August 2009

The Inner Game of Choral Rehearsals

I’ve been threatening since last winter to write about how the Inner Game ideas can inform rehearsal techniques, and the time has at last arrived. This post will outline some big-picture principles, and three subsequent ones will look at how to apply the three central concepts of awareness, will and trust in choral contexts.

But for those who are not familiar with Inner Game ideas at all, here’s a bit of background.

Art versus Entertainment

There has been an interesting thread of discussions over on Choralnet recently in response to another blogger’s claim that the Ambassadors of Harmony set ‘a new standard in choral music’ in their performance at this year’s International barbershop convention. The responses range from the enthusiastic to the disdainful, with some interesting variants in each camp – a wonderful example, indeed, of the way that aesthetic values are not static, but culturally negotiated on an ongoing basis.

Lying behind some of the comments are a set of cultural tensions that have existed in music for at least a couple of centuries if not more.

Commodity versus Product

commodityproductA few months back I read an old, old book about how to set up a small business called The E-Myth, by Michael E. Gerber. To give you an idea how old it is: it was written before the turn of phrase ‘E-something’ meant anything. So in fact the E here isn’t anything electronic, but refers to entrepreneurs. His basic point is that the idea that successful businesses are down to the special qualities of entrepreneurial people is a myth, and that good organization has more to do with it.

I may come back in another post to how his model plays out for starting a choir (if I can face in retrospect dealing with all the things I did wrong!). But for today, I’d like just to focus in on a useful distinction he makes between your commodity and your product.

The commodity is what you make in the factory; the product is what your customer wants to gain by buying it.

Addendum on Musical Quality

In my post on ‘What makes good music?’ earlier this month I forgot to mention another indicator of quality that I’ve been thinking about quite a lot lately. This is: really good music lifts and develops performers, and makes them sound better than they do when performing merely adequate music.

Arranging Arrangers

swipeIf you came here via the front page of Helping You Harmonise, you will have seen the new notice announcing the mentoring scheme I am organising for barbershop arrangers. (If you haven’t seen it yet, more details are here.) It will work by pairing people up to give each other feedback on each other’s work, and I thought it might be useful to say a few words about the rationale for this approach.

Motivating Singers

Earlier this week I received an email with the above subject line from the director of a small early music vocal ensemble. He has been grappling with the challenge of getting his singers to learn music in their own time to make the most of scarce rehearsal time – and grappling also with the personal tensions that result when not all of his singers cooperate. I’ll quote an extract from his email, as his account of his experience will resonate in the heart of anyone who has found themselves leading a group:

During the time that rehearsals were ongoing, I was never sure what to do about the singers who would not learn their music. I didn't feel I could reprimand them, because we were all students of about equal experience and, while mine was the responsibility to choose the repertoire for the year and to lead the rehearsals, I did not have any authority over them. I could not replace (or threaten to replace) any of the singers, as I did not have any other equally capable singers wanting to join the group. The only motivating tool I had was the music itself, which I cared deeply about and wanted to sing well. Whatever way I had been communicating to the group, my enthusiasm had rubbed off on some singers but not all.

I was just wondering if you have written anything about this, if it's something you have experienced, and if you have any strategies for dealing with it?

A Cappella and the Creation of Rhythm 3: Melody & Accompaniment Textures

This is the third and final post in a series that looks at the consequences for the close-harmony arranger of Cooper & Meyer’s theory of rhythm. By looking at the way that musical structures create patterns of accent, we can draw a number of practical conclusions about how we control musical elements so as to make a coherent sense of rhythm without undue distractions.

In some ways, melody and accompaniment textures provide fewer challenges than homophonic textures, because they have more built-in contrast. The parts singing the accompaniment patterns can set up a regular metrical framework to drape the tune over, in much the way that a band’s rhythm section frees a soloist up to play with and pull against the basic rhythmic structure.

On Women Singing Loudly


It’s a loud voice,
And though it’s not exactly flat,
She’ll need a little more than that
To earn a living wage
Noel Coward, ‘Don’t Put You Daughter on the Stage’

There is sometimes some cultural discomfort with women singing loudly. It can be seen as over-assertive, sonically pushy, ballsy. In times past this was tangled up with questions about public versus private utterance. Early Romantic writers like ETA Hoffmann and Carl Maria von Weber wrote very rude vignettes of female amateurs who sang operatic repertoire in the home, and idealised instead the perfect femininity of an untrained voice that wouldn’t travel beyond an intimate setting.

Those stereotypes have – thankfully – loosened their stranglehold to the point that they seem almost entirely historical.

How to hear your choir more perceptively

earSo we all know that the better we are at listening to our choirs in rehearsal, the better our diagnostic and rehearsal strategies can work. And we know all the standard strategies for building this skill: recording the rehearsal to analyse later; asking an assistant to conduct while we listen and coach; breaking the choir down into smaller sections to listen to the detail.

But there’s more to it that this, I think. I’m starting to suspect that the biggest barrier between the sounds the choir produces and the conductor’s brain is nothing to do with either ears or technical knowledge: it is the conductor’s own ego boundaries. The more the director holds themselves separate from their singers, the harder it is for them to get a really intuitive understanding of what’s going on in their hearts and their voices.

A Cappella and the Creation of Rhythm 2: Homophony

In my first post on this theme, I looked at Cooper & Meyer’s theory of rhythm, and in particular the way that it frames the idea of accent as any musical event that draws attention to itself. Of the types of accent discussed in that post, by far the most important for homophonic a cappella styles is the harmonic accent. Where all voices are singing the same words at the same time, and the number of notes sounding simultaneously is largely constant, the primary means to alert the ear to a song’s metrical shape is the changing of the harmony.

And indeed, both the arranging styles and performance styles of close-harmony traditions have particularly focused on relishing the harmonic content: it not only regulates the rhythmic flow of the music, but colours its entire emotional shape.

Crazy Copyright Case

soapboxOver on ChoralNet, they have a persistent running gripe about copyright legislation and the heavy-handedness with which big businesses in the music industry enforce it. I mostly try not to get too worked up about these things – it’s part of the landscape we work in and I have other more interesting uses for my emotional energy – though I do appreciate having voices of reason on the case lobbying for balance.

But there was a news story last week that has me mentally frothing at the mouth (if such a thing is possible). The music publisher Larrikin, who bought the copyright to ‘Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree’ in 1990, is apparently suing Men At Work for plagiarism, claiming that the flute riff in the 1981 song ‘Down Under’ is stolen from the girl guide tune.

Yorkshire Double

bradfordyorkOn Sunday night I had a trip up to Yorkshire to work with the combined voices of Pennine Chimes from Bradford and Main Street Sound from York. They have been rehearsing together once a month for the last few months, as well as coordinating their plans and approaches for each group’s weekly rehearsals, and as a result are operating very much as a single ensemble. Indeed, my only clue as to who originated with which chorus were their name badges!

During the second half of the coaching session we addressed an issue that besets so many barbershop groups: the way that introducing choreography seems to undo months of careful work on vocal production.

A Cappella and the Creation of Rhythm 1

Working in a timbrally-uniform medium such as unaccompanied voices has deepened my appreciation over the years for the insights that Grosvenor Cooper and Leonard B. Meyer provided into how rhythm works.

To ruthlessly summarise their key ideas:

  • Our experience of rhythm results from the perceptual organisation of relatively accented and unaccented sounds into coherent patterns.
  • An accent is created by any ‘stimulus marked for consciousness’ – that is, a thing that makes us notice it.
  • Consequently, any and all elements of a musical texture can participate in the creation of accent (and, thereby, rhythm).

What makes good music?

I keep thinking that, having worked in music all my adult life, I should be in some position to answer this question. But somehow, whilst I seem to be quite good at recognising it when I encounter it, theorising what it is that makes music good remains intractable.

I’m not the first person to puzzle over this of course. There are a number of theories knocking about, all of which have something to offer, but none of which are wholly satisfactory. For example:

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