Musical Identity

Book Review: Singing Through Change

singingthroughchangeTl;dr: this is a useful book, and you should read it.

Singing Through Change: Women’s Voices in Midlife, Menopause, and Beyond is, as you would imagine, relevant to the vast majority of people involved in singing. If you are a man who never makes music with adult women it may not touch on your activities very much (though you may well have female friends and relatives who would be happy for the men in their life to have some insight into their experiences), but for everyone else there will be direct relevance either for yourself, for the women you make music with, or both.

Soapbox: Allocating Parts for Emotional Damage

soapboxIn SATB music, it’s relatively easy figure out which part people should sing if they don’t already know. The texture is built around a divide by sex, with a split between higher and lower voices in each. So you just see what kind of range someone has, and slot them in where the notes they have and the notes the music needs coincide. Some people (counter-tenors, female tenors) defy the first part, but the stratification by range still works, so the model as a whole presents safe a generalisation of how to go about things.

One of the defining characteristics of barbershop music is that the parts are all much less differentiated by range (there’s a clue in the description ‘close-harmony’). Thus, most people can readily sing at least two of the parts, usually three, sometimes all four. You’d think this would take some of the pressure off the decision-making process of part-allocation, but in fact it seems more often to intensify the reliance on social stereotyping in identifying parts.

Zooming in to Fascinating Rhythm

Screengrab or it didn't happen...Screengrab or it didn't happen...

Thursday evening brought the opportunity to spend an hour with my friends at Fascinating Rhythm. Just before lockdown they had just got the most recent arrangement I had done for them to the point where they basically knew it and could start refining it. They have persisted with that project remotely, and though we can’t yet hear the results of that work, they are at least spending their time deepening their insight into the song.

My visit was part of that project. This visit took the form of a seminar/presentation about certain aspects of the music, punctuated with a breakout task to get the chorus active in the process, and my next visit will involve working with the section leaders to explore how these ideas apply when actually sing the music.

One of the points I found myself most eager to share was a point about the relationship between motif and characterisation. Both because it was helping to make sense of a distinctive feature of this chart, and also because it was fun to share the story behind how it came to be. I often say that it’s in tackling the technical challenges of an arrangement that you find yourself developing the most creative artistic ideas, and this is a classic case in point.

On Surface Over-Compensating

When I was observing a lot of conductors as the heart of the research for my choral conducting book, I noticed how certain hand positions appear to correlate with certain types of relationship with the activity. In particular, I noted a kind of angular hand shape: wrists cocked back, fingers straight and folded forward at a right angle from the main knuckle, thumbs sticking up, and the ictus formed by a kind of scooping motion with the heel of the hand.

The choral sounds that this hand shape typically elicited were quite bright in tone, and reasonably well controlled, but often containing audible vocal tension and lacking bloom on the sound. The overall sound was often rather more contained and muted than you might have expected from the number of singers involved.

8-Parter Project: Double Quartet or Double Chorus?

Having considered the nature of the 8-part ensemble from the perspective of genre (SATB divisi versus combined male and female barbershop ensembles), we also need to consider the question of whether we’re thinking about combined choruses or quartets, i.e. whether we have one person or several people singing each part.

This is something I’ve thought about in general terms, and I was interested to look back and see that it also was all the way back in 2009 that I first wrote about it, and moreover that my thoughts were relatively underdeveloped back then. I’ve done a lot more thinking since about the nature of doubling: how you can move more flexibly between different numbers of sounding lines when you have a multiple voices per part than you can with one-a-part textures. This was something I particularly enjoyed with Magenta; in a group where we all sang different parts for different songs, we could move seamlessly between unisons, duets and full harmonies because we were all accustomed to blending with different combinations of voices as a matter of course.

On Finding Your Audience

I was recently asked some interesting questions by a composer I’ve been helping, and it struck me that the answers might have wider applicability beyond his circumstances. He’s been re-working a song that he originally wrote for classroom use into a more developed and sophisticated arrangement for vocal ensemble and band, and our conversations have hitherto been about things like crafting form through texture, harmonic voicing, and vocal writing.

Now these technical questions are getting more fully under control, he’s turning his attention to the real-life question of what kind of groups might want to take it on to perform it. He has been advised that it could easily be marketed to schools if he pared it down to a unison setting – which he already knows of course because that’s where the song has already been road-tested. But his personal aims in returning to composing after some time away has been to be more ambitious than this, both technically and artistically.

On Connecting with the Real

Last autumn, shortly after I’d blogged about the research stream at the abcd Choral Leaders Festival, I received an email from a reader about the diagram I had included from Michael Bonshor’s paper about the relationship between practice and research. I like everything about it so will quote in full:

It was very affirming to see that little diagram on your blog this evening.

I've been working for seven years as supply staff for a small, private children's nursery. Lots of frustrations, wondering how things could be done better. Meanwhile reading your blog makes me feel that I still have a functional brain when there is little other evidence. Thank you!

Now I'm about to embark on a Masters in Childhood and Youth Studies. I think they need more academics who have done the 7.30am starts and 6pm finishes, coming home covered in yoghurt and playdough to fall asleep during The Archers.

Hoping I might eventually complete that circle, help some people, change something for the better. (I sing a bit too)

8-Parter Project: The Nature of the Ensemble

So, having thought about how different types of song persona play out in a mixed 8-part ensemble, it is time to think about the nature of that ensemble, in the first instance with a single-persona song. The process of revisiting my chart of ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ from 2008 (coming soon to Sheet Music Plus) has got me reflecting on how an SSAATTBB group (or SATB divisi as it turns out easier to say in conversation) is quite a different animal from combined male and female barbershop ensembles, whether quartet or chorus.

Back in 2008 I was clearly thinking about SSAATTBB for this chart, and it is interesting to see how certain decisions I made back then signal it very clearly. In the process of revising it, I have deliberately chosen to recraft for combined barbershop groups, and this post articulates some of the ways in which the two formats of 8-part group differ. A later post will go on to reflect on balance and voicing.

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