February 2017

Developing the Director

I don’t write very much about my one-to-one work with choral directors, as it’s mostly too personal. The coaching process with an ensemble is inherently a social process (though I am mindful about which aspects to share with people who weren’t there), but work with an individual is much more private.

But there are general themes that emerge repeatedly with different directors that I’d find it useful to reflect on, and other directors may find useful too.

A common dilemma is, given how much time and attention it takes to run a choir, how do you get time to develop your own skills too? We all have areas in which we can feel our weaknesses, but we don’t necessarily have space in our lives to take a course in music theory or conducing technique, or go for singing lessons, or whatever.

Soapbox: Beyoncé Deserves an Apology

soapboxI wrote this post back in January, and put it on the 'post when there's nothing much else going on' list. But now seemed the appropriate moment to post it, in the week after Adele responded to winning a Grammy by saying that it should have gone to Beyoncé.

When I’m in my feminist musicology mode, I generally try to stay analytical rather than polemical, but sometimes I get cross. A headline towards the end of 2016 had this effect on me. I left it to brew for a while to see if it was just a passing irritation, but it turns out that it keeps calling me back to call out its casual sexism and racism.

The headline introduced a cute non-story about the quirks of CD charts, in which it was reported that the new box-set of Mozart’s complete works was the best-selling CD of 2016. I call this a non-story because the chart counts the number of physical discs sold, so a set that includes 225 of them doesn’t really have to sell very many units to clock up an impressive number. And of course the sale of physical discs is becoming something of a minority form of music distribution these days.

But it’s fun to note, and pleasing to see that such a mammoth undertaking as a complete-works set is doing well. Nothing to be cross about there.

The thing that aroused my ire, though, was the way the story was introduced*:

Sing for Europe

EUflagThis week brought an interesting creative collaboration my way – working with someone I met in a Facebook group to produce a singable arrangement in English of the EU anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. I’ll talk about the creative process in a mo, but first I’d like to invite you to download it from the bottom of this page and sing it with all your friends. In particular, if you can join us on 25 March in London, that was the primary occasion we produced it for, but really sing it wherever and whenever you like.

So the thing about this that was interesting is that it would seem on the face of it a simple and obvious thing to do to sing the Ode to Joy in a mass open-air gathering. It is, after all, written to evoke the great odes produced for mass open-air gatherings during the French Revolution, and the melody is transparently accessible in both its vocal demands and its memorability.

Harmonious Yorkshire Spirits

SpiritFeb17Thursday evening took me up to the Vale of York to work with Spirit of Harmony on some arrangements I delivered to them last year. I had arranged for the chorus several times some years ago, and also worked with a couple of smaller ensembles from within the chorus, but this was my first time coaching the full body of singers. As ever, I’m not going to tell you what the songs are so as not to anticipate the moment the chorus chooses to reveal them, but I can reflect on the process.

It’s an endlessly fascinating exercise in practical aesthetics negotiating how music should go: who decides, and how you decide. As an arranger I’ll have always imagined the delivery in depth as part of the arranging process – as Neil Watkins used to say, the arranger’s task is to conjour up the full performance in their mind, then write that down. But equally, it is the performer’s job and prerogative to bring their own creative imagination to the shaping of the narrative.

Playlist 2017: First Commentary

My musical adventure for 2017 is coming along nicely. I’ve been adding a new item to the playlist of women’s music every few days, and it turns out the goal of making it up to 100 items during the year means that it is never very far from my mind. I’m still thinking about the last one when it’s time to look for another.

So far, my search process is very informal. I think: which female composers do I know about, but not know very much of their music very well? I pick an example that seems rather different from the last one, and then have a furtle about in youtube. I can imagine I’ll have to get a bit more organised as I go on, but there is time for that later.

One thing that is abundantly clear already is what a wealth of music is readily available. The limitations on programming and curriculum decisions are really about the internal knowledge-scapes of the programmers and curriculum designers, not the lack of possible material. Looking at exam syllabuses and concerts and radio listings, you’d think things haven’t really progressed that much in 25 years, but we are so much better resourced for listening opportunities than a quarter of a century ago, it is really very cheering.

More Artistry in Amersham

AmershamJan17Tuesday last week took me down to Amersham to work with current LABBS chorus champions, Amersham A Cappella on the wonderful ballad that helped secure their gold medal back in October. For, they may already triumphed with it, but there was still more music to hidden within in, and my task was to help them bring it out.

The song is a 1950s adaptation of Chopin’s Etude in E major, which added words to the outer, melodic sections to turn it into a love song. The challenge for a pianist is how to string these relatively slow-moving notes together into a continuous line, given that every note on a piano dies as soon as it is struck.

Singers obviously have the advantage of being able to produce a genuine continuity of sound, but they still need to generate flow and flexibility out a line of even crotchets, and there is a lot to be learned from listening to how pianists handle this. So, I had sent some listening homework to the chorus in advance – three pianists’ performances, Jo Stafford’s classic recording of the ballad, and the Ambassadors of Harmony’s performance from the 2012 BHS International Convention – along with some commentary of what to listen out for.

Right Sex, Right Instrument

cottonbookLast week I attended a talk, hosted by the Balsall Heath Local History Society, by Maggie Cotton about her career as the UK’s first female percussionist in a professional orchestra. It bore the same title as her autobiography, ‘Wrong Sex, Wrong Instrument,’ which was the reason she was given, age 19, for being refused a grant to study at the Royal Academy of Music.

The talk was, as you can imagine, fascinating in many dimensions. My main focus in blogging about it is going to be the dimension of music and gender – unsurprisingly, given my interests as a musicologist all these years. But one of the striking things about the talk, notwithstanding its title, was how little gender obtruded into the stories. Most of the time it was a collection of tales from a percussionist, about her travels, about the instruments, about the conductors, composers and fellow players she had worked with.

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