December 2012

Contextual versus Absolute Instructions

I have been thinking recently about the instructions that teachers and coaches give to refine what their students are doing, and how often you see what are essentially corrective instructions getting muddled up with how-to-do-things instructions.

Commonly remarked-upon examples include:

  • Tuning of major 3rds: sometimes (well, quite often), people sing major 3rds a bit flat, and so are asked to raise them a bit to bring them in tune. This gets translated into a mistaken belief that major 3rds need to be sung really high, whereas in fact the justly tuned 3rd is slightly lower than the equal tempered one.
  • Posture for singing: some people tend to slump a bit forward and collapse the chest as a matter of habit in their posture, and so are asked to raise their chests for a good singing posture. This gets translated into a general instruction to ‘raise the chest’ which, for the people who weren’t particularly slumped can result in their distorting their posture, narrowing the back and adding all kinds of extra bits of unnecessary tension.

Picking Polecats

The title of this post is one of those that would be reasonably opaque unless you are familiar with the argot of barbershop. For a barbershopper, a ‘polecat’ is a standard song that everybody in your world knows the parts to, and therefore suitable singing at any social occasion where you are meeting barbershoppers you don’t normally hang out with.

For people in the Barbershop Harmony Society, the repertoire is defined by the songs published in a set of books entitled the ‘Barber Pole Cat Program’ (and I imagine that’s where the abbreviation derives from). These have traditionally been ‘old songs’ – classic barbershop standards of the type that the founders of the society in the 1930s were nostalgic about from their youth.

Happy Holidays!

Well, my friends, the festive gig season has rushed through in its usual heady fashion and we're galloping towards Christmas itself. I hope your various concerts, carol-singing jaunts and other seasonal performances have been going well, and that you are all set for the big day itself. I've often thought that 'holiday season' is a bit of a misnomer for musicians - but then again, if we weren't out singing, what would we do with ourselves?

Transactional Analysis, Part 3: The Karpman Drama Triangle

Further to my recent thoughts on what Transactional Analysis can teach us about what's going on when the conductor-choir relationship starts going wrong, it's worth having a think about a different way to model the relationships. This is the dramatic triangle developed by Eric Berne's student, Stephen Karpman.

The triangle is an interaction between three roles: the Victim, the Rescuer, and the Persecutor. Sometimes you might get three different parties involved in a relationship, each taking one corner of the triangle; alternatively, you might find two parties taking up two of the roles and casting others who are external to their interaction in the third.

Transactional Analysis, Part II: Fixing the Conductor-Choir Bond

Identifying the unhealthy dynamics in the relationship between a conductor and their choir is not the tricky bit. Most of the people whose comments sparked this series of posts could do that for themselves (and in fact were doing that when we had those conversations). The bigger challenge is to find ways to break the self-reinforcing patterns.

The bad news is that people can cling very hard to the games they are accustomed to playing - which is why we suck each other into them so readily. The good news is that if people stop getting the payoff their behaviour usually elicits, they will change their behaviour. That is, you can't change what other people do, but by changing what you do yourself, you can motivate them to change in response.

Transactional Analysis in the Conductor-Choir Relationship

TAA number of recent conversations with choral directors and singers have had me thinking back to Eric Berne's classic book on Transactional Analysis Games People Play. This is the one that introduces the idea that people interact using a variety of ego states - acting as adults, parents or children - and that by understanding how people are adopting and reacting to these roles, we can break out of cycles of dysfunctional relationships into healthier patterns.

The conversations that have got me thinking about it have been those where people express frustration with each other's attitudes and behaviours. Directors feel that they are working their socks off while their singers are just along for the ride, or singers feel that their directors put a lot of pressure on them. Or, directors feels that their choirs are resistant to change, while their singers feel the directors lack respect for the choir's traditions.

So, I'm starting out by thinking through the kinds of relationships you find between conductors and their ensembles according to this model. What to do about it is the next question, which may have to wait for a follow-up post.

The Habit of Persistence

I don't do very much one-to-one coaching - my primary focus is on ensembles - but occasionally I'll do a few sessions with someone to help them along their way. Usually it is a friend of a friend who has found me by word of mouth and wants help with something that they find is getting in the way of their full enjoyment of a choral experience - typically vocal strain, tiredness or hoarseness by the end of rehearsal.

When I say yes to these requests, it's because of a combination of the personal connection, the fact they are usually able to come on a weekday afternoon when I am pretty flexible for time, and because I don't like the thought of people feeling uncomfortable in choir. It's not what choirs are for, and people should be going home feeling lit up, not hoarse.

But there's a specific pay-off I gain from these sessions: I learn a lot about how adults with some choral experience but no specific vocal training relate to their voices. A one-on-one session gives the chance for really close observation and listening as you work through vocal tasks. And this is useful because this is a profile of singer I meet all the time in my work with choirs.

Learning Lyrics

Anyone else who sings something like ‘Gaudete’ from memory at Christmas will be facing Magenta’s annual memory challenge of four verses of Latin. Doesn’t sound so very much in itself, but alongside other challenges like the rest of the seasonal repertoire to commit to heart and a reasonably sprightly tempo, it feels like a bit of a stretch.

So, here’s what we did in a 20-minute blitz to kick-start the process.

First, we assigned each verse a colour: red, green, yellow and blue respectively. We then took each verse in turn, and I asked random singers to give me a number between 1 and 12, which gave an exercise from a pre-prepared list:

Music Literacy as Evolutionary Advantage

blindwatchmakerSometimes you read a book, and 20 years later you find there’s a single passage or argument that has stayed with you.There is a passage in Richard Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker that’s like this for me. It’s where he’s taking on a critic of the theory of evolution who argues that the eye is such a complex and intricate organism that it could not possibly have evolved incrementally, because it would have had to go through so many intermediate stages in which it worked only imperfectly and would therefore confer no advantage on its owner.

Dawkins answer was (in my recollection):

The odds are that you are reading this through glass lenses.

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