January 2021

Melting People’s Brains at Cheshire Chord Company

I didn't get a screen-shot but CCC sent me this one:: numbers games in action!I didn't get a screen-shot but CCC sent me this one:: numbers games in action!On Thursday evening I popped in for a while on Cheshire Chord Company for a session billed as ‘online musicianship games’. As I told them at the start, when people tell you to explain what you do in 10 words, I say, ‘People sing to me and I mess with their heads’. I have a large repertoire of silly things to do that get people feeling like their brains are gently sizzling in butter; the word for this sensation is ‘learning’.

The challenge in planning a session like this is not finding material – I have been borrowing, adapting and inventing this stuff for years – but in crafting it into a longer session. In a regular rehearsal or coaching session I’d use these as ice-breakers, or attention-refreshers: short, intense bursts of brain-stretching silliness as a change from regular skills-based or repertoire-based work.

BABS Directors Academy: Thoughts on Identity and Values

Having outlined some of the practical and philosophical discussions stimulated by all three educators at the recent BABS Directors Academy in my last post, I wanted to stop and mull over some of the thoughts I’ve been having in response in the days since. These have that classic character of a rich learning experience where you feel the value and usefulness of the ideas to your life but also want to argue back at them.

I keep coming back to a wonderful quote, ostensibly from Picasso, which I came across in Abraham Kaplan’s book on choral conducting. I have no idea if it is genuine, but the wisdom is real even if the attribution is spurious:

The goal of an artist is to draw a perfect circle. Since a perfect circle cannot be drawn, the deviations from the perfect circle will express the artist’s own personality. But if the artist tries to express his own personality by concentrating on the deviations, he will miss the whole point.

BABS Directors Academy 2021

BABSDA2021Saturday held the annual director-training event from the British Association of Barbershop Singers. As with everything these days, it was virtual rather than live, and also therefore rather shorter than usual – 5 hours rather than nearly two days. And, as with everything, this brought some brightsides along with the dilution of experience.

We inevitably had much less opportunity to bond with and learn from our fellow directors (so much learning normally happens in the bar after dinner!), though it was still lovely to see their faces. But it did mean that we could enjoy two visiting educators from the US, Cindy Hansen and Greg Clancy, rather than the one that the budget would usually run to.

Along with a contribution from Linda Corcoran, director of the Great Western Chorus of Bristol, this generated some really interesting connections between sessions, and interactions between presenters. This was clearly not entirely an accident – there were clear connections between the themes of Greg’s session on musical identity and Cindy’s on branding – but Linda’s presentation pre-figured elements of both and gave a useful concrete case-study for everyone to refer back to.

On Schenker and Schenkerians

Sometime towards the back end of last year (I only happened across it in the last week) a group of European music theorists published an open letter in response to the events surrounding the Journal of Schenker Studies edition last summer about Phillip Ewell’s work. There are many aspects of it to raise an eyebrow, but I tripped over the first sentence of the second paragraph and got stuck there:

We were at first surprised that Prof. Ewell chose to illustrate his legitimate concern with the situation of the SMT and of American universities mainly by an attack against Schenker, who died almost a century ago.

My immediate response to this was:

We were surprised that anyone objected to the Confederate flag being waved inside the Capitol Building, as the civil war finished over 150 years ago.

Thoughts on Barbershop and Musical Comedy

The shibboleth in barbershop circles is that any attempt at comedy has, first and foremost, to be sung well if it is to work. The better it’s sung, the funnier people will find it. This post unpicks this assumption: there’s something to it for sure, but I don’t think it tells the whole story.

The reason why this generalisation seems generally plausible is, I think, because ‘well sung’ functions as an effective proxy for ‘thoroughly-rehearsed’ and ‘has high standards’. Ensembles that develop their skills in one of these dimensions typically improve in the others too. Lurking behind the truism is the memory of mediocre performances that were not very well executed as comedy, didn’t have enough jokes in them (those they did have being rather obvious), and that were also not very well sung.

But this is a case of correlation, rather than causation. It’s not necessarily the fact that they’re singing better that makes a successful group more funny. In fact, these two dimensions are at least moderately dissociable once you’re beyond the base level of ‘does the audience trust your skillset?’

Performance and Skill-Development

During the Telfordaires’ penultimate live rehearsal session of 2020, I found myself uttering words that I had not used since early February: ‘That’s about ready to perform, now.’ Not that we had anyone to perform to as yet – whilst we have negotiated our way round the logistics of covid-safe rehearsal, we are leaving the complications of adding an audience to the occasion until the Spring, when hopefully case numbers will be down and social occasions commensurately easier to manage.

[Edit: and between scheduling this post and its publication we went back into lockdown so we're not going to be rehearsing live for a bit now either. Deep sigh. Hang on in there, friends.]

But that moment got me reflecting once again on the relationship between performance and skill-development. I’ve written before about how the experience of performing repertoire contributes to its development in ways rehearsals can’t reach. To say something is ready to perform doesn’t mean that it’s a finished product (we’ve got plenty of work still to do on that song), but that it is at a stage when not only is it good enough to be worth sharing, but performing it will make it better.

The first thing that struck me was that the extent to which this process contributes to a choir’s development varies considerably depending on your typical performance patterns.

...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.

Archive by date

Syndicate content