July 2009

Musical Attention Spans

Attention span graphAttention span graphThe ‘end effect’ is something that is a mainstay of managing people’s attention quality in both teaching and rehearsal situations. In any one session of an activity, the best quality attention is just after the start (it takes a short while right at the outset to shed the distractions of daily life), and then it declines over time as people get both more tired and more accustomed to the activity. The low point comes somewhere between the 2/3 and 3/4 mark, and then something interesting happens. As we head towards the end, attention perks up again.

Now a couple of observations about this:

Is Singing Special?

singing group cartoonWell, of course singing is special and wonderful and a good way to spend your life. That’s not quite what I mean with the question. What I’m wondering is whether singing has particular attributes that makes it inherently different from other forms of musical participation such as playing instruments, or – I suppose – dancing.

Now if you get a bunch of voice specialists together (such as at the Phenomenon of Singing Symposium I recently attended in Canada), you will hear the following kind of assertions:

The Clap-Trap

I’m sure you’ve heard this happen: a choir reaches a dramatic pause after the climax towards the end of their performance, and some of the audience think they’ve finished and start applauding. The choir re-starts to sing the last bit of the song after the pause, and the applause fizzles out, and everyone sits there feeling a little bit awkward and thinking that they didn’t really get the benefit of the intended musical shape.

Enigmatic Signature

I spent a happy couple of days at the weekend working with Signature, LABBS chorus champions from 2006, and Enigma, a quartet from within their ranks who won the quartet contest the previous year. Something I found very interesting with both groups was being invited to work on music that was in a very early stage of the rehearsal process, and I think this is something that many groups would benefit from too.

What Counts as a Male Voice Choir?

An interesting debate around the definition of the ‘male voice choir’ arose at Llangollen, and it got people thinking about the relationship between ensemble membership, repertoire and performance style. The question was whether the term should be simply understood as a choir of male voices, or whether it should be understood to include the histories and practices of the major male voice choir traditions.

Inspirational or Insipid?

Inspirational songs present some specific and peculiar challenges for the close-harmony/a cappella arranger. But they’re challenges we have to meet, since the genre is popular with both singers and audiences, and people are going to keep asking for them. The basic problem is this: it is very easy to turn them into rather boring arrangements. So today I am going to try and figure out why this is, and how we can achieve the harder but more desirable end of turning them into interesting arrangements that live up to the passion people invest in the songs.

Choir of the World

On Saturday I had the pleasure and privilege to be among the adjudicators for the Pavarotti Choir of the World competition at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod. The competition forms the second half of that evening’s concerts, and features the winners of the five major adult choir classes from earlier in the Eisteddfod: mixed choirs, chamber choirs, male and female choirs and barbershop choruses. This was the third time I had been on the panel, and it was the best competition I have yet seen.

Soapbox: Powerless Presentations

soapboxOkay, so I’m hardly the first person to rail against the abuses committed with PowerPoint by presenters – but I find myself boggled at the really quite irritatingly basic errors being committed by people who are clearly intelligent and competent in their areas of specialism. And it’s not just PowerPoint – though that accursed software does offer apparently hard-to-refuse opportunities to screw up.

So, just let me get this off my chest. And if it helps someone avoid presenting in a counter-productive way, all the better. Because these issues are all about habits that make it harder for an audience to understand what you’re trying to tell them.

Far-Away Singing

Is it a coincidence that both the international singing events I’m attending this month are in rather beautiful places off the beaten track?

Last weekend I was in St John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador for the 7th biennial Phenomenon of Singing Symposium, and I could have stayed on for the associated choral festival called Festival 500:Sharing the Voices were it not for my commitments at Llangollen International Eisteddfod in North Wales. Both events attract people from all over the world and present a level of quality that one might not necessarily associate with ‘provincial’ or remote locations.

Teaching vs Learning

haroldThis toy is one of the key images that gradually came to mind in my early years of teaching to describe the process by which I was going through with my students. (Another was the Blue Paint Problem I wrote about back last winter.)

As a new lecturer, tasked with producing two hours per week of formal lecture material on ‘Beethoven and His Influence’, and an hour a week on ‘Aesthetics’ (between a miscellany of other classes on music analysis, history, study skills for musicians and a smattering of piano lessons) I was very focused on content. That’s a lot of material to prepare when you’re doing everything for the first time.

Production and Production Capacity in the Choral Rehearsal

One of the foundational concepts in Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is the distinction between production and production capacity.* Production is getting stuff done – generating whatever outputs a particular role is required to turn out. Production capacity is building the wherewithal to do this effectively – it doesn’t make the outputs itself, but it puts you in a better position to make them. This turns out to be a very useful distinction to help both devise individual rehearsal plans and long-term plans for a choir’s development.

Here Comes the Sun…

Magenta & guestsMagenta & guestsThe monsoon season arrived in Moseley on Monday night: just before 7 pm the skies opened and rain fell so hard that the drops bounced halfway back up to the sky. Nonetheless, intrepid souls from around the city paddled their way over to the Community Development Trust building for the close-harmony workshop Magenta were presenting as part of the Moseley Festival.

Our goal was to learn a brand new arrangement together. It’s a fun dynamic, because while Magenta’s regular singers have the confidence in their skill from singing together regularly, they are no further ahead on the specific song than the visitors, so they offer moral support at the same time as having to rise to the challenge themselves.

And it is an interesting challenge for me too.

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