June 2010

Soapbox: On Rehearsal Preparation

soapboxI have had a conversation with choral conducting students on a number of occasions over the years in which they confess to anxiety in taking rehearsals because their sight-singing is a bit variable in accuracy. Now, feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility of taking rehearsals I can perfectly understand – I tend to think that anyone who starts out thinking it’s easy has not grasped quite what the level of the challenge is. And wanting to improve your sight-singing is always a good idea.

But if the source of your rehearsal worries lies in intermittent sight singing, there is a simple and obvious solution in your preparation.

Celebrating Peter Johnson

Prof. Peter JohnsonProf. Peter JohnsonOn Wednesday lunchtime, Birmingham Consevatoire held a concert to celebrate the work of Professor Peter Johnson on the occasion of his retirement. As a long-time friend and colleague of Peter's, I was invited to say a few words and to have the privilege of presenting his leaving gift, volumes from Catalogue d’Oiseaux. Peter's work has had a profound impact on both my own research and my relationship with my own praxis over the years, so I thought it would be appropriate to make those public thanks even more public by posting them here.

I first heard of Peter when I was a postgraduate student, and some friends who were doing PhDs in the then very new area of performance studies came home from a conference bubbling over with excitement and talking about somebody called Peter Johnson who was ‘doing the most amazing things with tuning’. As first impressions go, I think he’d be okay with that. I then met Peter myself at various conferences during the 1990s and so when a lectureship came up here in 1999, it was the knowledge of his work that gave me the confidence that my own research could find a safe home here.

Peter’s most remarkable talent is for integration.

On Presence

I recently received an email from Dr Carl Smith, a choral director based in El Paso, discussing among other things ideas from the book Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman. In particular, he was interested in the idea of ‘savoring’, and how that might intersect with the conductorly notion of charisma. He said:

To Seligman, "savoring" is is "...the awareness of pleasure and of the deliberate conscious attention to the experience of pleasure." Perhaps another way to describe the term is "being in the moment."

I have very recently learned (and am STILL learning!) to focus on what is happening right in front of me NOW and enoying the pleasure. In choral rehearsal at with the small church choir I conduct, it means to listen intently with a smile and with positive feedback to myself and the singers. IS THAT A PART OF "CHARISMA?"

My immediate response was: good question.

Creativity and Genre

In a comment on my last post, Chris Rowbury made the following point:

Re: listening to other people's work. I agree up to a point. An analogy: when play writers want to get stuff onto Radio 4, they are encouraged to listen A LOT to the afternoon play. What then happens is they end up writing stuff that sounds just like all the other stuff in that slot. You can spot a Radio 4 afternoon play a mile off. I can spot a barbershop arrangement a mile off. But I sit up and notice when something is REALLY original.

I started to reply to him there, but his point is so interesting that I decided to focus on it for a whole post in its own right.

How Do I Get More Creative as an Arranger?

Last year, over on the Facebook group for Barbershop Arrangement and Composition, Jim Emery raised the following question:

I do actually have several arrangements that are OK but not stellar. One was performed in contest by my international competitor level quartet. Several others found their way to our quartet CD. But they seem kind of vanilla. Short of just "getting more creative", I'd love to exchange ideas for how to approach sprucing them up.

(Actually, while I’m at it I’ll make this implicit plug for the FB group more explicit. It’s not maybe as active as it might be, but it has some really good people involved in it, and has a wonderful range of experience, from relative beginners to some of the biggest names out there. If you’ve not been over there, do go check it out.)

Anyway, Jim’s was one of those questions that has stayed with me. He’s really put his finger on a particular dilemma: it’s all very well to recognise that you want your arrangements to be more creative, but how do you go about making that happen?

Tone Quality and Intonation

Earlier this week, Tim Sharp posted an entry on ChoralNet’s blog with this title. ChoralNet’s daily digest is one of the few regular emails I sign up to, and most days I get a ‘Hm, looks interesting – might pop over to that’ moment. This time, though, I had a real ‘ooh goody, gotta go there now!’ moment when I read that title.

As ever, though, Tim wrote the blog post he wanted to write rather than the one I wanted him to have written. Not complaining – it’s a good post and well worth going over there for a read – but still it remains that the main reason you become a writer is because other people insist on writing to their own agendas instead of yours. So, this post is about what I thought he was going to say when I read that title.

Matching Pitch

Back in 1996, when Highcliffe Junior Choir won the title of Sainsbury’s Youth Choir of the Year, I heard their founder-director Mary Denniss make a comment in an interview that has stayed with me ever since. She was asked if she ever had children join the choir who couldn’t sing in tune. ‘Well, yes, of course,’ she replied, ‘but they pick it up after a while.’

It wasn’t just that she was so pragmatic that struck me, it was the fact that she said it so kindly. It occurred to me that much of her success in turning ordinary school children into one of the country’s best choirs lay in this calm and confident trust in her singers’ ability to learn.

Royce Ferguson in Action

Royce Ferguson with the Cottontown ChorusRoyce Ferguson with the Cottontown ChorusAt the BABS convention last week I had the opportunity to observe Royce Ferguson coaching Bolton’s Cottontown Chorus. Royce is best known in the barbershop world as the director who took the Westminster Chorus to their first two international chorus medals in 2006 and 2007. It is not surprising therefore that he is in considerable demand as a coach and he is becoming a regular visitor to the UK in that capacity.

In his work with Cottontown he focused on the integrity of tone, on maintaining a sound that was neither breathy nor pushy. Indeed, he identified putting energy behind a breathy tone as the primary cause of vocal strain. He relentlessly insisted on a refinement of tone in which the voice is ‘always connected but never heavy-handed’. It is an active tone, not a passive one, which needs constant attention to keep it centred. He talked a lot about letting the natural beauty of the sound resonate without feeling the need to do things to it:

BABS Convention 2010

HIC's integrated social spaceHIC's integrated social space

The last weekend in May saw Britain’s barbershoppers return to one of their favourite venues for this year’s BABS Convention. The Harrogate International Centre provides not only a good-sized auditorium and enough ancillary rooms for changing and warm-ups for 37 choruses, but a wonderful central space for the social interactions that fit in an around the formal events of contest and shows. The continuity of space from area to area and level to level allows everyone to feel they are part of the same occasion, while the way the space is broken up into somewhat separately defined areas gives a sense of cosiness and intimacy.

The convention had enjoyed considerable publicity beforehand, including an article in the Independent on Sunday the previous week, which rather confusingly presented a picture of the quartet The Cardinals from 1949 as an illustration for a feature on 2008 BABS champions Monkey Magic. It also gave a nice example of how the journalistic research process is well-suited to perpetuating errors and misunderstandings; I’m sure any of their interviewees would have been happy to put the writer right on their assertion that ‘when entering competitions members are restricted to performing a list of traditional songs’.

Gesture and Song

I’ve written before – both here in my blog and at length in my choral conducting book – about the ideas of David McNeill on speech-accompanying gesture (pdf), and how they can help us understand conducting. But I also find them interesting from the perspective of the singer in performance. Whether and how much to gesture is dilemma that singers routinely face: too much hand movement can be distracting, while keeping the hands completely still can seem unexpressive.

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