January 2010

No Room at the Inn…

As you’ll see from the notice on the front page, I am not taking any new orders for bespoke arrangements for the time being. It’s not that I’ll be slowing down in my arranging activity – it’s just that I’m booked up now until September, and that’s enough for the time being.

It was towards the end of last summer that I decided to regulate the flow of arrangement commissions by scheduling two per month. I had been hammering hard at it for some months already, and the requests started to come in faster than I could cope with them. It wasn’t just that I wanted to do other things with my every waking minute (I rather like going out and working with real live singers as well, for example), it was that I was starting to feel almost bloated with the amount of music I was absorbing in the process.

So, having booked up the two slots per month this far ahead, I have decided to stop accepting commissions until nearer the time I will be able to fulfil them. This is for both pragmatic and artistic reasons.

Qubic Chordmastery

Chordmasters in actionChordmasters in actionI've just had a stimulating coaching weekend in Tadcaster, home of the John Smiths brewery. On Saturday I was working with Chordmasters, a subset of the Spirit of Harmony chorus based in the Vale of York, and on Sunday with the quartet Qube. Although all of Qube also sing with Chordmasters, it turned into two quite different coaching agendas, since Chordmasters were heading towards a major performance the following week, while Qube were working on material that’s very much work-in-progress for later in the year.

Soapbox: Over-analysed or Under-thought-out?

soapboxIn a recent email conversation about various musical matters, one of the participants accused the rest of ‘over-analysing’. Our ‘gut’ should tell us what the song is about, he said, and if we get caught in the ‘brain game’ we will lose the true essence of the music.

Now, I recognise the dangers he refers to. Emotional connection is vital to make music live, and an approach that lives in the purely technical part of the brain is unlikely to find anything very meaningful to say. And I don’t think you’ll ever find me arguing against the importance of intuition in realising a song’s expressive purpose.

Having said that, the idea that the ‘gut’ has access to more valid musical expression than the brain is clearly nonsense.

Singing Long Phrases

I’ve had several conversations with members of Magenta recently in which someone has said that they find it hard to have enough breath to last to the end of the phrase. In any choir, breath control is an ongoing project, but it is also something that individuals can continue between rehearsals. So this post is for them, and for anyone else who has ever run out of breath early (so that includes me, then….).

Key Choice

How to pick the correct key for an arrangement is a core part of our basic craft as arrangers, and there are standard ways of going about it. To begin with, there are the ‘typical’ ranges for each part, and you’d start off by seeing which key would leave the melody lying in the classic range for a lead.

There isn’t always a single obvious answer from this initial process, though. Very rarely, a tune sits well within the standard range, giving room to move it up or down; more often it is going to spill over at either top or bottom. The decision at this point is inflected by multiple considerations that may not all point to the same answer. Clearly there’s the question of who is going to sing it: preferred voice range is something I’ll always ask for a commission, and I prefer it if I know the sounds of the actual voices too. It’s always good to keep your lead happy, after all.

The End of Early Music?

Haynes2007I’ve been dipping into Bruce Hayne’s 2007 book The End of Early Music, and enjoying it in a somewhat argumentative way. It’s written in a lively fashion, in the tradition of and strongly influenced by writers such as Christopher Small and Richard Taruskin – writers who like to take what we thought we knew and reinterpret it until they jiggle us out of our complacency.

Some people find this kind of style irritatingly unscholarly, but it’s great teaching material. Nothing like a spot of outrage to awaken the critical faculties, after all. So I find it easy to like a book that includes sentences like: ‘There was a time when “AUTHENTIC” sold records like “ORGANIC” sold tomatoes’.

The Role of Boundaries in Art

In a conversation at Llangollen back in July, one of the Westminster Chorus guys made a throw-away remark that got me thinking: ‘Oh good, you’re a progressive,’ he said. It rather surprised me, and I had to stop and work out why. It’s not that I think of myself as not progressive, and frankly I’d be happy to accept any compliments on offer from good-looking, nice-mannered young men who can sing as well as they do.

I’m very well acquainted with the debates of progressive versus traditional values in barbershop: it’s something I’ve published on, and as a result found myself doing a rash of newspaper and radio interviews on the question in summer 2008. But I don’t tend to think of myself as having a strongly-held position. This is partly because of my scholarly relationship with the subject – I’m more accustomed to theorising than proselytising – but also because of the British barbershop organisations’ dependence on the American. It’s their bat and their ball and so we get to play by their rules. And I’m (usually, mostly) comfortable with that.

But the conversation got me thinking about why we have these discussions, and what purpose might be served by the stylistic boundaries they define.

How to Empower our Singers

One of the things I touched on in my guest post at Owning the Stage on Musical Performance and Flow last year was the question of how much a performer is in charge of what they do, and how much they are simply following other people’s instructions. This is important, because a sense of personal control is one of the five pre-requisites for attaining a flow state.

This is a potentially tricky issue for choral directors, since we spend a lot of our time asserting our control over what our singers do. We require them to watch our gestures, to listen to and act upon our instructions, to keep changing what they do until it matches our vision. There is a risk that our desire to refine and hone the choir’s performance may get in the way of the singers’ capacity to get into that zone where they perform their best.

So, it’s worth thinking about ways we can hand control back to our singers, without relinquishing our responsibilities to the ensemble and to the music.

How Much Do Wrong Notes Matter?

There was an interesting discussion a while back among Barbershop Harmony Society Music judges about how much wrong notes should (a) affect our scores when judging and (b) be a focus for our evaluations. There was a general sense that the odd wrong note wasn’t too big a deal – especially with groups of middling attainment, where the occasional duff note rather goes with the territory. Gross or persistent errors, meanwhile, would have a greater impact on scores and would therefore become a higher priority issue to deal with in feedback afterwards.

So far, all fine and obvious. But it got me thinking about two things – the different dynamic in choral versus one-a-part ensembles, and what wrong notes tell us about musicianship.

Voice Part and Character

Towards the end of last year, Chris Rowbury wrote an interesting post about why basses can’t remember their part. He starts off thinking it’s to do with gender stereotypes: ‘it’s just a bloke thing’. This is obviously the version which, in our school days saw girls as neat and clean and obedient versus boys as messy and disorganised, but which in adulthood somehow translates for women into a lifetime of picking up their husband’s socks. (So note: whenever people voluntarily adopt an ostensibly unflattering stereotype, there’s usually also something in it for them.)

Chris moves beyond this quite soon though, and locates the difficulty basses have in the interaction between three factors: the nature of the parts in the genres he’s working in, the learning methods used, and the make-up of the group.

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