July 2014

Hints for Interpreting Barbershop Ballads

One of the interesting features of the barbershop tradition is its approach to the delivery of ballads, described various as freely, rubato, ad lib, conversational, or - most circularly, but in the context of the style, most accurately - balladized. I wrote about this in Chapter 6 of my book about barbershop, which discusses variations in approach over the history of the style, and the various ways that insiders and outsiders understand the treatment.

I would say, indeed, that there has been a certain amount of change in the general performance style in the twelve years since I was first writing that chapter, but it probably won’t be clear how much change until we are looking back on today from a vantage point in the future. It’s hard to pick out the signal from the noise when you are living through what will eventually become history.

Primacy and Recency Effects: Implications for Musicians

Rolf Dobelli’s book The Art of Thinking Clearly includes primacy and recency effects in its catalogue of cognitive errors that can mislead our judgement. We pay too much attention to both our first impressions and our most recent experiences, and tend to neglect what happens in between. Dobelli gives some advice about how we can develop strategies to compensate, but I find myself more interested in considering how we can work with this natural tendency to make it work for us.

There are two main scenarios in which these matter for musicians: rehearsing and performing. In both cases, we need to note that those whose attention we are managing - respectively the musicians learning the music and the audience listening to it - are going to be disproportionately affected by the first and last things that happen to them, and thus this is where our best opportunities to influence them lie.

Strengthening Your Sense of Key

When I posted a while back on the subject of not messing with pitch, I received the following response from a reader:

I think I must have "a weak sense of tonal centre" but have no idea how to correct that.

And I thought: that sounds like something that could usefully be blogged about.

The first thing to say is possibly ‘correct’ isn’t necessarily the most useful verb - it’s not a binary thing whereby you either have a sense of key or you don’t. It’s a bit like reading music or breath management - however good you are at it, you are always aware that you could be better, but work at improving your skills always pays off.

Why Choirs Are Lazy

dobelliA friend once told me about a time when she was playing in an orchestra and there was a rather busy and complex passage for the cello section. The conductor kept asking for more from the cellos, and eventually asked to hear that section alone. That was when they discovered that they were all miming...

This anecdote came to mind while I was reading a chapter in Rolf Dobelli’s book The Art of Thinking Clearly on social loafing. This is the phenomenon whereby the more people you add to a team, the less effort each individual commits to the work. It was first identified in 1913 by a French engineer who noticed that two horses pulling a coach did not produce double the force of a single horse. Further experiment with men pulling on a rope revealed a progressive slackening off of effort from each individual as more people were added.

Chord-worship, Embellishments and Testosterone

There has been some interesting research over the years about barbershop and constructions of masculinity. Richard Mook, in particular, has investigated the discourses in both golden-age (i.e. early 20th-century) and contemporary barbershop ensembles and shown how they configure the harmonic experience of expanded sound in terms of homosocial bonding.

This is possibly why you can get a room full of barbershop judges watching a video of the Gas House Gang's of 'Bright Was the Night', and the men are raving about what an amazing experience it is, musically and emotionally, while the women are saying, 'Yes but it's just chord-worship, isn't it? It's all about them; they're not really interested in the woman they're ostensibly singing about, are they?'. And both, in their way, are right. It is an amazing performance, but it is more about lock and ring as symbol and enactment of the bond between singers than about the content of the lyrics. And the comments posted on youtube about it are telling in this context - the verbal equivalent of punching the air and shouting 'yeah'.

Maslow for Choirs: Self-Actualisation

selfactualisationFinal post in a series that starts here

Self-actualisation is the 'bingo!' of human experience. It's it is when we are feeling most fully ourselves, immersed in meaningful activity that makes a positive contribution to the universe and not only draws on what we are best at, but helps us get even better at it. It's living in that sweet spot where pleasure, challenge and meaning come together.

As such, I confess, it is the type of human need I have been most nervous about writing about. What if I write a fatuous post? I have been wondering; what if I find nothing to say that isn't self-evident and gushing?

Because it is something of a responsibility to feel that other people's peak experiences are in your hands. As choir directors, we mostly deal with this responsibility by not thinking about it too hard and getting on with planning the detail. But every so often, we need to think about this stuff to check that we're fulfilling our obligations to those whose experiences are in our hands.

Accent, Notation and Performance Traditions

Gratuitous paradise pic: taken on the way to the supermarket...Gratuitous paradise pic: taken on the way to the supermarket...I recently had a rather wonderful trip back to the island of Bermuda, where my mother grew up and where we still have family. It was intended to be a break from my usual obsessions, but you know how it is - sometimes ideas insist on presenting themselves to your brain even when you’ve put yourself off-duty. To my credit, I didn’t have very many thoughts out there.

But I did spend quite a lot of time thinking about accents. I love the Bermudian accent - not especially for any inherent beauty of sound, but simply because it is the sound of childhood holidays and family closeness. If you met my mother you’d probably think she sounded quite English - and more so, the more formal the circumstance - but even 60 years after moving to the UK, she will revert to a Bermudian accent within the family for certain expressive registers.

(Thus, it was weirdly comforting to do things like going to the supermarket in Bermuda: it was just a shop full of strangers like any grocery store, but sonically it felt like being en famille.)

Maslow for Choirs: Aesthetic Needs

aestheticsEighth post in a series that starts here

In many ways, considering a choir's aesthetic needs is a continuation of the issues that arise from their cognitive needs. Just as there is a hierarchy whereby data is processed into information, which in turn is aggregated into wisdom, there is a hierarchy of musical surface details, which get aggregated into musical structures (both of which we considered in my last post), and in turn can give rise to meaning.

Making sense of music is both about the kind of syntactical structures that are essentially cognitive and the emotional and narrative resonances that allow us to perceive beauty and meaning. It is the latter that motivates our commitment and attachment to music, but it arises from the former. It is hard to care deeply about music we don't 'get'.

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