July 2010

Are We Having Fun Yet?

A reasonably common point of debate within amateur choirs is whether the point is to have fun or to perform well. For the fun-faction, the requirements of choral discipline (watching the conductor, enunciating the text, not chatting all the time) are frustrating because they dampen the spirits and inhibit people’s enjoyment of a social occasion. For the performance posse, all the chattage and talkery and not following instructions very reliably is frustrating because it inhibits their opportunity for a flow experience and the specifically musical pleasures available from a really clean choral sound.

I suspect there are several things going on within this debate. One is a choral version of the difference in orientation between the people-focused and task-focused that you meet in any walk of life. Some people care about singing with other people because it’s singing with other people, while others are interested in singing with other people.

Harmony and Flavour

I recently came across a post on the Dilbert Blog in which Scott Adams was toying with the idea of developing a theory of flavour analogous with musical structures of pitch:

I believe that flavor can also be reduced to a set of engineering guidelines. Specifically, I think you could categorize most flavors the way you categorize music, with high notes and low notes. Garlic and onions and pepper feel like low notes to me, whereas lemon and cilantro are like high notes. I've noticed that the best food has a combination of both, just like music. I'll bet an experienced chef could categorize most flavors in a way that would allow you to know if you were breaking any rules, such as cooking with all low notes. And I'll bet the high notes can't be more than say 10% of what you experience, in some subjective sense, without overwhelming the flavor.

Now I found this interesting in several dimensions.

Why do we Perform Better to a Bigger Audience?

Well, I suppose the first question is whether we do in fact perform better to a bigger audience. I’ve not tested this hypothesis at all rigorously, but it does feel like a good generalisation. A full house seems to bring with it a sense of occasion that encourages performers to step up to the mark and do their stuff more extrovertly, with greater panache. A sparse smattering of listeners seems to sap the spirit very slightly, and a performance that is just as thoroughly prepared and technically competent can feel like it lacks a little something.

Book Review: Harmony From the Inside Out

harmonybookI picked up this book while I was out in Philadelphia for the Barbershop Harmony Society’s International Convention, having heard several people talk about it. Its author, Jan Carley, sings with the Lions Gate Chorus in Vancouver and also works as a professional life coach, and the purpose of the book is primarily to apply the principles of life-coaching to working with barbershop choruses. She has had some significant successes in helping Sweet Adelines choruses (most especially the Lions Gate Chorus) enjoy rapid increases in both performance level and morale, and this book outlines her approach.

What Makes Expressive Effects Expressive?

If you spend any significant amount of time watching and listening to amateur vocal ensembles, you witness a lot of performance decisions intended to add expressive colour to the music. What’s interesting is that some of them succeed in having their intended emotional impact, and others just look like techniques. So, why are some of these effects believable, while others leave us cold? What are the expressive performers doing that’s different from the ones where we can see the artifice?

Song Maps

When I was about 12 I was flicking through the textbook we were using in our music class at school when I should have been doing something else, and found a diagram that looked a bit like this:


I think it was in a chapter about Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, though the thing that I found interesting was that it also described the shape of the Clementi sonatina I was learning at the time. I don’t recall what I was supposed to be learning in that lesson, but the revelation that you could represent an entire piece of music in a one-page picture continues to be useful to this day.

To Err is Human*

Toronto Northern Lights in rehearsalToronto Northern Lights in rehearsalWell, I said in my last post that Toronto Northern Light’s package that won them third place at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s International Convention recently deserved a post of its own, so here goes. It doesn’t appear to be up on Youtube so I’ll start off by describing what they did for those who haven’t seen it, and then highlight a few points as to why I admired it so much.

The first song was a medley of parodies on the theme of robots who wished they were human. All the chorus were costumed in grey overalls with all their visible skin painted in silver make-up except their director, Steve Armstrong, who played the part of the human operator. At the end of the first song, he sat down at a desk and went to sleep, while all the robots actually came ‘alive’ as humans to sing their ballad, ‘Over the Rainbow’ under the direction of their assistant director, Jordan Travis. At the end they returned to their robot world, leaving their operator to wake up with a hunch that something unusual had just occurred.

Barbershop in the City of Brotherly Love

Bird's-eye view of the Harmony Marketplace in the Pennsylvania Convention CenterBird's-eye view of the Harmony Marketplace in the Pennsylvania Convention Center
Last week saw the Barbershop Harmony Society’s annual International Convention come to the historic city of Philadelphia. It was a musically rich and socially warm event, as ever, and I came home feeling that such full immersion in the artform has made me a better musician.

Making Parts into Lines

I have written before about how I use the baritone line as a performance indicator for arrangement decisions. This is the part that is most likely to become counter-intuitive in shape as its role is to fill out the chord above and below the lead. Thus, if this line makes sense, it is a very good indication that the chord choices and voicings are good. If the line sounds illogical or bi-polar, it tells you that you need to rethink what you’re trying to do there.

I have been thinking a lot of late about the singability of all the harmony parts. This is something that all arrangers grapple with of course – both Paul Davies and David Wright have talked about it in their training sessions. But as I’ve been singing through the parts I write, I’ve been analysing both what it is that makes a part more or less singable, and the nature of the effect it will have on both singer and listener.

Musical Meaning and Musicality in Performance

For many years now I’ve found the distinction that Lucy Green makes between ‘inherent’ and ‘delineated’ musical meanings a useful way to think about music. It’s a dialectic between meanings that are created in and by the musical materials themselves (and she draws significantly on Leonard Meyer, another favourite theorist of mine, for this) and meanings that are attributed to music by the culture in which it subsists.

As is often the case with dialectics, the pairing has a way of constantly deconstructing itself on one hand (you find you can access the inherent meanings except through cultural filters, so do the inherent meanings really exist?) whilst still remaining a robust and useful distinction to make. I wrote about this tendency many years ago in an article that engaged with the question of whether the social meanings we find in music are carried within the music itself or simply read into it.

Through years of teaching, I’ve also observed how this distinction provides a useful way to account for how people learn music. (Indeed, I note that Lucy Green is herself a music education specialist – and one of the few who has found a dedicated readership in ‘mainstream’ musicology and music theory.)

On Choral ‘Discipline’

Choral discipline encompasses many things, from remembering pencils, to learning notes at home, to watching the conductor closely. But the archetypal sign of a choir’s level of discipline is how much talking goes on within the ranks during rehearsal.

This dimension of discipline is often seen as having a moral dimension – as, indeed, the word ‘discipline’ implies. A hub-bub of chatting is seen as rather slovenly, the choral equivalent of frayed cuffs and dandruff. (Alternatively, sitting up straight and paying attention is seen as overly prim, a form choral OCD.) This discourse takes us back to school days, evoking a traditionalist’s model of education, with desks in rows and all children silent and on task.

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