June 2009

Changing Notation Software

GOK
I’ve been having the humbling experience of learning how to use a new notation program. It’s tough to go back to complete beginner status for one of your essential tools, but sometimes it needs to be done.

Some background to this change:

Leaving School

Tomorrow is my last day at Birmingham Conservatoire. I have decided that it’s time to step outside the academic calendar which has shaped the rhythm of my life since the age of five, and join the real world. I’ve done ten years at the Conservatoire, and it’s been a fun gig, but sooner or later you need a change.

The decision has been a long time brewing – though, the bit that took thought wasn’t whether to move on from my current role, but what to move on to, and when.

Formal vs Informal Learning

Early years educationalists consider there to be no difference between learning and play for toddlers. I sometimes wonder if there should be for grown-ups.

In higher education we spend a significant amount of time thinking about and developing specifications for the courses we teach. We are encouraged to do this not so much in terms of content (what are we trying to teach our students?), but in terms of aims (what do we want our students to end up being able to do?). Once we have defined our learning outcomes, that then drives things like delivery and assessment.

This is all to the good; it is rational and sensible way of going about designing courses. But it can rather give us the idea that what goes on in the modules that make up our programmes will somehow produce an adequately educated student at the end of the process. I suspect this is a delusion: my hunch is that the formally-articulated part of education is only half the story, and that it won’t work unless there is a healthy dollop of play involved too.

Soapbox: The Language of Assessment

soapbox

If you spend any time assessing performance exams or adjudicating festivals/competitions, you end up having a lot of conversations with fellow assessors about what you heard. And you’ll probably have experienced conversations in which your fellow adjudicator turns to you with a rather concerned face and gives a laundry list of the things that were wrong with the performance.

‘The blend was very dicey.’
‘The sopranos had a hard, bitty sound.’
‘The basses were terribly muddy.’
‘The Palestrina really had no sense of style.’

Now, I’ve often found myself slightly uncomfortable at this point, and I think I’m starting to work out why.

David Wright on Arranging

davidwright
Last weekend saw a dozen or so arrangers from the three barbershop organisations in the UK gathered together at a hotel in Manchester to spend two days studying with David Wright. Anyone involved in barbershop music will know his work well: he is one of the most successful and creative arrangers currently active, having worked with many of the world’s champion quartets of the last two decades.

If you don’t know his work, have a listen to these, just to set the picture:

Cruella de Vil, sung by Vocal Spectrum
Yes Sir, That's My Baby, sung by Ringmasters
I Have Dreamed, sung by the Ambassadors of Harmony

The invitation to come and work with experienced British arrangers arose from the Barbershop in Harmony collaborations that also produced the workshop for less experienced arrangers in Birmingham in April, and the seminar was structured around the study of a number of classic arrangements.

I came home with a notebook full of ideas, many of which I’ll need to think about at greater length before I’m ready to write about them, so this post is a collection of initial impressions – the things that rise to the top in the first instance.

Influence 7: Liking

likingRobert Cialdini’s last principle of persuasion is liking. Well, you probably already knew you were more likely to go along with someone you find congenial, and more likely to resist somebody you don’t take to – just on principle! And this is why Dale Carnegie linked the two ideas of winning friends and influencing people as part of the same process.

So, how do you get your choir to like you? Actually, for a full set of ideas on this, you could do worse than reading the Carnegie book – it’s a classic for a reason. But it’s worth mentioning a few points just for starters.

Naturally 7

On Thursday night I went with my friends from Magenta to see Naturally 7 on their Wall of Sound Tour at Birmingham Town Hall. They’ve been pretty well promoted in recent weeks and months, but if you’ve not come across them, here's a clip of the title track of their album and tour. It was, as you can imagine, a fun night out – they are skilled performers with a well-crafted show, and, moreover, come over as really nice guys.

I came home with a collection of Things To Think About Later:

Arranging and Performance Styles

On Saturday night, Magenta had the pleasure of performing in a concert featuring five early-career opera singers. (Two of them, as it happens, were ex-students of mine from Birmingham Conservatoire, though the invitation to participate arose from a suggestion by the Director of Music at the church that hosted the concert – one of those nice ‘small world’ moments.)

The second half featured some arrangements of spirituals for solo singer and piano by Moses Hogan and Peter Daley, and the comparison of the arranging styles of the two had me thinking about the relationship between arranging and performing styles again.

Influence 6: Scarcity

scarcityPeople are, perversely, more motivated by the threat of losing or missing out on something than on gaining something. This is why advertising campaigns that say ‘Hurry! Only two whatevers remaining!’ work. People don’t want to miss out on their chance to gain a whatever if there are only two of them left, while they wouldn’t be bothered one way or the other if they could go get plentiful whatevers at their own leisure.

So, how does this impact on our work with choirs? As I mentioned in this post, it is something that we fight against if we have a regular rehearsal slot and other, competing events come along as a one-off. People would much rather skip a rehearsal (of which there will be another next week) than miss anything that will never happen again.

There are ways that we can leverage this principle, though, to get greater commitment from our singers:

Arranging for 8 parts

Having spent the last decade producing close-harmony arrangements for 4-part, single-sex ensembles, I’m starting to get interested in how to arrange for 8-part, mixed groups. Part of this is driven by demand – I’ve seen female and male quartets sing together often enough to notice that there’s a need for repertoire. Moreover, when I hear those performances, my response is almost always either (a) oh wow, that sounds great, I want to do that too! or (b) OMG that’s such a hokey chart, surely there must be better music out there!

Both of those are the kind of response to make me want to play this game.

So I’ve been looking at the various approaches other arrangers take, and here is my preliminary list of how you might go about this.

Expressive Tuning and Equal Temperament

There is a school of thought that sees equal temperament as a Bad Thing. It is presented as a kind of industrialisation of a natural process, imposing a new regulative order on the west’s approach to music, commodifying our ways of hearing at the same time as mass-production processes were applied to pianos and popular songs.

For example, this is what the Just Intonation Network has to say on the matter:

Influence 5: Social Validation

sheepCialdini’s fourth principle of persuasion is in my view one of the most powerful. When people are trying to work out what to do, they look around them and see what other people are doing, and join in. For all we human beings pride ourselves on our individualism, in times of uncertainty we retain a strong affinity with the sheep.

This is why it can be so hard to change a choir’s habits.

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