November 2009

Contemplation on the Coventry Carol

Tintoretto's depiction of the Slaughter of the InnocentsTintoretto's depiction of the Slaughter of the InnocentsI’ve been thinking just recently about the story of the slaughter of the innocents, as I’ve been working on a new arrangement of the Coventry Carol for Magenta. I find it the most unbearably sad song to sing, but there is also something compelling about reliving the story from the viewpoint of a mother whose child is killed, as the words position the singers.

Exams, Arrangements & Radio 1

NoteoriousNoteoriousMy undergraduate degree was one of those old-fashioned ones that culminated in 8 hours of written exams over two days. I recall thinking at the time, ‘Well, I think I’ve got quite good at sitting exams by now – shame really that this is the last one I’ll ever need to take’. Educationalists who like to defend the exam as an assessment strategy will point out that the capacity to complete a defined task independently within a limited timescale is a useful life skill. And I’ve always tended to think that the main legacy an exam-oriented education has left me with is the ability to focus.

But last weekend I found myself drawing much more directly on the strategies I used to use to pass exams for a real-life challenge. Noteorious, LABBS 2008 quartet champions, had been asked by BBC Radio 1 to participate in feature celebrating four classic albums. The idea was to play tracks from these albums, alternated with cuts of the quartet singing the same songs in the barbershop style. Cute idea – and they had just one week’s notice to procure and learn the arrangements before heading into the recording studio.

Birthday Post!

Helping You Harmonise is 1 year old today! On 26 November 2008 I made my inaugural blog entry, having spent the previous couple of weeks busy uploading my arrangements catalogue before the site went live. Since then, I have posted 88,300 words of blog material – which is more than I wrote for my entire first book, and nearly as much as for my second.

Having been an avid but sporadic reader of other people’s blogs for some years (i.e. I binge-read several months’ worth of posts in an afternoon rather than keeping track of each as they go), I find it interesting to speculate on people’s motivations for blogging. Sometimes there’s a sense of someone doing it because they feel they ought to – as part of a promotional strategy, for instance – and these are the ones I enjoy reading least. They also tend to fizzle out quite quickly. I think it’s very hard to write regularly if the motivation is extrinsic rather than intrinsic.

More often, and more successfully, blogs reflect a passion or a desire.

Musical Sense and Poetic Sense

A criticism levelled at amateur singers* is that their ideas of how to interpret songs are led almost entirely by the lyric with little concept of how to handle musical elements. Indeed, I have myself critiqued approaches to interpretation that are story-led to the exclusion of everything else. But surprisingly often you hear phrasing that cuts across the sense of the lyric – breaths that cut a sentence in two, or commas sung through as if the two clauses belonged together.

I think this happens mostly in places where the surface structures of lyric and music don’t completely coincide. The singers subconsciously parse the phrase structure into its simplest musical structure – and in its extreme form, this comes out in the nursery-rhyme phrasing I wrote about back in October. But there are more sophisticated versions of this. For example:

Preliminary Quartet Thoughts

3/4 of Monkey Magic with a bag of trophies3/4 of Monkey Magic with a bag of trophiesLast Sunday saw a marathon BABS quartet prelims come to my erstwhile place of work, with 43 quartets competing in the national, senior and youth quartet contests. The biggest outcome of the day (though not the most surprising) was Monkey Magic winning the youth contest again to qualify to compete in the collegiate contest at International one more time before they get too old for it. After singing, they dashed off to Manchester to audition for Britain’s Got Talent, leaving their dads to receive the trophies on their behalf – which is quite endearing, and represents a lot that is going right in BABS right now. They did show their faces again in Birmingham right at the end of the day, though Alan had disappeared before I managed to get the photo!

Are you talented?

The jury is out as to whether talent is in-born or whether it can be acquired. We do know, however, that it only shows up in people who have spent thousands of hours honing their craft. This obsessive, focused work often accounts for the teenage years – whether Picasso doing hundreds of small studies in figurative painting, or your stereotypical geek retreating from the difficulties of adolescent social life to write computer programs. But it can also come later: Van Gogh didn’t start painting until he was in his twenties, though once he started he went at it in a very intensive and focused way.

So, as Roy Castle used to sing, if you want to be the best, dedication’s what you need. This much is clear.

Production vs Production Capacity: Practical Ramifications.

I talked back in July in broad terms about how Stephen Covey’s distinction between production and production capacity can usefully guide the choral director’s thinking as they plan rehearsals. But I thought it might be helpful to ponder a little further on this and articulate, in practical terms, what the results of using this distinction might look like.

My basic premise is that every rehearsal should include some of each. Even when rehearsal time is very tight, you need to keep your eye on the big picture, if only to maintain some sense of control over your destiny at a time when you could feel under pressure. And even when your primary focus is on skill development rather than preparing for performance, you need to give the singers some sense of concrete achievement from the occasion.

There are three main ways directors typically introduce production capacity development into rehearsals:

Piano Revelation

Out with the old...Out with the old......and in with the new...and in with the new

I bought a new piano recently. The one I grew up with (a hand-me-down from my great aunt) has done sterling service, but I have grown out of it. Since I’ve stopped working in a music college, where I had a lovely Yamaha upright in my office, I’ve been finding I miss being able to play a good instrument. It’s a long time since I’ve been playing at anything like a professional level, but pianism is still an important part of how I think.

Anyway, I had a mild revelation while talking to my mum about the quality of my old piano – the ways in which it’s okay, and the ways in which it’s limited.

Hearts in Harmony

likingOn Tuesday evening I spent a happy couple of hours with Hearts in Harmony, the staff choir at Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham. They formed back in the summer, and have been inviting various choral folk from around the region to run one-off sessions in between auditions for a permanent director. So it was an interesting session to plan, as it needed to be both self-contained (they’ll be singing with someone else next week), and provide continuity (whilst I won’t be there next week, they will). Some continuity was provided in that they had an arrangement of a Christmas carol they had started last week and wanted to work on again. So I did them an arrangement of another carol in a contrasting style that we could learn in one session, but they could then add to their collection for their Christmas performances.

Managing Expectations in Vocal Arrangements

Regular readers will have noticed that I like to draw on the ideas of Leonard B. Meyer when I think about music. I was first introduced to his work in my first year at university, and it had quite a big impact on me, as it was my first real encounter with the act of theorising music. Hitherto most of the writing about music I had seen simply described what was going on, whereas this introduced me to the possibilities of explaining it.

(This early encounter also provided the occasion for possibly the most useful thing anyone ever said to me during my education. My tutor, Alan Rump, had sent me away to read some Meyer, and I came back saying tentatively that I found it very interesting but wasn’t sure that I agreed with it. ‘Good God, woman,’ he roared, ‘You’re not supposed to agree with books, you’re supposed to think about them.’)

Anyway, some recent listening experiences got me thinking about his implication-realisation model of musical meaning again.

LABBS at Cheltenham

LABBS Quartet champions, FinesseLABBS Quartet champions, FinesseThe Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers had their annual convention last weekend at Cheltenham Race Course, and the association looks like it’s in good health. The White Rosettes consolidated the new level they reached out for when they won two years ago, getting scores solidly into the 80s, and the next six places were all scoring into the 70s. Indeed, second-place average score of 79.9 would have produced a gold medal most years.

New Workshops

If you came here via the front page, you may have observed a notice announcing a set of new themed workshops I’ll be offering from the New Year. More details can be found on the menu to the left, under the ‘helping performers’ label. I’ll still be available to do bespoke coaching of course, but I’ve developed the new offerings as a way to help ensembles become more strategic in how they plan their skills development.

The Conductor’s Identity

Something that I’ve explored in both my books is the idea of musical identity: how it is that you acquire the label (and the way of being) of cellist, or soprano, or barbershopper. I drew on the ideas of people like Anthony Giddens and Judith Butler to show how people acquire and maintain musical identities through a combination of patterns of behaviour and personal narratives. These internal autobiographies are developed through social interactions and draw on the cultural discourses that configure those identity types in wider culture.

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