May 2013

The Red Rosettes, Exploring the Song


Last night was the first of two consecutive trips north-west, this one to coach the Red Rosettes in Preston. Much of the evening was dedicated to bringing out the expressive shape of a show-piece they are currently learning. But we also spent some time on the song they had used for a recent Learn to Sing course in order that their new recruits could have their first experience of being coached.

Chatting to a couple of these singers afterwards gave an interesting insight into what this experience was like for them. One spoke of the way she found it initially very challenging as it was asking her to let go of the way she had learned to do things. I thought this was a beautifully simple and to-the-point way of articulating that process of moving up from the basic operations of a new skill. Fortunately she seemed ready to take on the challenge and looked all lit up with that glow you get from achieving something new.

Pick 'N' Mix Rehearsing

Sometimes you find yourself running a rehearsal in a completely new format and it works.

I recently found myself needing to plan a Magenta rehearsal in which the primary need to be met was the capacity to maintain a breadth of repertoire in our heads. Our newest material had been absorbed and had its first performance, and we'd given recent and detailed TLC to those parts of established repertoire that had needed it. So in the week before we started our next new material, our biggest challenge was in making sure the fruits of this work were accessible at will.

Now, we could have spent the evening simply singing through our entire repertoire. That would have been boring and tiring and would have given use the opportunity to practice in mistakes. So, maybe not.

'Other People's Music': On the Copycat Performance

There is an approach to developing a performance that substantially borrows the gestures, pacing, emotional shape and styling of another musician's performance of the same piece. This approach is often referred to dismissively as 'copycat' performances, or 'other people's music'. The critics' view is that people should develop their own interpretations, make the music their own, and that copycat performances are derivative and thus artistically empty.

Now, I am not going to argue against these critics. I have also been brought up in artistic traditions that value an individual's own take on a piece, that regards the point of performance as to give a view of some music that nobody else could give. But still, the people doing this aren't going out of their way to generate empty, clichéd performances. They experience them as real, as heartfelt. So I thought it worth stopping to investigate in a bit more depth what's going on here.

A Post with No Name

This is a difficult post to write, and I don't know how it is going to turn out. But it has been brewing for some months as the cherished institutions of specialist music education in the UK are engulfed in successive waves of scandal. I am, personally, among the numbers of neither the abused nor the abusers, but have friends and colleagues in both camps, and have had much to come to terms with recently.

Part of the shock of the whole process has been asking: why didn't we know this before? And the conversations between those who lived through the 1980s in these schools and colleges have shown that, well, we did know, kind of, but we didn't know how to articulate what we knew. It was a different version of what Betty Friedan called The Problem with No Name.

Nurturing the Older Voice

As I have mentioned before, I don't do very much one-to-one work, but every so often I'll do a series of half a dozen sessions with someone who approaches me for help. Six sessions is enough to make a difference, in my experience, and I tend to reckon that if someone wants to settle in for the long haul, I'd refer them on to someone whose primary focus is one-to-one work.

Now, the people I work with in this way have had a remarkably similar profile: retired ladies who sing in choirs recreationally, and are being bothered by hoarseness during the course of a rehearsal. There is no great mystery behind this consistency of profile, mind you, since all referrals have come by word of mouth along the lines of, 'Yes I had that problem, I'll tell you who helped me...'

BABS in Bournemouth

The Bournemouth International Centre: The scene of my introduction to barbershopThe Bournemouth International Centre: The scene of my introduction to barbershopThe weekend saw the British Association of Barbershop Singers back in Bournemouth for their annual convention. This was a bit of a nostalgia-fest for me, as it was the venue of my first ever barbershop convention in 1996, and we were even staying in the same hotel as we did back then. And of course, on the first really beautiful weekend of the year after a cold winter and late-starting spring, the logical thing to do is to go to the seaside - and then spend most of the day in halls with no natural light.

The first big story of the weekend was the way that younger quartets dominated the contest, taking four of the six spots in the final, and two of the medals. Only two of these were strictly speaking 'youth quartets' as defined for contest purposes, but new champion quartet The Emerald Guard included three faces who first made their mark in British barbershop through the Youth Quartet Contest, and the other three - The QuarteTones, Taglines and current youth champs, Park Street - are all associated with university barbershop groups.

Capital Embellishments


Wednesday evening took me down to work with my friends in West London, Capital Connection. Our task was to work on two new contest songs which are quite well sung in, and thus ripe for enhancement - adding colour, nuance and emotional depth to an already well-shaped delivery.

Although it is 6 months since I last worked with the chorus, the intensive period back in the autumn of several visits in quick succession had left its mark with our working methods. It felt like we were able to cover a considerable range of musical issues in a short time: melodic flow, harmonic colour, texture and expressive register, rhythmic feel, tension and release. Actually, now I write it out, I am even more impressed by the rate at which the singers were absorbing and applying ideas to their performance.

A topic that came up with both songs was embellishment.

Challenge, Rewards and Competency

The importance of challenge has been a recurrent theme in my reflections over the years both on what makes us happy, and what makes us better at what we do. A recent conversation with a friend brought into focus for me an interesting dimension to this: that it is not so much the objective level of achievement that determines our sense of an activity being rewarding, but the extent to which we feel we are growing through it.

Maybe this is obvious, but I found it worth stopping to think about for a moment.

The conversation was about that decision that we all periodically have to make to discontinue a commitment. My friend had found herself taking on more and more activities - as interesting people are prone to do - to a level that had been sustainable when she was in a job she was familiar with, but was just too much when she took on a new role. What was interesting was that the ensemble she chose to resign from was the one that (a) she had been performing with for the longest time and (b) operates at the highest level of all her current activities.

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