April 2014

Prototype Theory and the Conductor

The recent kerfuffle about conducting and sexism, along with some thought-provoking posts over on the Thoughtful Gestures blog, have reminded me of some thoughts I put together for a lecture last year at a girls' school entitled 'Where Have All the Women Gone?' Having revisited my notes I find there's actually more I might want to write about here than I remembered, but for today I'll stick with Prototype Theory.

This is an idea first developed by psychologist Eleanor Rosch in 1973 to explain one of the fundamental ways we organise our perception of the world into categories. And in each over-arching category, there will be some examples that seem more typical of that category than others. One of her early studies found that there was a considerable consensus that, while hat stands might logically belong to the category of 'furniture' people would think of tables or chairs much more readily as representative of the class.

László Norbert Nemes on Conducting

laszloOne of the delightful by-products of being a tutor on courses such as the British Kodály Academy’s is that when you’re not delivering sessions, you get to sit in on other people’s. Indeed, I had the honour of teaching László Nemes the term ‘gatecrash’ to describe my attendance at his conducting class one afternoon. (His English is excellent, so one can only assume he is too polite to have needed this word before.)

There were three specific details in the work he did with the course participants that caught my attention.

Maslow for Choirs: Introduction

LABBS delegates representing Maslow's hierarchy*LABBS delegates representing Maslow's hierarchy*

Well, I've been threatening to write about Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and its implication for choral directors, on and off for years, and the time has finally arrived to get my teeth into the subject properly rather than just refer to it in passing. We had a productive session on this at the Directors Day I led in January, and it's as well to follow up on that as a refresher if nothing else.

This will be a longish series of posts, but I will intersperse them with other topics in the meantime, or it will feel like we've done nothing but Maslow for weeks. After this introductory one, you can expect 7 more, each looking at one layer in the hierarchy in detail. There may or may not be further conclusions out the far end - we'll see what we find when we get there...

So, the basic concept is that human beings have all kinds of needs, some more basic, some more sophisticated. These needs are fundamental sources for human motivation, and both our state of mind and our behaviour is largely driven by them. Whilst there are some variations - both by culture and by age - and in any given circumstance people may be driven by more than one at once, understanding the nature of the needs helps us understand both ourselves and others.

The Kermit Principle

kermitElbows are not useful body-parts for the choral conductor. Or at least, they are not helpful if they assert their presence in the conducting process. Clearly, having a joint between shoulder and wrist is useful, not just for the choral conductor, but for any human being who wishes to do things like scratch their head or put on a cardigan.

But the moment the elbow starts to be perceptibly present - if it flaps or sticks out - it starts to spoil the choral sound. Conductors who have sticky-out elbows produce a sound that is shallow and unsupported, the upper parts shrill and the lower parts foggy.

Conversely, conductors whose arms operate as integrated units, a clean line from shoulder to fingertip, undistorted by the protrusion of intermediate joints, produce a clean, resonant sound, with all parts integrated into an undistorted sound.

Kodály Meets Barbershop

The Hayes Conference Centre: resplendent in the spring sunshineThe Hayes Conference Centre: resplendent in the spring sunshineEarlier this week I had the pleasure of delivering some sessions at the Britsh Kodály Academy’s Spring Course. I was there straddling my two worlds: delivering to singers and choral conductors from a largely classical barckground (several of whom I already knew, indeed, through the Association of British Choral Directors), but there as an expert in barbershop music.

My contributions included a lecture on the history and culture of barbershop - with the aim of helping people who had probably happened across the genre but knew little about the detail of either its craft or ethos make sense of what they heard - and two practical workshops on expanded sound. For these I stole Gage Averill’s rather wonderful turn of phrase ‘Romancing the Tone’ as my title, and focused on the lessons in practical acoustics and the kinaesthetic pleasures of harmony that barbershop has taught me and that I use with musicians from any and all backgrounds.

Musical Performance and Flow

flowThis article first appeared on Tom Metzger’s blog Owning The Stage back in January 2009. I am republishing it here because that site is currently offline - temporarily I hope, but in the meantime I’ll put this here so I can refer back to it, as I do periodically. I have left in the references to several of Tom’s posts as it was the dialogue between the two blogs that led this one to be written; should Owning The Stage come back on line, I’ll come back and add the appropriate links!

A ‘flow’ state is one where you are completely immersed in an activity, losing all sense of self-consciousness, with action and awareness completely merged. It’s what athletes mean when they say they are ‘in the zone’. We should care about it because it relates both to high levels of personal satisfaction in what we do and to the development of high-level skills. Happiness and expertise go hand in hand, it seems.

Please, No...

On the bright side, the debate has at least produced something of practical help to the musicianOn the bright side, the debate has at least produced something of practical help to the musicianLike others who blog, I was very torn about whether to comment on the recently-reported comments of Jorma Panula about female conductors. As one friend put it, 'Oh for God's sake. Why do the press even give these dinosaurs the publicity?' There is this fond hope that eventually we will outlive everyone who hangs onto these views and the world will be a more benign place, and in the meantime the kindest thing to do is just ignore them.

But the comments thread that ensued after the Artsjournal article suggests that this fond hope is but a delusion. I have a hunch that women of the 1930s were saying similar things about ageing Victorian relics even as misogyny was on the rise once again. So, sorry folks, but we're going to have to take a look at this. Not at Panula, who, frankly comes over as a caricature of himself, but at the arguments that emerged in the responses on the artsjournal report.

The Arranger's Id

In my recent post on the arranger's super-ego, I had a nice self-indulgent time trying to work out where that intuitive sense comes from that tells you whether or not an arrangement is good enough to release. At the end of that post, I was just happening across the logical next question - what are the urges of the arranger's Id that the super-ego needs to keep in check?

The thing about the Id in Freudian theory (which I have already said I am dubious about, but if we're using his terms, we should probably pay at least some attention to his definitions) is that it is a source of creativity as well as chaos. It's not just a matter of rampant appetite and sexual voracity held back by the thin veneer of civilisation. Human culture has long seen the forces of creation as in many ways akin to those of destruction, and both in some ways at odds with principles of order. The Id's pleasure-seeking energies are primary motivators for everything we do.

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