February 2012

Charisma and Flow

Every so often you come across a study that sheds so much light on a field that you don’t understand why it’s not more widely cited. Raymond Bradley’s The Social Structure of Charisma of 1987 is such a book – it manages to be both deeply rooted in the Weberian theoretical tradition and strikingly original in its contribution to the field. (I feel it over-reaches itself theoretically a bit towards the end, but then ground-breaking studies often do have cracks in them, and that’s no reason to disregard what they do achieve.)

However, I recently came across a Masters dissertation by Dushyant Singh that builds on Bradley’s work to theorise not only the ways in which Al Qaeda is a charismatic organisation, but how security forces might use these ideas to damp down the charismatic effect in order to reduce its violence. Fascinating stuff, but not primarily why I’m mentioning it here.

Rhapsody, Rapture and the Conductor-Choir Bond


Tuesday evening took me to Peterborough to work with Rhapsody Chorus and their director Helen Glavina. Their choice of repertoire for the evening was driven by the programme for their BBC Choir of the Year audition tomorrow (good luck!), but my remit for the evening was to help Helen refine and develop her directing technique. It is a supreme act of trust for a director to allow her technique to be dissected in front of her singers, but for those who take that leap, there are some immense benefits that can’t be achieved any other way.

NoteOrious Coaching Session

noteoriousfeb2012I spent Sunday afternoon with NoteOrious working with them on a new medley which I had arranged for them last year. (One of the challenges of writing this post is going to be making musically useful comments that make sense without naming the songs involved, as I don’t want to steal their thunder for when they want unleash it on an unsuspecting world.)

But it was a great moment in its development to work on it – they know it well enough that memory issues were infrequent and transient, but it’s not yet been so rehearsed that it becomes difficult to make changes. Indeed, it struck me that their depth of experience as a quartet shows as much in their capacity to respond quickly to coaching input and retain the changes as in their well-developed performance skills. They have become adept at making effective use of their coaching time.

Chamber Music as Practice Gadget

Daniel Coyle has a nice post over on the blog associated with his book The Talent Code about practice gadgets. These are cheap and simple tools and tricks that make whatever skill you are practising harder in quite specific ways so that you have to do your thing better. He gives the example of a neighbour who practises basketball wearing goggles with the lower half blacked out so he can’t see his feet. CPE Bach recommended practising the keyboard in the dark for the same kinds of reasons.

Comedy and Musical Structure 2: From Phrase to Form

In my previous post on this subject, we looked at the basic building block of comedy, the set-up/punchline dyad. (Dyad is such a poncy music-theory kind of word, isn’t it? Possibly ‘combo’ is more appropriate here.) Our tutor, James Cook, quite sensibly started us off on the purest, simplest form of joke – the one-liner – in order to make this fundamental structure clear. You know, like when you’re teaching harmony, you build a lot of phrases using I-V-I before you start doing fancy stuff like substitute chords and modulations.

Now, one-liners are great as instant pay-off. They require the absolute minimum from the audience in terms of cognitive engagement over time, as the punchline comes hard on the heels of the set-up. No need for deferred gratification at all. It’s a spend-all-your-pocket-money-at-once style of comedy.

What Stand-Up Comedy can Teach Us About Musical Structure

sharksFor some reason which I cannot fathom, I find I have signed up for an evening class in stand-up comedy. Given how much of my life I spend chivvying others into scary situations, it is very good for me to do something utterly terrifying, and I am sure everyone I have coached recently will be delighted to know I am well out of my comfort zone; indeed skirting on the borderline between learning and panic.

But in addition to new skills and new friends, the classes are also giving me some new insights into such musical subjects as rhythm, structure and tension-release patterns in performance.

Jiggering with Your Own Arrangements

I wrote some years back about how I don’t really hold with jiggering with other people’s arrangements – not least because of seeing some rather inept changes to mine over the years. And I still hold this view: if an arrangement isn’t working in some way, it’s much better to refer back to the original arranger in the first instance for a solution, as they will have spent a lot of time thinking about how the thing works already, and need to be told if and when things don’t sing as well as they planned.

A somewhat different experience is when the arranger whose work you’re messing with is your own past self.

Coaching by Skype

CleftomaniaCleftomaniaLast week I had my first experience of coaching by Skype. I know some people have been doing this for some years, but I had been somewhat hesitant because my experience of the technology in its early days had been quite frustrating. It was okay as an alternative to the phone – you could live with the problems of intermittent sound and the picture freezing in return for the lack of cost and novelty of the video contact. But I had reservations about using it for something that is such a full-sensory experience as coaching.

I was persuaded to give it a go, though, by the quartet Cleftomania, who are based in Portugal. I went out to work with them last year, and will be heading out there again later this month. Not unreasonably, they’d like coaching more often than once a year, but budget and logistics make this difficult. So we gave it a try.

Reflecting on Directing

The Director's RolesThe Director's RolesI spent an hour and half earlier this week with a director of a women’s chorus helping her identify ways in which she can develop her own and her singers’ skills. It’s an interesting process – directors are by temperament inquisitive and enjoy analysing what’s going on in musical and interpersonal situations, but their role tends to focus this attention away from themselves and onto all those people who both outnumber and rely on them.

At the start of the session, I presented her with the diagram above as a starting point. There are multiple different ways you can divide up a conductor’s various roles, but this seemed as good a starting point as any – its purpose was not to provide an exhaustive theory of conducting, after all, it was just there to give focus and structure to our discussions.

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