November 2010

Hostage-to-Fortune Songs

There is a certain type of song that has offers a specific type of trap to the performer. These are songs in which the lyric makes an explicit commitment to a certain expressive quality or type of characterisation in such a way that really draws attention to itself if the performers’ musical rendition doesn’t quite achieve it.

The classic example is ‘I Got Rhythm’. If you don’t got rhythm, it shows. Similarly, if you ain’t got that swing, your performance of Duke Ellington’s classic is unlikely to be meaningful. Indeed, any song whose lyric describes one of its constituent musical elements is simultaneously telling the performers how they should sing it and telling an audience the criteria by which they should judge that performance.

How Do you Sight-Sing?

I recently had an interesting conversation with my friend Sarra about different approaches to sight-singing – how some people think more in terms of key and others in terms of the intervals between notes. It turns out that we both use some of both, though possibly with rather different emphasis. I commented on how I am always surprised when I see how much of an emphasis some really quite distinguished colleagues in the choral profession seem to place on thinking in intervals in rehearsal and audition compared to thinking in keys.

Later that day, Sarra sent me an email in which she had these further thoughts:

Expressive Performance and the Duchenne Smile

When someone smiles, you always know immediately whether they really mean it or whether they’re just going through the motions to be polite. The actual position of the facial muscles is very similar, but humans are expert at reading each others’ emotional states from subtle clues, and find the distinction unmistakable. Nonverbal communications studies calls this smile that you know is felt the ‘duchenne smile’.

I’ve been thinking about this quality in choral performances I’ve seen recently. Sometimes a choir can give the impression of just being obedient: singing the notes and words required by their music in the manner required by their conductor. Other times, you get a sense that they are really living the music, that they are experiencing the performance as a meaningful act of communication. And I’m interested in what goes into making one of the latter ‘duchenne’ performances.

Harmonic Charge and Form

I mentioned in my post about last week's Arrangers’ Workshop that we’d talked about the relationship between the circle of fifths and the sense of a song’s form, and that it probably needed a post in its own right to cover. So, here is that post.

I’ve written before about Harmonic Charge as a measure of the inherent energy a chord has within the context of a particular key. Here, we’re just talking about dimension of harmonic charge that involves the potential energy of distance round the circle of fifths. The other dimensions (major/minor and presence/absence of a tritone) seem to me more about flavour than structure – important considerations for a song’s expressive feel, but perhaps secondary when thinking about mapping out its shape.

So, the point about the circle of fifths is that it is measure of tonal distance. Chord III is further away from ‘home’ than chord V (as it is V of VI, which is V of II, which is V of V, and then you’re nearly home). So, chords further out round the circle inherently feel more active, as you’re going to have travel further harmonically to get back home to where the music feels at rest.

Arrangers’ Workshop

NoteOrious in actionNoteOrious in action
On Sunday, a collection of arrangers from BABS, LABBS and Sweet Adelines Region 31 gathered in Birmingham for a day of honing their craft. This one of the events under the mantle of Barbershop In Harmony, and is exactly the kind of thing it’s worth collaborating over – arranging is something of a minority interest in each organisation, but between us we have a viable community of people to exchange ideas.

For this occasion, we had kind permission from Joe Liles to use a song he wrote for the Woodshedder’s Folio as a set piece for everyone to work on in advance. We had eight versions submitted in advance for workshopping, and working through these took up the bulk of the day’s activities.

So Why do Losers Compete?

Over on From the Front of the Choir a couple of years back, Chris Rowbury posted a thought-provoking piece on the theme that competitions are for losers (i.e. that, by definition, the majority of people who participate can’t win). He identifies two particular problems with the idea of competition in the arts. First, that they encourage extrinsic rather than intrinsic values – doing things for external rewards rather than their inherent worth – and are therefore artistically shallow. Second, this makes them psychologically disempowering, as participants are handing over their sense of self-worth to somebody else’s judgement.

These are both compelling arguments in my view, and articulate well why many of us in the arts experience a degree of discomfort about competitive events. On the other hand, contest is rife in all walks of musical life: from the institutionalised systems of brass bands and barbershop, to the local festival circuit, to the annual cycle of competitions and prizes in conservatoires, and their grown-up analogues in Cardiff and Leeds. Competition may be problematic for musicians, but it also clearly offers something that is valued widely enough to make contest a normal rather than aberrational behaviour.

Accent and Timbre

There are comments going back nearly 100 years in the literature on choral music about differences in vocal sound between British and American choirs. Back in 1914, Henry Coward was making the following comments:

There is no doubt that, generally speaking, the English choral singer favours a backward voice-production (p. 39).

Of course one must always be careful to avoid excess of nasality, or more harm than good will result; but I must say that, except in two cases in the United States, where the people have an excess of nasality in speaking, I never yet heard a choir go beyond the limits of good tone in the way of nasal resonance, whereas one often hears excess of throatiness in England (p. 44).

The Conductor’s Circle of Influence

circlesI have a lot of conversations with choir directors, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that there is a strong correlation between how happy or unhappy the director is with progress and how much they refer to the choir as ‘we’ or ‘they’. Choral leaders face myriad potential difficulties: do the singers turn up regularly and on time?; do they retain what they’ve learned one week to the next?; do they pay attention during rehearsal?; do they watch the conductor?

Every choir faces variants of these challenges at their own particular level. But directors seem to feel more frustrated about them if they are framing them as problems with the behaviour of the (implicitly errant) singers rather than problems with the culture of the choir as a whole, including the director.

Soapbox: Learning Tracks Part 2

Okay, so whilst I don’t really approve of using recordings to learn your music, I do live in the real world. I recognise that the world isn’t going to change its habits just because I have an opinion. So, today I am going send out a plea that if you insist on using learning tracks, you give some thought as to the type and quality you are going to use, and their likely effects.

First, can you check they’re accurate please? Don’t assume that just because you paid for them they’re going to be right. Do this before you send them out to your singers, and get them remade if they’re not accurate. If you leave it for some of your singers to notice any errors, that means that others will already have learned it wrong and you will waste a shocking amount of rehearsal time trying to fix those errors.

LABBS at Llandudno

Venue Cymru, LlandudnoVenue Cymru, LlandudnoThis weekend saw the 2010 LABBS Convention in Llandudno. The chorus contest was exceedingly closely-fought, with only 13 points in total (out of a possible 1800) separating first and third places. The quartet contest was clearer-cut for the outright winner (last year’s bronze medallists, Miss-Demeanour), but it was hard to predict who was going to pick up the bronze medal.

(On a personal note, I was pleased to see the three competing choruses I had coached during September come away with prizes. Amersham A Cappella landed gold medals, Green Street Blues picked up bronze, and Bristol Fashion received the Peter Caller award to celebrate their scores moving from ‘division 2’ level up into ‘division 1’.)

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