, come to think of it, I usually read through the lens of the conductor’s role), often talks about the importance of allowing yourself to be vulnerable as a means to inspire trust. This is usually framed in terms of admitting when you don’t know something, or that you need help.

All of which, on the face of it is perfectly reasonable. A leader doesn’t have to be omniscient or infallible to be effective – which is just as well given that human beings are typically neither. And I’ve always read these pronouncements with a degree of complacency, since I am very comfortable sharing my fallibility. I’ve known myself long enough to know how well developed my capacity for truly dumb errors is, and am endlessly grateful when people spot them for me.

More On the Relationship of Structure to Detail

I recently reflected on how Abby Whiteside’s book Indispensables in Piano Playing had helped bring into focus thoughts I had been toying with about the mapping of the structures of a body that plays music onto structures implicit in the music itself. The other set of thoughts she helped bring to the surface were about theoretical traditions in how we think about music.

Those of you with a background in academic music will recognise the distinction between structure and ornament, and the idea of shunting attentionally between different levels of structure (surface details to mid-range and longer-range processes) as belonging to the theoretical tradition generally taught in higher education under the banner of Schenkerian Analysis.

Musical Knowledge and Musical Enjoyment

I’m coming back today to a topic that Michael Callahan raised in response to my post about Practical Aesthetics earlier in the year, and which I noted as a big one that deserved separate reflection. The question is this: to what extent does an audience need to be informed to enjoy a performance?

Michael’s comment was framed, to match the post he was responding to, in terms of knowledge of musical aesthetics, but I think the question extends further to concern other aspects of musical knowledge: style, genre, technique. Do you have to understand what the musicians are doing in order to enjoy it?

On Tag-singing and Gender

bshop book coverThe end of September marked the twentieth anniversary of the completion of my first book. It was another 18 months in production, so we’re a way off the two-decade milestone for publication, but in terms of the shape of my life, the submission of the manuscript is the more vivid memory.

When it came out, the two chapters that got the biggest response from within the barbershop community were those dealing with, respectively, gender and tag-singing. And there are ways in which both of those dimensions of barbershop culture have changed in the interim, and also ways in which they haven’t.

On the face of it, gender would appear to have seen the biggest changes, with the embracing of both mixed barbershop ensembles, and the increasing presence of men’s and women’s ensembles at the same events – whether competing against each other (as in the Barbershop Harmony Society, BinG!, and IABS), or in parallel contests with separate rankings (as in the European championships and SNOBS/Northern Lights joint conventions). My chapter title of ‘Separate but Equal?’ would be less of an immediately obvious choice today.

On Recordings, Post-COVID Vulnerability, and Overcoming the Fear of Being Heard

This is a long title, and it’s going to be a longer than usual post. But I felt it all belonged together rather than being chunked up, as all the different elements are related to each other. It’s partly about coping with human beings, and partly about the nitty-gritty of learning activities, but as we experience the two things simultaneously it seemed best to consider them together.

Conversations with a number of chorus directors at LABBS Harmony College revealed a pattern of common experiences of chorus members having unexpectedly strong negative reactions to things that in the past might have seemed perfectly routine. These often revolved around being asked to record themselves to check on their note-accuracy, and part of this post will be about managing that specific issue.

Prioritising Connection at LABBS Harmony College

Leading a vocal development session with a laughLeading a vocal development session with a laughThe weekend saw the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers holding their first full Harmony College since 2019. It was fully booked before the closing date for registrations, confounding our expectations that numbers might still be a bit down, as they were for last year’s education events. It was superbly masterminded by its Dean, Debi Cox, who brought her deep understanding of both educational needs and logistical realities to the task. If you see her, tell her thank you again from us all.

Our guest educator this year was Kim Newcomb, and whoever had the idea to invite her also needs to feel pleased with themselves. Kim is not only highly skilled as a singer (most famous at the moment for being a reigning Sweet Adelines International quartet champion), she is also a professional educator, and, it turns out, profoundly encouraging as a human being. One has the sense that she has always been nice, but she has also developed a deep moral commitment to being kind and supportive that underpins her praxis.

Thoughts on Belonging: an Addendum

My three recent posts about belonging, and specifically the experience of feeling disconnected at a belonging-inducing event (and also sometimes being rescued from that state), have produced far more response than my posts normally get. Much of the ensuing discussion took place either in Facebook threads or in private messages rather than in the comments on the post itself, so I thought it might be useful to reflect some of the points in a follow-up post to share the extra insight they generated.

There was a fair bit of sharing of good practice, much of which resonated with the approaches Daniel Coyle makes in The Culture Code. A useful comparison was with making things accessible for people with disability: rather than focusing on the needs of specific individuals, you aim to make your building/institution/process accessible to everyone.

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