March 2009

Effecting Change 4: Re-refreezing

Once we have persuaded people to let go of their previous habits, and changed the way they are performing something, we need to make sure that they will retain the change as a regular part of how they perform. There are two elements to this part of the process:

  • Consolidate and keep moving
  • Anchor the changes in the organisational culture

Effecting Change 3: How to Transform

This is the third in a series of posts about using Kotter’s model of organisational change as a way to conceptualise the rehearsal process. Once we have unfrozen people from their entrenched ways, we are ready to make the change. Like the unfreezing process, Kotter breaks this down into three constituent elements:

  • Communicate your vision
  • Empower people to clear obstacles
  • Secure short-term wins

Effecting Change 2: How to Unfreeze

In my last post, I looked at how Kotter’s model of organisational change might relate to rehearsal processes in the broad scale. Today and in my next two posts, I’m going to dig a bit deeper into the detail to garner some clues about not just what needs to happen, but how we can make it happen.

Effecting Change Effectively

One of the interesting things that happens when amateur musicians build themselves a training infrastructure is that they bring an incredible breadth of skills and knowledge from different walks of professional life and apply them to improving the ways they make music. Thus it was that in the early years of the British Association of Barbershop Singers annual Directors College that Chris Davidson introduced me to John Kotter’s model of how to effect institutional change.

Chris was presenting the ideas in the context of how a director can change a chorus’s culture, working habits and skill levels over periods of weeks and months – and indeed that is the most direct parallel to the changes in businesses that the model was derived from.

But I have been fascinated over the years with how the model might work on the micro-level – to the myriad changes we make each week in rehearsal.

New Book!

Me and my Magnum OpusMe and my Magnum OpusWell, the new book has arrived! The project was first sketched out in December 2002, when I was part-way through writing my first book, and I started in on it in earnest in October 2003 after The British Barbershopper had been packed off to Ashgate for publishing. The first year consisted of bibliographical groundwork, and then I started visiting choirs in rehearsal in September 2004. I put together a book proposal over summer 2005, and finally got the contract agreed with Ashgate in spring 2007.

At that time, I also made an application to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for research leave to write the book up. That would have given me 8 months to write 90,000 words - 4 months funded externally, and 4 months provided by my own institution. Did you know that it is possible to have a funding application rated as 'highest priority for funding' and still turned down? Fortunately, Birmingham Conservatoire still honoured the 4 months they had offered as part of the funding bid, so I compressed my schedule and knuckled down to writing from December 2007-March 2008.

Bowdlerising Marmalade

marmaladeMy arrangement of Lady Marmalade for the quartet dIVa is coming out of its exclusivity period and into my main catalogue tomorrow, so it seemed like a good moment to talk about some of the challenges this song presented in terms of suitability to performer.

There are two well-known versions of this song, the original from the 1970s and the more recent version from Moulin Rouge . Both tell a story of a man enjoying extraordinarily good sex in a brief encounter with Lady Marmalade, which then haunts his memories back in real life. The original is set in New Orleans, while the movie version is moved to the Moulin Rouge.

Now this song might present some feminists with a problem in the way it positions the female performers in the persona of a woman defined entirely in terms of the sexual services she can perform for men.

Silver Lining

silver liningLast Wednesday I spent a fun evening with Silver Lining chorus in Coventry. It was the last session of a learn-to-sing course they’ve been running over the last few weeks, which has been both successful and popular. My session was intended as a transition from the course into the new repertoire the chorus would be starting with the participants who chose to stay on, and involved teaching a short version of my arrangement of Mamma Mia preparatory to the chorus learning the full version.

Now the challenge we set ourselves was not merely to learn all four parts of a song in a single evening, but for all singers to learn all four parts. This is possibly not as insane as it may sound, since I had originally written the arrangement for a workshop Magenta ran on the same lines, so I had designed the parts to be easily learnable. (One thing that really keeps you honest as an arranger is when you know you’ll have to teach everything you write down.) Still, it was a reasonably challenging task for singers who are accustomed to singing a single part, and learning that from a recording at their leisure. There were some who really didn’t believe we would make it!

In fact, the singers did a fabulous job.

Connoisseurship and Peculiarity

I recently had the pleasure of judging at the pan-European barbershop convention in Veldhoven, Holland. I noticed some interesting things about performance style that led me to reflect on how traditions develop in relationship to their audiences.

The thing that I particularly noticed was the barbershop delivery style that rushes through all the little words in a phrase and draws out all the phrase-end embellishments. (I’ve also written about this from a somewhat different perspective in my first book.) What struck me was the very coherent, or at least consistent, patterns of distortion this approach applied to the music. It reminded me of those dolls that map the density of nerve endings in the human body by enlarging the areas that are more sensitive. So you get a model with huge hands and tongue, and titchy elbows – a very distorted figure, but one that makes sense in its own way.

I was thinking about the process by which a performing tradition produces this kind of consistent distortion, and I think it’s to do with connoisseurship – i.e. a small, specialist audience – and with competition.

Audience intimacy and good manners

It is something of a truism that getting intimate with your audience is a Good Thing. It shows trust and honesty, and will give them a more genuine human experience. But is this a one-dimensional value? Is it the case that more intimate is always inherently better?
Whose little girl?Whose little girl?

I ask this because of something that David Wright said on a recent visit over here. He was quoting Val Hicks (and I think that Val:David = David:me in terms of capacity to supply really useful things to think about) on psychic distance. This is the obligation to leave the audience room to use their own imaginations. If you are singing about a little girl, let the audience think about their own little girls. If you mime holding the baby, you are making the little girl your own and taking away the audience’s power to contribute their own meanings. Literal staging can thus be an invasion of the audience’s imaginative space.

This resonated with one of the nonverbal communication theories I examine in Choral Conducting and the Construction of Meaning: the intimacy equilibrium model.

Arranging with no sharps or flats

Close harmony styles are traditionally harmonically rich. The earliest accounts of what came to be known as barbershop harmonies in late-nineteenth-century America tell of the participants’ pleasures in discovering ever more rich and outré chords. Jazz styles later extended the harmonic vocabulary: while barbershop officially resisted the encroachment of ‘modern’ (i.e. swing) chords, barbershoppers unofficially found that the prohibition made the new dirty chords even more enticing.

But these days, ‘modern’ no longer means tunes from the 1930s, and groups that want to sing music their audiences recognise find that more recent pop is generally less harmonically rich than older popular traditions, shifting its focus much more onto rhythm and timbre as central points of interest. Richness of chording is no longer an index of hipness.

What makes an embarrassing performance?

embarrassedWe’ve all been present at performances that made us squirm. We describe them as cringingly bad, as awkward, as embarrassing. Mostly we don’t think about them more than we have to – rather we get irritated at how the memory of them sticks around in our heads like a nasty taste or funny smell. But if we do stop to think about them at all, we usually put our response down to lack of skill on the performers’ part.

But we’ve also all been to performances that weren’t very skilled but that were nonetheless not embarrassing. We might be slightly patronising about them – calling them sweet, or heartfelt, or well-meaning – but we don’t resent the experience. Embarrassing performances are not just about lack of skill.

What I think is going on is based in the structure of empathy between performer and audience.

Quick Fixes

Something that I’ve found striking when training or coaching novice and/or amateur choral directors is how often they express a desire for ‘quick fixes’. I used to think of this as rather shallow, rather like wanting some kind of miracle pill to make you healthy and beautiful rather than making the effort to eat properly and take some exercise. Directing singers is a more holistic and deep-thinking activity than that, I thought.

Last year I had an experience while coaching a barbershop chorus that put the whole thing in a new light, however.

Singing Semitones

night and dayMagenta has been working on my arrangement of Night and Day recently, which has a lot of chromatic movement in the harmony parts (not my fault – Cole Porter wrote it that way). We’ve been tackling this by developing our sense of scale degrees, and the notes between them.

This is all part of my general campaign to encourage people to conceive pitch in terms of tonal context rather than in terms of intervals. I have had a clear rationale for this for some time, but recently had one of those revelatory experiences which made me realise why it was even more important in the case of semitones.

So, the basic reason to think in terms of scale degrees rather than intervals is to avoid the problem of transferred error.

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