Abcd Research Developments, Part 2

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Having contemplated some broad themes in my previous post about the research strand at the recent abcd Choral Leaders Festival, I’d like to pick out a few interesting cross-references between the papers. There were four speakers reporting on projects undertaken for advanced degrees in the strand sessions, plus the plenary keynote presented by Dr Katie Overy, all of which addressed topics that would make choral practitioners say, ‘Ooh yes, we want to know about that!’

But it’s in the resonances between them that you really feel the value of a event like this, rather than just reading their findings as published articles. Not that I object to reading articles, you understand. The published format offers other strengths – the opportunity for the author to cover more detail, and for the reader to take time to think about things en route. But it doesn’t offer the same kind of creative opportunities as a live event, where the ways in which the papers bounce off each other spark insights beyond what they each offer individually.

So, here are the things that I came away wanting to think about further:

  • The role of ‘key people’ in a choir. This came up in two contexts. Michael Bonshor’s work on factors affecting choir members’ confidence included the humbling (for that audience) point that the conductor wasn’t necessarily the most significant factor here, compared to the influence of other singers. A big part of that was the perception of some singers as ‘key’ to a section and/or to the group as a whole.

    This qualitative finding was given some fascinating corroboration by Richard Seaton et al’s statistical work that charted pitch drift week-on-week against attendance records. It only really showed up in groups that produced a large data set, but where there were records for the full 20 weeks of his study there were clear patterns of particular individuals’ influence on pitch retention (or not).

    This was particularly interesting to me because I had started out wondering if this study’s deliberate exclusion of all psychological factors as possible causes for pitch drift in favour of the explicitly measurable had in fact thereby removed what was potentially the most important issue. I am currently working on a paper that posits underconfidence as a primary cause for his subject of irregular pitch drift (i.e. that happens sometimes but not always - as opposed to dropping habitually), and in my working life I treat tonal centre as a significant index of a choir’s emotional state.

    But when cross-referenced with the qualitative findings from Bonshor’s paper, Seaton’s determinedly empirical research design provided a really interesting triangulation on my working hypothesis. People report feeling more or less confident depending who else is there; people sing more or less in tune depending who else is there. It doesn’t directly demonstrate causation, but it is a very interesting correlation.

  • The eloquence of conductors. This came up first in Dan Miller’s account of interviews with prominent choral conductors. It wasn’t directly related to his research questions, but he was struck in the process of doing the interviews how fluently and vividly all his respondents spoke. This got me thinking about my observational finding in my second book that, just as more complex concepts in speech are accompanied by more complex speech-accompanying gestures, those conductors with a more nuanced and varied gestural vocabulary also tended to use more vivid and interesting imagery in their verbal instructions.

    Then Mary Black came along with her paper on the use of imagery in rehearsal, analysing its uses and the causes for its effectiveness. So, I found myself even less surprised to hear that Miller’s research subjects chosen for their track record as accomplished conductors all happened also to be effective speakers. If they weren’t, they may not have achieved the professional success they were selected for.

  • A lack of interest in conducting gesture. This came out of both Bonshor’s and Miller’s papers. In the former, it was the amateur choral singers who weren’t terribly interested in conductor gesture – in some cases even saying they didn’t really know what it meant. In the latter, it was the professional conductors who underplayed its importance in relation to other aspects of their craft.

    To those of us who spend time teaching people how to do beat patterns, this could be seen as rather discouraging. But I think it also may be a case of the top-level conductors having transcended this level of technique so thoroughly that they’ve stopped being concerned about it.

    The interesting corollary to this point was, though, that both sets of respondents were very interested indeed in body language. Which is something that conductors-in-development are apt to forget in the focus on what they’re doing with their hands. It is always useful to be reminded that the way we inhabit our total selves has far more impact on the choral sound and experience than any individual gesture may have.

  • Specificity. This first came up as a theme in Katie Overy’s keynote, in the context of designing research questions: she encourages her research students to think very clearly about what they are trying to discover in order to produce meaningful results. It re-emerged as a theme in Michael Bonshor’s paper in the context of feedback to choirs: how specific feedback is experienced as helpful and therefore supports confidence, even if it is critical, whereas vague, generalised feedback saps confidence, even if it is complimentary.

    It occurred to me on reflection that Mary Black’s paper on imagery gave us another example in a different dimension. Figurative language is by its nature concrete, and therefore specific. You sometimes get people dismissing metaphors as an airy-fairy approach because it uses an imaginative register to address technical matters, but asking for more ‘glitter’ in the sound is arguably a much more efficient and followable instruction than, say, asking singers to increase the proportion of higher partials in their tone. It is also more precise than a generalised request for brightness of tone (which is what adding higher partials will do), as it provides a particular instance or type of brightness as the intended model. You could analyse the result to identify the exact acoustic correlate of the metaphor, but good luck with using that data to help a choir sing better.

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