May 2014

Happy Birthday to BABS

Harrogate's beautifully restored Royal HallHarrogate's beautifully restored Royal HallLast weekend saw the British Association of Barbershop Singers celebrate their 40th anniversary at an extraordinary convention in Harrogate. It was always set up to be an extraordinary occasion, what with an eye-watering 46 choruses signing up to compete on the Saturday, and a total of 7 international quartet champions visiting for the weekend.

It became more extraordinary than you would ever have imagined, though, on Friday night when a lightning strike took out the electricity supply to the auditorium and in a truly heroic effort from the BABS team and the convention centre staff, all performances were relocated to the newly-refurbished Royal Hall at the other end of the centre in time to start Saturday's contest only 10 minutes late. It was all rather astonishing.

Maslow for Choirs: Love and Belonging Needs

Floddy the Hippo of Belonging: sorry about the camera-shake - it must have been an emotional moment...Floddy the Hippo of Belonging: sorry about the camera-shake - it must have been an emotional moment...Fourth post in a series that starts here

After physical survival and safety, our next most primal needs are social. We need to feel connected to others, to feel like we belong.

Fortunately, choirs are good for this. Indeed, the two main reasons people join choirs are (a) 'I'd like to sing, and I might make some friends, and (b) 'I'd like to make some new friends, and it might be fun to sing'. So, we can feel good about what we offer our members on this one.

Having said that, it is possible to feel isolated in a choir. Sometimes new members feel like everyone already knows each other, and it's hard to find a conversation. Choral seating arrangements that keep everyone in rows inhibit you from interacting with each other. (Logistically there may be good reasons for this - the bigger the choir the more urgent are the issues of crowd control after all - but it still has an impact on belonging needs.) Sometimes the people addressing the choir (primarily the director, but also others making announcements) use cultural references that make you feel excluded.

The Myth of Historical Progress

progressmythFurther to my thoughts a while back on prototype theory, there was another topic that came up in my 'Where Have All the Women Gone?' lecture last year that I felt worth airing here. This one is not merely a general theory that we can usefully apply to music - it is something that I discovered first in a musical context.

So, picture the scene. It is July 1991, and I am recently home from the Music and Gender conference at King's College, London that finally gave me permission to have all the feminist thoughts I had been trying to have as an undergraduate, but which had been politely but firmly dismissed by my teachers.* I am all fired up to start filling in all the gaps of my education, and am starting with the limited resources available in the music section of Fleet Library, that being what I can get to from my parents' house on foot.

On Frustration

Frustration is the enemy of progress.

If you enjoy irony, you will be pleased to know that immediately after I wrote that first sentence, my laptop froze and stopped responding for five minutes. I had the presence of mind to remain patient, though if I had been writing on pretty much any other subject, I may not have done.

That feeling of being thwarted by the universe is one that periodically visits anyone who tries to get stuff done. It is an unpleasant experience: you feel all snarled up, putting in the effort but failing to get the results you feel those efforts deserve. You feel disempowered and outraged. It’s not just that you feel stuck, you feel that is unreasonable to be stuck.

Maslow for Choirs: Safety Needs

safetyThird post in a series that starts here

After our basic physical needs, the next most primal need we have is to feel safe. It is hard to get anything of great quality achieved while you are living in a state of fear; even its milder, but chronic cousin, anxiety is pretty obstructive to productivity.

Safety in a choral context is rarely about physical safety - though anyone who has seen the difference that adding a rail at the back of your risers can make to concentration will know it can be very relevant. Psychological safety is the primary concern for the choral director though. And it's a more complex question than it looks at first sight.

Because, as these posts have discussed from various angles over the years, learning and artistry both entail risks. People don't grow unless they leave their comfort zones. And it is in rising to challenges that we earn the rewards of satisfaction and achievements. Indeed, Czikszentmihalyi defined a state of flow as inherently balancing challenge and capacity, hanging in the sweet spot between anxiety and boredom.

Are You ‘A Creative’?

When I started thinking about this post, I imagined it was going to be a critique of a rather irritating article I had seen about ‘things that creatives do differently’. And I’m still irritated by it, to the extent that I’m not going to give it the compliment of linking to it. It was full of contradictory statements: creatives like to daydream, creatives are very observant; creatives like solitude, creatives like to seek out new experiences. They don’t do all of those at the same time, though, do they? If you’re day-dreaming, you’re not noticing what’s about you; if you’re alone and quiet, you’re not seeking out new experiences.

So if the idea was to learn from ‘creatives’ how to be more like them, it was no help at all. And really, I didn’t see what was so very ‘different’ about most of them. Most of the statements you could replace the word ‘creatives’ with ‘people’ and they would still ring true. I’m sure the research they were reporting on did genuinely find creative people doing all these things, but I’m not sure that tells us very much about creativity.

Soapbox: Why You Need to Learn All the Parts

soapboxA while back I had a conversation with a relatively new director - not a complete novice, but still feeling like she was in the learning phase of the role - about music preparation. It emerged that she did not feel the need to learn to sing all the parts prior to directing a piece - whereas I had taken this for granted as something you'd do as a matter of course.

Whether or not I persuaded her of the rightness of my position (which, as you will see, I still uphold), it was an interesting conversation as it made me question things I took for granted and work out why I took the position I did. So I thought it worth recapping here. It is, after all, a practical question that affects every choral director.

Maslow for Choirs: Physiological Needs

Keeping warm: ironically, the room was too hot, so this prop was completely counter-productive...Keeping warm: ironically, the room was too hot, so this prop was completely counter-productive...Second post in a series that started here

The most basic human needs are physical/physiological. We need air to breathe, we need to be warm enough but not too hot, we need food and drink to sustain us. One of the points of civilisation, I like to think, is to build an environment in which people don't have to expend all their attention on this basic maintenance and can give time and effort to more creative and interesting things: achievements rather than survival.

In one sense, then, the most urgent of physical needs are unlikely to show up in a choral rehearsal. But first-world people are still human organisms and will bring their physiological needs to rehearsal with their physical bodies. And the quality of their attention for music is directly correlated to how well these needs are met.

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