Capital Re-Connection

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On Sunday I went back to coach my friends in West London on the songs they will be taking to Llangollen International Eisteddfod in July. It’s amazing how fast four hours can zip by working on three songs! I was pleased to discover that they had really internalised the work we did last month on the blue notes in ‘At Last’ and made that feel their own, which freed us up to explore other aspects of the music.

On the way home, I spent quite a lot of time reflecting on the coaching process, and in particular the way that barbershop’s particular musical practices set up some significant cognitive challenges for singers.

While some of the singers in Capital Connection read music, quite a lot of them learn their parts from recorded ‘teach tracks’ – and everybody, whether they read music or not, sings the music from memory in rehearsals and coaching sessions.

It is one thing to sing music continuously from memory, but it is quite another to constantly dip in and out of it. When you rehearse from sheet music, you have an external referent to locate you in a piece, so it is much much easier to pick up from any arbitrary point. But rehearsing from music stored in memory requires you to stand back from the mental map you have of the piece – you have to recall the piece as separate from yourself before you can mentally refer to it. This is probably more challenging for people who have learned entirely by ear, since music-readers will probably carry some kind of visual memory of the sheet music to help this process of random access.

On top of this cognitive challenge of just navigating the music, the coaching process then asks people to change what they do. So the internalised concept of the music they have to refer to is actually a moving target. So, these two imperatives – the requirement to store music in memory, and the requirement to update and develop the performance of it – exist in a permanent state of tension. The more embedded the internal structure, the harder it is to change; the more fluid and over-writeable it is, the more likely it is to suffer inconstancies of memory.

But this tension and its concomitant cognitive overhead is, I think, what makes the coaching process productive, since it forces people into continuously having to re-imagine the music. When people are at the rote-learning stage of a song, they are mostly just focused on being able to sing their own part accurately – until they can do that, they don’t have much attention to spare for other things. But that necessarily means that their first relationship with the music is developed at quite a basic and as yet under-nuanced level. The challenge is thus how to move to richer imaginative pastures without being pulled back into the fundamental habits formed when first learning the song. As one of the singers remarked to me in a break on Sunday, it’s much harder to change something learned wrong than it would have been to learn it right in the first place – and those basic habits are just as powerful in the vocal and imaginative dimension as they are with simple accuracy.

So, the demands of shunting back and forth within the song are what permits improvement to happen. It forces people out of the habitual relationship with their part, and makes them dismantle and rebuild their concept of the music in a wider sense. If the first stage of learning a song is absorbing it, making it part of yourself, the next stage is to create some internal distance from it so you can look at it afresh.

And it occurred to me after mulling on this for a while (about when I passed Oxford, I think – funny how thinking when travelling gets ideas imprinted on locations along the route) that people talk in similar terms to this about emotional maturity. When you are young you just feel what you feel – there is no distinction between your emotional responses and the ‘you’ that experiences them. Part of growing up is developing the capacity to reflect on one’s feelings, to question them, and thence both to understand them and even inflect them. They are still part of you – they are not separate from you the way that sheet music is – but you can open up a bit of distance between your experience and the ‘I’ that thinks about them.

What I haven’t yet figured out is whether this parallel between developing depth of musicianship and developing emotional maturity is just a metaphor – a way for us to understand things by framing them in terms of something to which they bear a resemblance – or whether artistic activity such as detailed rehearsal of music is a means to develop our emotional competencies.

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