On Identity, Esteem and Pitch

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And if you need to wear your vocal identity, you can buy the t-shirt hereAnd if you need to wear your vocal identity, you can buy the t-shirt hereI don’t write very often about the one-to-one mentoring work I do with individual directors. The things they need to work through are often rather too personal to share with the wider world, involving their own internal insecurities and the subtle interpersonal relationships of choir politics. But every so often, we come across something that is generalisable in such as way to be both of interest beyond their individual circumstances and - as a result - essentially anonymous.

One recent session covered, among other things, how to address an endemic problem with the tonal centre slipping. (See, you can’t identify the ensemble from that!) The director identified vocal production issues in the bass section as one factor here, and talked about the work she was already doing to lift and lighten the tone. But she also said something wonderfully perceptive about the psychological processes associated with the vocal issues.

The basses are prized for their resonance, their depth, the fact that they are capable of singing low notes that support the rest of the texture. So, there is a tendency to express commitment by overdoing the boominess, darkening the sound and losing the top end brightness, and thus pulling the pitch down. There is even a tendency to overdo the actual depth of pitch: you want a low note? I’ll give you a really low note!

There were two further dynamics that were exacerbating the situation. First, the bass section had lost a few members, so the remaining singers were feeling some pressure to do more now there were fewer of them, and thus exaggerating their ‘bassiness’. Second, there was something of a culture of blaming the basses for dropping pitch as the default explanation within the group as a whole. People in other parts were using this as a means to feel superior, to feed their own esteem needs at the expense of the basses.

So, the identity of the bass section was being configured in terms of lowness, in both positive and negative terms. On one hand they were being encouraged in vocal behaviours that produced pitch loss as an unintended consequence; on the other they were being blamed for those consequences as a way for other singers to protect their own egos.

We talked about some strategies the director could use to address this, in addition to the vocal work she was already doing. One tactic is to rehearse the top three parts without the basses before adding the bass-line back in.The primary purpose of this is to get away from the feeling that the basses have to carry the weight of the whole texture; by getting the upper parts to work independently, you give space for the basses to sing their part as a line rather than as a foundation. A secondary effect here is that it forces the upper parts to take responsibility for pitch. If they sink, then they can’t blame the basses and have to put in the work to keep up themselves; if they hold the tonal centre steady, that gives a helpful framework to slot the basses into. You win either way.

Another technique we talked about is one I have written about before of changing the tonal centre on each sing-through so that singers have to listen afresh rather than rely on muscle memory. This is all about escaping the tyranny of habit.

But surrounding all the specific tactics, in this situation a director needs to avoid talking about pitch failure. When the ensemble stays in tune, that is worth celebrating, but remarking every time they drop just reinforces the current sense of identity that ‘we always seem to drop’. The thing is, it is much harder to stay in tune when people are feeling underconfident or bad about themselves. So to keep going on about a pitch problem just perpetuates the emotional state that probably helped it start slipping in the first place. Get the other things right (vocal production, relationship between parts, the skills of audiating the tonal centre) and pitch will look after itself.

This can be a harder change to make than it sounds, particularly if you have singers who are in the habit of remarking on it as a matter of course. (I once heard Bill Rashleigh refer to these as ‘pitch-pipe Nazis’, which I thought at the time a bit harsh, but I’m coming to see what he meant!) People may worry that if you’re not talking about tonal centre that you’re not dealing with it, so you need to communicate with them that you are working on the causes rather than the symptom, and that the change of discourse in rehearsal is deliberate. It may be useful to ask them to keep track and feed back to you privately on progress if that will keep them from being too anxious about it.

But in all of this, it remains fascinating how the musical and extra-musical interpenetrate. Social relationships are experienced through musical behaviours; neither sphere operates without drawing on the other. I have spent much of this summer writing a book chapter about music and identity, and this discussion just brought it home to me how we deal with these questions at a practical level every time we join with other people to make music.

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