Performing

Pitch and Paraverbal Expression

Last summer, Stefanie Schmidt visited the Telfordaires to lead a really interesting workshop on paraverbal markers: those elements of speech that don’t show up in written words but which carry so much extra information. Salience, attitude, strength of feeling, context all shine through in the inflections with which we pronounce anything we say.

A lot of singing technique involves, in the initial stages, learning to strip out the accidental lumps and bumps that these markers can insert into the vocal line. Two key elements of an effective legato are getting the tone running consistently through all notes, not just the ones that carry sense-laden meaning, and controlling consonants so they don’t add scoops or cut short vowels.

But the texts we sing still carry meaning, so part of learning to operate our voices at will is to be able to decide when and how to use paraverbal elements paramusically: articulation, timbre, dynamics.

Distraction Techniques in the Choral Rehearsal

A recurrent theme in the 3rd and 4th books of the Hitchhiker Trilogy is the technique of how to fly: you throw yourself at the ground, and miss. Obviously, the throwing bit is easy enough; the knack is to get sufficiently distracted during the brief moment before you hit the ground that you forget to finish the process. This leaves you suspended in the air, and the then trick for staying there, and indeed for swooping around and travelling about the place by flight, is not to think too hard about what you are doing.

Like many of Douglas Adams’s whimsies, this is both absurd and weirdly wise. Its very absurdity makes it a vivid metaphor for getting into that state where you can get on with stuff without crippling yourself with over-thinking or self-criticism. In Inner Game terms, it’s about silencing Self 1.

Developing the Vision with Route Sixteen

route16feb21I spent part of Thursday evening on zoom with my friends from Route Sixteen in Dordrecht. If covid had not come along, they would have recently have premiered an arrangement they commissioned from me as part of an ambitious concept set to defend their Holland Harmony championship, but instead they have spent the last year as we all have working round the limitations of our new circumstances to continue their musical journey as best they can.

They are still focused on bringing this concept package to fruition, either for the Dutch or the European barbershop conventions, whichever comes first, though they have found the vision adapting in some ways in response to the covid experience. We spent some time discussing the practicalities of how to rehearse and perform their ideas for staging as they emerge from lockdown.

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.

LABBS Quartet Day and the Subversion of Performativity

Elena from Sonic gives the executive summary of this postElena from Sonic gives the executive summary of this postFancy title, eh? This is what happens when a familiar event takes on an unfamiliar form: you learn all kinds of things about your ‘normal’ experience that might not have come into focus without the contrast. And sometimes the things you learn inspire the use of poncy words to articulate them.

The familiar event in this case is the quartet day at the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers convention. In a normal year, this would involve both the semi-finals and finals of the quartet contest, featuring those ensembles who had qualified to compete at a Preliminary event back in June that combines elements both of contest and of coaching. This year it was replaced by an invitation for all quartets registered with LABBS to submit a video of up to 5 minutes; and almost 40 quartets ended up contributing.

Thoughts on Performance and Skill-Development

Over the autumn and winter I found myself teaching two courses designed to bring relative novices up to a decent foundational level of skill. One was the Initial conducting course for the Association of British Choral Directors that took place on four Saturdays in Newcastle between October and February. The other was the Learn to Sing in Harmony course hosted by the Telfordaires for 90 minutes each week on our first six rehearsals of the new year.

I found myself having the same conversation with more than one person on each of these courses, where they would remark that they had practised at home and were confident they could do a particular musical task, but when came to the next session it suddenly became much harder. In the former case, it was about how the beat patterns for 2, 3 and 4 seem simple until you add other things them like cueing, or indeed listening to the singers you are leading at the same time. In the latter, it was about how you can sing your part perfectly well by yourself, but it becomes a lot harder when you add the other three parts into the mix.

Mo Field on the Needs of an Audience

One of the many things that ended up in my notebook under the heading ‘To think about later’ from LABBS Harmony College back in April was something guest educator Mo Field said about what an audience is looking for in performers. It now appears to be later, and my brain is ready to think about it.

In summary, the three things she listed were:

1. Is this competent? (Can they trust your skill-set?)
2. Can they believe you? (Are you saying something that matters to you?)
3. Is it relatable? (Are you saying anything that matters to them?)

The first thing to note is that these are both sequential and hierarchical. Until the listener is reassured that they’re safe in your hands from the perspective of your capacity to operate your instrument/ensemble, they’re not going to have any attention to give to the content of what you do. Assuming you are indeed competent, they’ll move on pretty much immediately to engage with your content.

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