August 2011

Happy Birthday to ABCD

Friday night's panel: Brian Kay, Amy Bebbington, Neil Ferris, Jackie Roxborough, Helen Smith, Rachel Greaves, Pamela Cook and John RutterFriday night's panel: Brian Kay, Amy Bebbington, Neil Ferris, Jackie Roxborough, Helen Smith, Rachel Greaves, Pamela Cook and John Rutter
The last weekend in August has become the traditional weekend for the Association of British Choral Directors to hold their annual convention. This year’s was on my home patch in Birmingham, and was celebrating the organisation’s 25th anniversary.

The plenary sessions on Friday evening and Saturday morning accordingly took an overview of British choral life – the first looking at trends from the last 25 years (and into the future), the second considering the ‘state of the choral nation’. In fact, the two debates became quite interrelated, with themes from the Friday evening re-emerging within the ostensibly different subjects under review on the Saturday morning. As you might imagine, we had both utopic and dystopic visions of British choral life: depending on whom you ask, we are either in better or worse shape than we have been for years!

Can an Ensemble be Charismatic?

choral_charisma_coverI’ve been thinking quite a lot recently about Tom Carter’s book Choral Charisma, and in particular about the accuracy of its title. For those who don’t know it, it’s practical guide to helping choirs (especially school- or college-age and amateur choirs) sing with greater expression, communicative power, and personal fulfilment. It is strongly and usefully informed by Tom’s background in drama as well as music, and is much to be recommended. The opening chapter on psychological safety in the rehearsal room is particularly insightful.

So, you get the idea: I like his approach.

Having said that, I’m not convinced that what he’s writing about is actually charisma. Indeed, I noticed recently that the word only appears in the title, not anywhere in the body of the book. The core elements he is concerned with – personal authenticity, openness of communication, emotional connectedness – are all features commonly associated with charismatic people of course. But there is a key ingredient missing here.

Bristol Fashion: Skills and Self-Confidence

BFaug11
I spent Sunday with my friends in Bristol Fashion. I think this must have been my 5th visit in a bit over two years, and they always organise glorious weather. Even though it was drizzling when I arrived this time, once the singing started, the clouds parted. (I am sure this is nothing to either with the mild climate in the south-west of England or the fact that they always invite me in the months of May-September!)

A lot of our work this time focused less on skills per se than the psychology of confidence. There were certainly skills targeted for development (clear and positive articulation of word sounds for one), but what emerged as more central to the chorus’s quality of performance was their decision to use skills already acquired. One of the things about a group that has developed a long way in a short time is that it is very easy to default back to a lower level of performance because it is in fact not very long ago that that was the norm. They have the skills to perform with real beauty and believability to when they remember to deploy them, but they find it too easy to slip back into a more ordinary state of competence that not so long ago would have pleased them, but is no longer in the league they could be.

Is Music Education a Waste of Public Money?

Last week I heard from a friend about an experience that was bothering her 17-year-old son. He’s currently studying for A levels, and planning to apply for a place on a BMus course. His career aspirations seem quite clearly thought-through (way more than mine were at that age!), with a desire to perform professionally backed up by Plans B and C of teaching music and/or doing something else to pay the bills while moonlighting on the semi-pro circuit.

The first thing to note is that Plan A will almost certainly involve either or both of Plans B and C en route. Very few people support themselves throughout their career entirely from performing. It’s not just when you’re in the early stages needing to supplement income either. You also see people shifting away from full-time performance later on, in order to see their kids before they grow up, or for the chance to spend a bit of time enjoying the house they’ve been paying the mortgage on.

Anyway, that’s the background; the problem is this:

Tuning and Balance

Tuning is a funny thing. In some respects it is a very objective element of music, clearly explicable in terms of acoustical properties. We’ve understood perfect intervals since Pythagoras after all. But when you start measuring sounds with human ears rather than scientific instruments, things become less clear-cut.

Our ears pick up the both the fundamental of a note and the halo of overtones that all sounds other than sine waves carry with them, between the frequencies of 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz. How our brains render this collection of sounds into a perception of pitch, though, is complex and not fully understood. It’s clear we perceptually wrap the overtones into the fundamental that generates them, producing a sensation of a single note of a particular quality rather than hearing lots of different related notes as would be displayed on a spectrogram. But this combined, perceptual pitch is not necessarily identical to the fundamental: the overtones can inflect our sense of tuning as well as of quality.

‘Warm-Ups’ Versus ‘the Warm-Up’

You quite often hear people saying things like, ‘I heard a good warm-up the other day,’ or, ‘Have you got any good warm-ups?’ When they say this, they are generally meaning a short song or round or singing game that can be learned in a few minutes and has some element of fun to it – vivid and/or nonsense words, rhythmic bounce, interesting combination into parts etc. These are useful things to have about the house, and you can see why people like to collect them.

However, it is worth making a distinction between these ditties known as ‘warm-ups’ and the warm-up – as in the part of a rehearsal in which you get a choir primed and ready to sing. You may sometimes want to use ‘warm-ups’ in ‘the warm-up’, but they’re really not the same thing. One is a self-contained activity, and the other is a process – and the first does not fulfil all the needs of the second.

Suitability to Performer

Years ago I was watching one of the piano classes at the Colchester Festival, in which I had a piano student performing. One of the other entrants played the first of Debussy’s Arabesques. He was accurate, but ploddy, showing little of the sense of sweep and flow the music calls for. My first thought was: ‘What on earth is his teacher doing letting him loose on this?’ My second thought, following hard on the heels of this was: ‘I know exactly why his teacher wanted him to learn this.’

This experience highlighted the contradictory nature of two standard imperatives in the development of musical performers. On the one hand, people are encouraged to perform music that ‘suits’ them; on the other, people are encouraged to engage with a variety of styles and expressive worlds in order to develop breadth and flexibility of communication.

Chords of Crystal

crystalchordsI spent Sunday up in Manchester working with Crystal Chords chorus, who are preparing for their second LABBS Convention under the direction of Monica Funnell. Their first contest together last autumn presented an ensemble that was developing fast, but still felt a little like work-in-progress. In the intervening months they have clearly settled into their new level of skills, although they still have that capacity to pick up new ideas quickly that characterises chorus that are undergoing rapid improvement.

The result was a most productive session. As a chorus, they were very open to coaching, and took evident pleasure in their discoveries and achievements. And we really got the benefit of the work on good vocal habits they have undertaken over the last year: at no point were our musical intentions held back by limitations in vocal technique.

When’s a Good Time to Ask for Feedback?

I recently had an email conversation with someone who wanted comments on an arrangement, that framed the request for feedback as a matter of urgency, as they wanted to get the teach tracks out to their chorus. As it happens, I was in a position to juggle my schedule to fit this in, but at the same time I felt it only fair to question whether this was the right moment to be doing this.

This is a conversation I used to have frequently with students in my years as a lecturer. It was a reasonably common pattern for someone to work on an essay at length and then come for feedback only a day or two before the deadline. Often this was because they either felt there was no point in bothering me while there were still things they knew needed fixing or because they were embarrassed to show me work in an obviously incomplete (and therefore as yet inadequate) state – which does feel a bit like answering the door in your pyjamas of course. Other times it had a more cynical motivation – ‘just tell me it’s going to pass’ – which I felt rather less sympathy for, but actually didn’t change the answer.

Waiting Is*

Recently I was watching highlights of England’s 4th one-day cricket match against Sri Lanka at Trent Bridge, and in particular the stunning innings that Alistair Cook and Craig Kieswetter put in to win the match. After a while I started to notice a distinctive quality to their successful shots. (You probably notice this more in the highlights as you see them back-to-back without all the guff in between. And there were plenty of brilliant shots in this match from which to generalise observations.)

Even though everything was moving fast – the ball, and thus the bat, and indeed the body preparing the bat for the strike – there was a sense of space, of taking time. None of the shots seemed hurried. Rather, each player seemed to find time to consider exactly how to hit the ball, and then place their shot calmly and precisely.

Discoveries from a Quartet Project

Over the past few weeks, Magenta has undertaken a quartet project which has done all kinds of good things for us, individually and collectively. The initial rationale behind it was two-fold: first to generate a little more repertoire for a long gig we have coming up, and second as part of our 2011 goal to build all singers’ independence on their parts.

Back in May I asked who might be interested, and had 14 volunteers out of a choir of then 18 singers, which we all thought was a pretty good response rate. One later dropped out, but we still had 4 different quartets on the go, heading for a night in mid-July when we would all perform to each other. (The numerate will notice that this involved some doubling up.) I offered the three quartets in which I wasn’t singing a couple of 1-hour coaching sessions each en route, so long as they made sure they had rehearsed together before coming to see me.

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