Choral

The Myth of the Power of Singing: An Essay in 5 Parts

This is the first instalment of a series of blog posts that turns a self-critical eye on the stories choral practitioners tell to ourselves about ourselves and what we do. It is based on the paper I was invited to present at Dublin City University’s Choral Research Study Day back in November 2019, of which it formed a subsidiary part of a wider discussion around how the scholar-practitioner copes with the inherent contradictions between their roles as impartial observer and as advocate.

I have wondered whether it is entirely kind to publish it at a time when choral practitioners are keenly feeling the loss of both the social and musical nourishment our regular activity would bring us. But then again perhaps now is an appropriate time for reflection; maybe we’ll have more perspective on our work at a time when we can’t actively engage in it. And at a pragmatic level: this is something I’ve been thinking about blogging about for years but now is the first time I’ve had enough of a hiatus in the other things I’d normally be writing about to make space for it. (And indeed I may interrupt the series with other things as they come up.)

Ah well, here goes.

Warming-up the Conductor-Choir Bond

It feels strange writing about the intimate real-time contact between conductor gesture and choral sounds at a time when I have been unable to experience it for three months and will likely have to wait many more before I can experience it again. But there are some interesting notes sitting in my thinking book from earlier in the year and now is as good a time as any to reflect on them.

Sometimes when I’m visiting a chorus to coach, the director might ask me to take the warm-up. I’ll always oblige because I too enjoy watching other people lead warm-ups, seeing what they do and how they do them. Part of what they’re paying for when getting an outsider in is approaches they may not have thought of (the other part of course being validation of good things they do already).

Book Review: Singing Through Change

singingthroughchangeTl;dr: this is a useful book, and you should read it.

Singing Through Change: Women’s Voices in Midlife, Menopause, and Beyond is, as you would imagine, relevant to the vast majority of people involved in singing. If you are a man who never makes music with adult women it may not touch on your activities very much (though you may well have female friends and relatives who would be happy for the men in their life to have some insight into their experiences), but for everyone else there will be direct relevance either for yourself, for the women you make music with, or both.

Singing, Safety, and Double Glazing

This is possibly not the metaphor you were expecting, but bear with me, I have found it a useful one for thinking about our current choral predicament.

If you’ve seen windows being fitted, you’ll know that the frames are installed first, and then the double-glazed units are inserted, and wedged into place with a strip of rubber seal all round the edge. If you’ve ever had problems with your double glazing, you may have learned that the seal will keep most of the rain out, but is unlikely to (and indeed not intended to) keep it all out. Instead, the frames are designed to drain the water that gets in back outside. (If the installers drill the holes out on the wrong side, they drain into your house instead of outside; DAMHIK.)

Likewise, whilst the installers will squeeze mastic all round the join between frames and wall, this is also not intended to be the primary means to keep the water out. The structure should be designed so that rain doesn’t get in, and the mastic serves as draught-proofing and to repel any minor seepage.

Remote Rehearsing and Trust

When I asked the Telfordaires Music Team what we’d look back on this period and see as something we gained from it, our bass section leader Eddie identified increased levels of trust within the chorus. This not only warmed my heart, but offered some interesting thoughts to reflect on about the structure of activities and how they shape relationships within a group.

When he talked about trust, Eddie was thinking primarily about the way the practicalities of remote rehearsing mean people spend much more time singing to each other than singing together. It makes you feel more vulnerable to do this, but by the same token your fellow singers are moved to be more supportive in recognition of this. We do much of this in smaller groupings – sections, pairs/threes – so that it’s a more personal and private environment in which to put yourself on the line. This also allows reciprocity – if everyone is taking it in turn to do this, everyone is in the same boat.

Into the Wilderness

The choral world is currently processing the consensus that emerged last week that singing in groups is one of the highest risk activities for spreading Covid-19 and that we shouldn’t expect to restart rehearsals until there’s an effective vaccine.* There’s a fair bit of denial going on, and occasional anger (to be expected, as the first stages of grief), but we are collectively gradually moving on to ask: okay, so now what?

Before all this broke last week, I had scheduled a post on a thought experiment about what it would take to return to normal, but I deleted it as it was overtaken by events. I suppose it’s worth noting that the primary thing I was contemplating as a pre-requisite for a return to rehearsal – a robust contact-tracing regime – may still actually be fine for those countries like New Zealand and South Korea that have succeeded in getting their community transmission rates right down. But for those of us in the UK and US where not only are transmission rates still high, but there doesn’t appear to be much political will to reduce them, the advice that we shouldn’t revert to our beloved super-spreading habits until there’s a vaccine remains more realistic for now.

So, now we are staring the despair in the face, what do we do?

Soapbox: The Mute Button and the Abuse of Power

soapboxOne of the standard bits of etiquette in remote rehearsing, and indeed any other large-group gathering via video-conferencing platforms, is that you spend most of the time with most people’s microphones turned off. This way you can cough without the focus of the conversation highlighting your discomfort, and nobody else is distracted by the dogs barking from your next-door neighbour’s garden.

All good so far. But I have nonetheless felt uncomfortable when choral colleagues joke about how they wish they could have a ‘mute all’ button when they go back to normal rehearsals. Call me humourless, but aren’t you just saying by this that you run inefficient rehearsals that leave dead space for nattering? Or is it that you like to exert your leadership by fiat, rather than by consent? Either way, cutting across people to shut them up feels rude; if you wouldn’t go and stick a piece of masking tape over someone’s mouth mid-sentence in real life, then you wouldn’t want to slam on a 'mute all' button online.

Remote Rehearsing: Some Specifics

So I thought I had probably gone on enough about this, until a chat with a friend, who said, amongst other things:

I don't want to burden you but I feel like if you were to post something quite directive with specifics on what functions to use on Zoom (which is surely what everyone is using) with some sample vocal activities that work with those, you would really be the hero of the moment and carry barbershop forward while there is serious floudering going on

It may be that there is only the one person in the world who wants more from me about this, but this is for her. Anyone else is welcome to share though :-)

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