Practical Aesthetics and Emotional Triggers

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I mentioned at the start of my recent post on Theo Hicks’s session on Philosophies of Musical Enjoyment that I had been spurred into getting it written and posted by a conversation with a director who hadn’t been there, but might, I hypothesised, find the ideas useful. That post got too long to move onto how he might do so, so I’m coming back to address his particular circumstance separately.

The particular challenge he was facing was working on a song with his chorus that is particularly poignant, and might touch some his singers a bit too closely for comfort as it referenced in its later stages themes of bereavement and loss. Indeed, he found it quite personally challenging himself even without specific recent life events that might be even more triggering.

Obviously, I pointed him towards my post from last year that address this question directly. But after hearing Theo’s session, it occurred to me to wonder whether the different modes of musical engagement he discussed might give a more purposeful and strategic way to manage this.

If the lyrics of a song are such that they readily bring people to tears, it may well be that it is emotionally less harrowing for everyone to tread lightly on the story-telling theme during rehearsal. Deliberately putting one’s focus onto melodic flow, harmonic colour, tone quality, and the architecture of form – as in the formalist and absolutist modes of aesthetic value – will allow the ensemble to develop a shared musical understanding through the discovery of much beauty and colour without deliberately rubbing salt into emotional wounds.

In a barbershop context, of course, it will probably seem counter-intuitive not to place the meaning of the lyrics at the heart of what you do. But, as anyone who has ever listened to instrumental music or sung in a foreign language will know, what the words could say without the music is only a tiny fraction of music’s communicative power. It is actually a really useful exercise, even without the dangers of emotional triggers, to approach a song with the aim to make a meaningful experience for those who don’t understand the words.

(I have spent a while fruitlessly trying to find a post I thought I had written some years back critiquing the centrality of story-telling on these kinds of grounds, but either I never actually wrote it or my search skills are inadequate to unearth it. Either possibility is plausible.)

Of course, at some point as you near performance you are going to have to re-engage with the content of the lyrics. And you will probably find that they are all the more powerful for being relatively fresher in everyone’s attention, allowing a more touching and expressive performance in the absence of the semantic depletion that comes with intensive rehearsal.

This moment is likely to be the most hazardous for the emotional wellbeing of singers, and will need approaching with some care. But by this stage you will have built everyone an emotional escape-lane. So you can go into this saying: if you feel the lyrics at any point are going to touch you too deeply for your wellbeing, please switch back into one of the purely musical modes we have been working on.

This feels to me not only a more supportive way of helping people cope than leaving them to think up their own distraction techniques (as mentioned in my post linked in paragraph 3, above), but also does more to protect the expressive integrity of the whole. Singers who need to mentally detach from narrative content too close to home can still participate in the shared harmonic and melodic arc of the song, in ways that remain expressively coherent even if more abstract.

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