February 2016

On Phrase-Boundary Embellishments

I have written about phrase-boundary embellishments before - about the kinds of harmonic behaviours involved, and thence the implications for voicing. I have been thinking about them again just recently while wrestling an arrangement into an interesting shape from a formulaic-sounding first draft. And in the process, I have stopped referring in my head to ‘phrase-end’ embellishments, and have started thinking more in terms of ‘phrase-boundary’ embellishments.

The point about these moments in a song, whichever term we use for them, is that the melody often comes to rest before the end of a phrase - it cadences onto the first beat of bar 6 in an 8-bar unit, for instance. If you had a band to sing with, they would keep the rhythmic and harmonic momentum going until the start of the next phrase, possibly with some extra twiddles as fill. But in the absence of instrumental colleagues, the a cappella melodist looks to her fellow singers to keep the music going until the next phrase starts. Hence the concept of ‘phrase-end embellishment’.

On the Locus of Control, Part 2: The Conductor-Choir Relationship

So, my generalised musings on this concept brought me, as such musings so often seem to do, to wonder about the dynamic between a director and their choir. Given that the conductor’s job is to bring a collection of individuals together so that they operate musically as a single, coordinated, entity, how do they leave those individuals with a sense of their own agency?

This is not a new question, either to this blog or my wider writings - it is in many ways the question that Mike Brewer and I addressed in the Cambridge Companion to Choral Music through the metaphor of the social contract. But it is always worth a fresh view, especially when you have a useful conceptual lens like locus of control to examine it through.

I am going to look through this lens at two different levels of magnification - first at the big picture of a director’s overall approach to decision making, then in finer detail at the specifics of what we do during the flow of rehearsal.

On the Locus of Control

I have been thinking again recently about the concept of the ‘locus of control’, something I have mentioned every so often in this blog, but not mused about at length for some time. This is the idea that how you experience and interpret events is strongly shaped by where you attribute causation. If you believe that you make things happen, you have an internal locus of control; if you believe that things happen to you, your locus of control is external.

So I guess the first thing to note is why it is desirable to have an internal rather than external locus of control. On one hand, it affects how you feel about things: the sense that what you do makes a difference makes you feel more purposeful, less passive. You feel more optimistic about the future if you don’t feel like the victim of circumstance. On the other, it affects what you can achieve. Not everything we attempt is destined to succeed, but if we go in with the mindset that we can shape our own destinies, we are more likely to attempt things more often and to persevere longer in the face of obstacles.

Two Penny-Drop Moments

Okay, so one person’s penny-drop is another person’s blindingly obvious, but I thought I’d share two ‘Aha’ moments I had this week so you can feel smug about how you’ve known about them for years. Both were about rehearsal planning, and both arose from specific circumstances that drew things I half knew but hadn’t thought about in detail into conscious awareness.

1. The Rehearsal Focal-Point

Attention span graphAttention span graph
So, we’ve known about the attention-span graph for yonks, and I am accustomed to following its implications in rehearsal planning by scheduling new stuff during the phase just after the warm-up where people’s cognitive capacities will be at their peak. ‘New stuff’ here mostly means new repertoire, though it may mean taking on a new challenge with established repertoire in the context of a particular performance goal. But you need something new to be working on most of the time to keep people feeling like this week’s rehearsal offers something different from last week’s or next week’s.

Kahneman’s System 1 and Unconscious Prejudice

kahnemanDaniel Kahneman’s ideas about two different kinds of thinking helped me better understand two major areas in which I have long-term interests. I wrote about the first, the acquisition of skill, the other day. Today we get to mull over the thorny issue of unconscious prejudice.

Conversations about inequality and its impact in daily life are often fraught with anxiety and defensiveness because nobody really likes to think of themselves as unfair. Even more the case, nobody likes being accused of it - whether that is benefitting from an unfair advantage bestowed by others (aka privilege) or behaving differently to others along established lines of social hierarchy.

But research shows that many of the endemic structural inequalities we find in material terms are evident in social attitudes even of people who disapprove of them. Identical job applications are read more favourably when associated with a male name than with a female one. Measurements of pupil dilation show a more positive response to pictures of white faces than of black. Unconscious prejudice is clearly rife, but by its very nature is hard to identify and therefore hard to address.

On Sopranos, Stereotyping, Sexism and Strain

I have been mulling over an interesting blog post shared by a friend recently. The writer, Mari Valverde, has some very interesting things to say about the misogyny implicit in cultural stereotypes of the soprano voice and the practical consequences for how composers and arrangers tend to write for it. I think she is really onto something, and she has made me think about the question of voice-part stereotypes (which I explore in various ways in both my books) in some new ways. I also suspect there are some aspects of the question she is tangling up, so I wanted to spend a post teasing out how my own thoughts are developing in the light of her ideas.

So, the following are factors that feed into the phenomenon of exhaustingly high tessituras in soprano parts:

On Kahneman’s Two Systems and the Acquisition of Skill


Last time I wrote about this, I gave an overview of the Daniel Kahneman’s model of two types of thinking we use, their functions, and their relationship. Today I want to mull over the implications of this for teaching and learning.

The ultimate goal of skill acquisition is to get System 1 doing all your routine operations. You want to be able to do your thing fluently, automatically, with ease and pleasure. It’s not just that it feels good to work in this mode, it’s that complex tasks need so many decisions to be coordinated that even if you had the cognitive resources to make them all in real time, it would be too slow to work properly. This is how it feels performing on a bad day when your inner voice is hectoring you: you react too late, and then you over-react.

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