Excellence

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.

The Balanced Voice – Part 1: Introduction

After the long hiatus, the opportunity to hear voices singing live in real time – both solo and ensemble – has found me reflecting anew on what I most value in what I’m hearing. This is partly a response to remedial needs, to hearing voices that are in varying degrees out of practice, and having to re-imagine the ideal they need to find their way back to. But it’s also simply a function of the opportunity to listen with fresh ears after a year and more’s diet of processed recorded sound.

Bringing these reflections to written form has taken longer than I thought it might – my notes on the subject started back in the Spring – and has also spread out into a series of linked posts which will appear over the next few weeks in between other items more tied to specific events. Today’s post will explore the global ideas that shape my reflections, the second and third will break it down into a range of elements that contribute to it, and the last will return to the holistic level, to consider the kind of structure and relation between those elements implied by the various metaphors in play.

On the Aesthetics of Perfection/Imperfection

We strive to perfect our musical performances, yet the idea that something can be too perfect remains a perennial counter-narrative in musical aesthetics. As far back as the early 19th century, ETA Hoffmann and Carl Maria von Weber celebrated musical imperfections as signifiers of honesty and authenticity, in contrast to the artifice of high skill.

Roland Barthes’ famous essay ‘The Grain of the Voice’ similarly saw the polish of a classically-trained tone as smoothing away the individuality of the singer, in contrast to the vocal texture of vernacular styles, which he heard as vehicle for the singers’ physicality and life history.

Even more recently, Deke Sharon applied this criticism to barbershop in his keynote address at Harmony University in 2018. By prioritising continuity of ring over all other communicative elements, he suggested, the genre creates a shiny sonic carapace that can serve to keep outsiders at a distance, even while it affirms those in the know.

Soapbox: Technical Difficulty is not the Same as High Standards

soapboxToday’s opinion piece arises from a conversation about an arrangement I was helping an ensemble with recently. They liked the song but were concerned that the chart might be too hard for them. My view was that the arranger had placed quite a lot of unnecessary obstacles in their path.

Ah yes, came the reply, but that arranger is working with [an ambitious up-and-coming group] and sets the bar high.

I’m not saying what the chart was, or who the people involved are, as it’s really not about them personally, it’s about the ideas that emerged in this exchange. There are any number of other examples that I could be equally opinionated about, it’s just this one sparked me to return to writing on a theme long-time readers will have seen before.

Thought Experiment: Can’t Get No Dissatisfaction

A recent conversation in a barbershop arrangers facebook group has got me thinking about the role of dissatisfaction in creativity. Participants were sympathising with each other over the experience of working on a chart, and knowing it isn’t yet right, but struggling to figure out how to make it work. Anybody in any creative endeavour (and I mean that in the widest possible sense) will be having a sympathetic sigh at that thought.

I initially thought my reflections would be leading to revisit the idea of decision fatigue. There are only so many decisions we can make in any one day, and one of the points of routine is to automate as many as possible to free up cognitive capacity for the projects where you want to make some new happen. The pandemic has blown all our previous-established routines out of the water, so anyone who finds themselves too tired after work to make much progress in their arranging is not failing. They’re just having their creative capacities consumed by things other than music.

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.

Socially Distanced Singing, and Other Practice Gadgets

Socially-distanced rehearsingSocially-distanced rehearsing

One of the responses to my recent post On Singing Solo Safely talked about how the rehearsal protocols we need for live rehearsing also affect the sense of safety singers experience in rehearsal:

Singing in masks and socially distanced is another example where the safety of the wall of sound disappears and singers can often only hear themselves.

To which I’d add singing outside and in smaller groups as other things that dilute the sonic envelope around us. Indeed, of all of these, singing in masks is the least of our problems; they may feel like they symbolically gag us, but their effects on the music are minimal compared to the effects of the inverse-square law of sound.

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