Soapbox

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.

Soapbox: The Mute Button and the Abuse of Power

soapboxOne of the standard bits of etiquette in remote rehearsing, and indeed any other large-group gathering via video-conferencing platforms, is that you spend most of the time with most people’s microphones turned off. This way you can cough without the focus of the conversation highlighting your discomfort, and nobody else is distracted by the dogs barking from your next-door neighbour’s garden.

All good so far. But I have nonetheless felt uncomfortable when choral colleagues joke about how they wish they could have a ‘mute all’ button when they go back to normal rehearsals. Call me humourless, but aren’t you just saying by this that you run inefficient rehearsals that leave dead space for nattering? Or is it that you like to exert your leadership by fiat, rather than by consent? Either way, cutting across people to shut them up feels rude; if you wouldn’t go and stick a piece of masking tape over someone’s mouth mid-sentence in real life, then you wouldn’t want to slam on a 'mute all' button online.

Soapbox: On Possessive Lyrics

soapboxThere’s a moment in The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when Slatribartfast asks Arthur, ‘Is that your robot?’

‘No,’ says Marvin, ‘I’m mine.’

This scene comes to mind every time I hear a barbershop tag that finishes a love song with the information that the beloved is now, ‘Mine, all mine’. However much sympathy I have had for the sentiments expressed up to that point (which is often quite a lot; I’m a soppy old soul despite my misanthropic appearance), it largely evaporates in the face of this blatant possessiveness.

You can’t own the person you love most in the world. Even once they have decided to team up with you so you can build a life together, they are still their own person with their own preferences and opinions and needs and – most importantly – the right to determine their own destiny. Asserting that they are all yours doesn’t make you sound romantic, it makes you sound like Monty Burns gloating over a pile of gold.

Sopebocks: On thuh Spelling Uv Kawdz

soapboxEvvry sew offen I fined mice-elf in konvasayshun with uh felloh uhraynja hoo addvokaytz spelling kawdz inkorrecktlee two mayck singing lyenz eezya. I thinck bye thiss thay meen righting awl lyenz ryzing bye semmytohn with shahps anned awl fawling bye semmytohn with phlatz.

I rooteenlee trie anned tawk them owt uv thiss on thuh baysiss that it maycks thuh myoozick mutch hahda two reed four thohz hoo undastanned hahmunny. Ewe haff two stop anned puzzul owt wot awl thee individyoual nohtz ah anned tranzlayt that ennhahmonickly intwo uh kawd rahtha than chust reeding thuh myoozick. At bessed it sloes ewe up, at wurst it chaynjezz thuh meeningz.

Soapbox: On 'The Golliwog’s Cakewalk'

soapboxEver since I started writing about race and repertoire a couple of years ago, I have been quietly fretting about a particular piece of piano music that I, like many piano students, learned in my teens for one of my grade exams. It is still appearing on exam syllabuses today. Earlier this spring, these private misgivings became public when I found myself involved in an online conversation about its problematics with a group of pianists and piano teachers, many of whom also teach and perform it.

The piece in question is ‘The Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ from Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite. The conversation has stayed with me since, forcing me to clarify my own feelings about the piece. I’m reflecting on those feelings here to try and bring some coherence to them in the aftermath of the difficult experience of finding myself at odds with people I’d usually identify with quite strongly. I keep telling myself it’s the uncomfortable experiences that lead to growth.

Soapbox: On Transcending Technique

soapboxWhen I had been lecturing just a few years, I was entertained to look back and notice how my focus had shifted over time.

During the first year, when I was doing everything anew, content was king: structuring lectures, choosing musical examples, figuring out what amongst the infinite possibilities it was most important for my students to learn. During the second year, when I had a stash of content to work from, I was focused on the how rather than the what: the variety of learning activities, reaching different learning styles. During the third year I mostly seemed to obsess about heating and oxygen levels in the classrooms.

This memory came back to me recently as I reflected on a theme I’ve heard reasonably often when experienced musicians are teaching the less experienced.

Soapbox: A Short Post About Women and the Musical Canon

soapboxAs you know, one of my projects for 2017 is making sure I’m listening to a lot more music by women by compiling a youtube playlist. One of the obvious points that keeps coming out in my commentaries on the pieces is how splendid so much of them are, and how boggling it is that I didn’t previously know it.

A possibly less obvious, and certainly less polite, point is that it makes me wonder how some of the repertoire by men that I do know seems to be taken seriously. I’m not saying that, say, Schumann wasn’t a ‘genius’ (though I am putting in scare quotes to distance myself from that rather loaded label), but I am saying that the label unhelpfully keeps some of his more irritating efforts in the repertoire (Symphony No 4, I am looking at you) when there are clearly better examples of the genre that get ignored because they are by people to whom the ‘genius’ label has been withheld – i.e. women.

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.

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