June 2014

Testing the waters...

As long-term readers will know, for some years I ran a Mutual Mentoring Scheme for Arrangers. This initially emerged as the number of requests I was getting for help grew unmanageable, combined with a realisation about how much I had learned about arranging from helping others. I could have dealt with the first factor just by starting to charge for my time (which I also do if you are still interested in getting my help), but that wouldn't give everyone else the educational benefit of analysing other people's work in progress.

Soapbox: Stop Messing with Pitch

I once knew a singer who had spent some years working as an organ builder and harpsichord finisher. He had a pretty reliable sense of pitch - as in the kind of pitch memory that often gets labelled as 'perfect pitch', but appears in many musicians in a somewhat imperfect form. That is, perfect enough for practical purposes - if you wanted to sing something in the right key but had no fixed-pitch instrument to hand, he'd usually be able to set you right.

But if he'd been doing a lot of tuning of keyboards recently, he lost the knack. He reported that constantly tweaking up and down confused his internal gauge for pitch and he had to revert to external prompts again until it settled down.

Maslow for Choirs: Cognitive Needs, Part 2

Seventh post in a series that starts here

In my last post, we considered first the acute, urgent kinds of cognitive needs you meet in rehearsal. These are easy to deal with in that they present their demands very clearly, and recede as soon as you meet them. We then went onto the thornier issue of a low-grade chronic need for more cognitive stimulation and the kinds of dampening effect it has on the atmosphere in rehearsal.

Today's task is to suggest things we can do to cure - or, even better - to prevent a choir getting into this state.

The solution lies in the general principle of good rehearsals that variety keeps attention fresh. Specifically, you want to make sure that you offer plenty of opportunities for people to get involved in thinking things through for themselves rather than perpetually being given instructions to follow. You need to make sure you're giving people the opportunity to generate their own knowledge.

Maslow for Choirs: Cognitive Needs

cognitiveSixth post in a series that starts here

I first noticed cognitive needs when I was rehearsing a choir and as soon as we finished singing a passage, all the singers dived into little huddles of intense conversation. I drew breath to restore order to the proceedings, and then realised that, at that moment, there was nothing I could say that would matter to them more than their current endeavour of checking notes with each other.

That's where I learned that sometimes the most efficient learning activity in a rehearsal is to let people get on with what they are doing. If the singers are focused and intent on solving their own problems, interrupting them will just slow things down.

The Life of Signs...

turinoI have recently been reading Thomas Turino's book Music in Social Life - which is much to be recommended as a pretty much optimal balance between intelligence and accessibility, by the way. You can tell he is both an experienced researcher and has spent lots of time framing concepts so as to make sense to non-specialist undergraduates.

One of the things I have been finding quite striking about it is the way he uses Peircean semiotics. I'm aware, by the way, that this post is going to get rather niche for a few paragraphs, but it might open out again into more generalist territory towards the end. We'll see.

I usually describe my own musicological interests in terms of being about 'music and its social meanings', which encompasses both my PhD on music and gender in historical repertories and my increasingly ethnomusicological trajectory through my two books. But right at the start of this interest lies an undergraduate dissertation on music and semiotics, that in many ways underpins everything I've done since, but which rarely shows its theoretical colours directly in what I write.

Maslow for Choirs: Esteem Needs

esteemFifth post in a series that starts here

Have you ever met anyone who:

  • always bustles into rehearsal 5 minutes late and faffs ostentatiously with their bag and coat and music while everyone else is already getting on with warming up? or who
  • repeatedly pipes up during rehearsal with things that need fixing, often at a tangent to the main thing you're working on? (Or the variant: who repeatedly identifies problems in a part other than their own?), or who
  • always has just one extra thing to add just when the choir announcements were finishing and thus causes them to over-run? or who
  • makes periodic complaints to the committee about decisions the director or other members of the choir leadership have made (repertoire choices, rehearsal strategies, stage wear)?, or who
  • won't blend?

If you have, then you have met someone whose esteem needs are showing.

Jim Henry and the Cottontown Chorus

jimhWell, it's only 3 years since I last blogged about watching Jim Henry work with a top-notch British chorus, and 4 years since I wrote about a Cottontown coaching session at a BABS convention. But I don't get bored of this stuff: it is always fabulous to watch people who are good at what they do being helped to get better by people who are *really* good at what they do.

As I noted last time I watched Jim Henry coaching, the how is more striking than the what. The techniques are simple, and Jim has no compunction about staying with a single technique and/or coaching focus for an extended period of time. Indeed, when I asked a friend what I'd missed in the first part of the session (I was late as I needed to hear the Telfordaires premiere an arrangement they had commissioned from me for the 40th anniversary convention), she said, 'He told them to sing in tune'. Which is actually also a fair summary of the hour I saw. Of course, the point is, anyone can tell you to sing in tune - it's the coaches who can make that actually happen you want to pay attention to.

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