Musical Identity

More on the Use of Language in Rehearsal

I know, I know, it’s a theme I keep coming back to. But along with the physical posture and gesture a conductor uses, their choice of words to address their ensemble makes up the much of the fabric of lived experience in that group. And even the most disciplined director who manages to minimise their verbal instructions needs to say things sometimes.

So, my usual tack through this theme is to encourage directors and coaches to give positive to-dos rather than name the problem. Don’t verbalise the diagnosis (‘delivery is a bit ploddy’), go straight to the intervention (‘sing with more flow’).

Keep doing this, it’s good advice.

Healing Us-and-Themness in Choirs 2: Stewardship

My last post was in response to a reader’s question about helping a chorus that had suffer a split move beyond the us-and-them wrangling that had led to the break and move forward together. My theme that time was Values: finding a way that the chorus could agree about what they collectively hold most dear as a set of principles to drive their behaviours.

Since receiving his query, I read a really powerful post by a barbershop friend John Donehower about the experience of someone he sang with many years ago, but who had left the chapter, never to return. I’ll quote the key passage at some length because I don’t think my paraphrase would really do justice to it:

Healing Us-and-Themness in Choirs 1: Values

A while back I had an email from a reader who has been drawing on my previous posts about how to prevent us-and-themness in choirs, with all its attendant difficulties. He had been finding the strategies useful in part, but was struggling with a situation in which his chorus had been so riven that it had actually split, with one faction leaving to start a new chorus.

He found himself as long-term interim director of those left behind, grappling with continued us-and-them behaviours, which were making it hard to heal and move on.

My first thought in response to his mail was to think about building an explicit framework of values. When I’ve written about this before I’ve tended to focus on the power of a director’s vocabulary and behaviours to shape a choir’s ethos, but in this case it feels like what is needed is to flush out the singers’ belief systems.

Soapbox: On 'The Golliwog’s Cakewalk'

soapboxEver since I started writing about race and repertoire a couple of years ago, I have been quietly fretting about a particular piece of piano music that I, like many piano students, learned in my teens for one of my grade exams. It is still appearing on exam syllabuses today. Earlier this spring, these private misgivings became public when I found myself involved in an online conversation about its problematics with a group of pianists and piano teachers, many of whom also teach and perform it.

The piece in question is ‘The Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ from Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite. The conversation has stayed with me since, forcing me to clarify my own feelings about the piece. I’m reflecting on those feelings here to try and bring some coherence to them in the aftermath of the difficult experience of finding myself at odds with people I’d usually identify with quite strongly. I keep telling myself it’s the uncomfortable experiences that lead to growth.

BinG! Barbershop Musikfestival 2018

BinGBMF18It must be nearly a year ago that I played a new arrangement through to Jonathan before sending it off the chorus who had commissioned it, and he said, ‘Oh it would be nice to hear it sung’. And thus our vague intention to go to a Barbershop in Germany convention one day crystallised into the plan to make 2018 the year.

Jonathan was right, by the way. The Harmunichs’ performance of my medley of Queen’s ‘Play the Game’ and ‘Killer Queen’ was a total delight to behold. The standing ovation they received suggested that I was not the only person to think this, as did the aggregate score of 86.3% which won them the chorus championship decisively.

On Unlearning and Relearning Songs

This post is for anyone who has ever learned one part in a song, and then switched to another part at a later date. Learning the new part is one challenge, not getting distracted back onto singing your original part is another one.

I was asked if had any advice on this recently, and I realised that it’s something I have done a good deal, and rarely get the different parts tangled up in my head. So I’m writing this post to work out what strategies I have used to do this, or indeed what strategies I might have wanted to use had I found it harder than I did. I have three main suggestions so far.

How Conductors Create Incompetence in their Singers

Last autumn I had the opportunity to read a fascinating dissertation on choral singing in Oxford colleges by Emma Hall. (She has since blogged about some of her conclusions here.) It was a rich and nuanced piece of work, with lots to teach us, and there was one finding that really caught my attention for its implications for all choral practitioners.

This was the dynamic whereby conductors tend to correct sopranos more often than the other parts, giving both the sopranos themselves and the rest of the choir the impression that they need more correction, that they make more mistakes, thus both drawing on and reinforcing the stereotype of sopranos as the least competent voice part.

Coaching with The Rhubarbs

Classic warm-up pic, this one with natural lightClassic warm-up pic, this one with natural light

The weekend saw me heading off to Germany to work with barbershoppers in Bonn. The plan had been to spend Saturday afternoon with quartet Note-4-Note and Sunday with their chorus, The Rhubarbs, but the winter’s cold viruses had other ideas, and so I ended up with rather more time for sight-seeing time than usual. The Drachenfels makes a wonderful afternoon out, but it was still a pity to miss working with the quartet.

Looking back on the chorus day on Sunday, I am quite astonished at how productive it was. We visited areas including vocal skills, aural skills, story-telling/characterisation, directing skills and stage-craft, as well as the regular problem-solving of details in the repertoire that a coaching session would usually cover. Oh, and re-stacking the chorus by voice timbre.

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