Excellence

Jubilation with LABBS

Thanks to LABBS social media team for the pic!Thanks to LABBS social media team for the pic!

Last weekend saw the Ladies Association of British Barbershop singers convene in Bournemouth for their first full in-person Convention since 2019. The theme for the event was Jubilation, and there was a lot of joy in evidence, both in the performances and in the social interactions around the venue. It was great to be back.

One of the features of the barbershop contest traditions in normal times is that the winner of the chorus contest each year does not compete in the year immediately following. This means they can spend their championship year focusing on performing as champions, and preparing something special to perform at the convention at the end of the year rather than leaping straight back into preparing for their next contest.

On Assessment Systems for the Arts

Whilst I’m no longer directly involved in assessing music in either competitive or educational settings, I still regularly interact with a variety of institutions that use them, and so still find myself thinking about how they work. The users of these systems – competitors, examination candidates, and the teachers and coaches who support them – often have a slightly conflicted relationship with them. On the one hand, they value the external validation that the systems offer, while on the other, they don’t quite trust them to recognise the value of the artists they judge.

I recently saw a disgruntled teacher complain about the feedback a student had been given on the grounds that art is ‘subjective’ – and thus by implication that what the examiner had criticised could have been a legitimate choice rather than a flaw. This is one of those comments that is both totally right and maddeningly wrong; it captures an important truth but also misses a whole lot of simultaneously true things. And as it’s quite a common discourse for grumbling about assessment in the arts, I felt it was worth unpacking a bit.

Dynamic Times with Norwich Harmony

On Monday evening I zoomed in for an hour with the Music Team of Norwich Harmony. They are in the process of learning one of my arrangements and wanted to talk through several aspects of it as a way of both verifying and deepening their understanding of the music. They chose an ideal moment to have the session – they all clearly know the song well enough to know what kinds of questions it asks of them, but are still fluid in their conception of it.

A theme that came up in a couple of contexts was dynamic shaping. One team member remarked on the way the sheet music doesn’t contain any explicit indications (‘there aren’t any Ps and Fs’ is how she put it), but the music clearly doesn’t want to just to be all at one level.

On the Training of Perception

I recently eavesdropped on an interesting conversation. It was between the tutor and another participant on a wood-carving course I’d gone on, and it was about the teaching of visual art. They were discussing how the focus on a conceptual approach means people don’t necessarily learn specific technical skills. A particular anecdote was of a drawing class in which the instructor demonstrated how to draw a foot, using a method that produced a generic foot, rather than a specific representation of the actual foot of the person modelling for the class. People aren’t taught, they agreed, how to look.

The conversation moved on from there to a variety of techniques and exercises each of them had experienced that trained you to see what was in front of you in terms of the relationship between its constituent parts – the angles, the planes, the proportions – rather than in terms of your knowledge of what it actually is. You see most accurately, they suggested, when you dissociate vision from content.

On Privilege and Mediocrity

A chance encounter led me to reflect on a correlation I have noticed periodically over the years between self-satisfaction and mediocrity. There are people who present as plausible and urbane, charming and confident, yet whose actual achievements are rather ordinary.

Their written prose has the rhythm and cadence of authority, but the ideas remain shallow, smoothing over the surface of received opinion rather than offering any penetration of insight. Their musical performances likewise offer the general shape of what a good performance would sound like, but lack depth and nuance, and indeed are often also somewhat inaccurate – lack of attention to detail manifesting in multiple dimensions at once.

It occurs to me that most of the people I have encountered who fit this profile are male, all of them white, and they all speak with accents associated with levels of affluence that afford private education. They all, that is, enjoy multiple levels of social privilege. For the record, I’m generalising from a list of 7 or 8 specific examples here – a small sample in some senses, but enough to allow a pattern to emerge.

The Balanced Voice – Part 4: The nature of balance

Jansson's web of 'forcefields'Jansson's web of 'forcefields'My previous two posts in this series enumerated a variety of elements that need to be balanced in the singing voice, and we now have a good body of material to act as exemplars while we consider what we mean by the term ‘balanced’.

The archetypal image that comes to mind is a set of scales, with two weights suspended either side of a fulcrum, which come into equilibrium when equal in weight and distance from the centre. Or, of course, when the difference in weight is compensated for by a counter-balancing difference in distance. Even this simplest source metaphor carries within it the idea of a degree of flexibility – it’s not just equal quantities of things either side of the centre, it’s about their relationship to one another.

The Balanced Voice – Part 3: More elements of balance

So far we have explored the more concrete elements of balance in a voice – those to do directly with the use of the sound-producing body, and those to do with the acoustics of the sounds we hear. It is time to move on to balance in the more experiential dimensions. Here we are clearly working more metaphorically, counter-posing ostensible opposites within the singer’s awareness.

Experience of Self

The first cluster of opposites all relate to the singer’s executive control functions: to what extent do sing with a conscious awareness of what we’re doing, and to what extent do we lose ourselves in the music?

The Balanced Voice – Part 2: The elements of balance

In my first post in this series I talked about why I’ve been reflecting on the ideal sound of my imagination, and how the idea of a balanced voice has emerged as the primary organising metaphor to describe what I desire. Today I’m going to look at a variety of different dimension in which this metaphor plays out. It won’t be exhaustive, in the same way that imagination is never exhausted, but it will take the metaphor into a number of different modes of experience.

Physiological

The source domain for the concept of balance is physical experience, and so it makes sense to start here, where it applies literally.

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