August 2010

How Much Should We Show the Workings?

Going back through my notes from my weekend with the National Youth Choir’s Young Leaders weekend back in March, I was reminded of a good question asked by one of the participants. My presentation had encouraged two principles widely recognized as good practice, but Nat pointed out rather cannily that there was an implicit contradiction between them and asked how to manage it.

The Act of Listening

The role of the audience in a musical performance is often imagined as a passive one. The composers and performers (and I guess the arrangers and impresarios and stage managers – all the people implicated in getting a performance to happen) assemble all the ingredients and cook them up into a musical repast that they then spoonfeed to the listeners, who just turn up and sit there.

There’s something to this idea of course – it takes more effort and attention to practise a piece of music up to performance standard than to purchase a concert ticket, and it makes a bigger difference if a performer loses concentration during a performance than if a listener does. So in that sense, the audience is the consumer of the musicians’ efforts.

On Choosing Songs to Arrange

Funnily enough, picking songs to arrange is something I no longer have much difficulty with, since I’m mostly arranging to order songs that other people have picked. But the people I’m arranging for sometimes have trouble with this, as do many arrangers – it was something that came up in conversation several times at our arrangers’ day back in April 2009. And even though I don’t have to do this so much these days, I’m interested in it, as it is something that didn’t come naturally to me at first, so I had to learn how to get better at it.

Like many skills, a good start is looking at people who are already good at it and see what they do.

Friendly Crossfire

crossfireI spent last Saturday working the current BABS silver medal quartet, Crossfire. It was a pleasingly varied day, focusing at different points on matters both of technique and artistry, and on big-picture strategic decisions and fine-tuning details.

One area we worked on that has had me reflecting further since was the relationship with performance traditions of arrangements that are strongly associated with particular quartets.

Arrangements That Don’t Quite Work

One of the things that happens when you are a barbershop judge is that you get to hear multiple performances of the same arrangement. (You get it as an audience member too, but you get it more as a judge as you can’t pop out for a beer and a sandwich during the early afternoon session.) And sometimes you notice over repeated hearings that certain arrangements seem consistently to elicit sub-optimal performances.

These are arrangements that, on the face of it look fine. If there were obvious technical or artistic flaws with them, they wouldn’t get picked up by lots of groups. So it takes quite a few hearings to notice that whenever ensembles sing them, they always perform better in the other song – they’re more synchronised, better in tune and more naturally expressive. I’m not going to name specific arrangements, as I don’t think that would be polite. Rather I’ll just invite you to compile your own lists from your own listening experiences.

Perception, Imagination and Technique

Since writing earlier in the year about the effectiveness of duetting as a coaching and rehearsal tool, I’ve been reflecting again on why it works so well. One key point about it is that it’s not about the people who are singing – it’s the people who are listening who have the chance to grow. It offers people the opportunity to learn about the inner workings of the music they sing – how the parts around them interact – and also about the voices of their fellow singers – tone colour, vibrato, vowel shapes, expressive nuances.

But what is interesting is what the brain then goes on to do with all that information.

Climbing the Greasy Pole

John Bertalot produces a wonderful description of the rehearsal process in his book How to be a Successful Choir Director. He says:

The leading of practices is like pushing a man up a greasy pole. He goes up with a bit of effort, but slides down naturally when you leave him alone.

I like this metaphor not just because it is vivid and surprising – and therefore expressive and memorable – but because it is rich enough to tell us things beyond the immediate message it is presented to convey.

On Balancing Chords

When we talk about ‘balancing’ a chord, we usually think of this as a metaphor to express the optimum volume relationships between its constituent notes. I’ve been thinking recently, though, that we could take the metaphor a little more seriously and replace the discourse of amplitude with that of whose job it is to anchor the chord in place – which is the load-bearing part, perhaps.

‘Subjective’ vs ‘Objective’ Tone

Archibald Davison's 1940 book Choral Conducting was published 28 years after he took over the directorship of the Harvard Glee Club. In it, he makes an interesting distinction between what he calls ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ tone. It’s interesting for all sorts of reasons – both because it is a useful distinction to be able to make in working with a choir, and because of the ambiguities present in the way he develops the idea.

It starts off as an aesthetic distinction deriving from the relationship between choral tone and musical intent. Subjective tone, he says, ‘results from and is an inseparable component of the whole musical situation of which it is just a part. It characterizes the text in its varying implications and conveys the singers’ feelings in regard to that text.’ Objective tone, by contrast, is a technical achievement; it is the product of a focus on tone itself independent of musical context.

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