The Myth of the Power of Singing: An Essay in 5 Parts

This is the first instalment of a series of blog posts that turns a self-critical eye on the stories choral practitioners tell to ourselves about ourselves and what we do. It is based on the paper I was invited to present at Dublin City University’s Choral Research Study Day back in November 2019, of which it formed a subsidiary part of a wider discussion around how the scholar-practitioner copes with the inherent contradictions between their roles as impartial observer and as advocate.

I have wondered whether it is entirely kind to publish it at a time when choral practitioners are keenly feeling the loss of both the social and musical nourishment our regular activity would bring us. But then again perhaps now is an appropriate time for reflection; maybe we’ll have more perspective on our work at a time when we can’t actively engage in it. And at a pragmatic level: this is something I’ve been thinking about blogging about for years but now is the first time I’ve had enough of a hiatus in the other things I’d normally be writing about to make space for it. (And indeed I may interrupt the series with other things as they come up.)

Ah well, here goes.

Arranging Update: Opening Up for Commissions

From today I am available again for arrangement commissions! Thank you for your patience while I took time out to do some learning and experimenting. As I’ve explained to the various people who have enquired since I stopped taking new commissions back in October so I could work my way through those I’d already committed to and create some space for my own project, I didn’t keep a waiting list in the interim. Experience has told me that if you queue people up too many months in advance, by the time you get to them, their needs have changed anyway.

So, I won’t assume that you’re still looking at the songs you were talking about earlier in the year, and am starting from a blank slate. As is my usual practice, I slot people in basically in the order that the commissions are confirmed (including, if applicable, evidence of the necessary permissions), though jiggling about a bit to take into account the timescales different groups are working to.

It will be interesting to see what it’s like going back to 4-part writing after 6 months focused exclusively on 8-parters. Though of course, if you’d like to commission an 8-parter, I’m better at it now that than I was 6 months ago :-)

Blue Sky thinking with Mayflower A Cappella

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My last couple of coaching visits have been to help out on new, recently commissioned arrangements. Monday evening was a development on this theme, with an invitation to visit the Mayflower A Cappella Chorus in Plymouth to talk about my arrangement of Mr Blue Sky, which they are currently learning.

This was an interesting challenge as instead of dealing with a chart that was relatively fresh in memory, it involved revisiting music I had written 9 full years ago. What could I remember from my past self’s experience of working on this music? What did I see in it looking at it with fresh eyes?

Warming-up the Conductor-Choir Bond

It feels strange writing about the intimate real-time contact between conductor gesture and choral sounds at a time when I have been unable to experience it for three months and will likely have to wait many more before I can experience it again. But there are some interesting notes sitting in my thinking book from earlier in the year and now is as good a time as any to reflect on them.

Sometimes when I’m visiting a chorus to coach, the director might ask me to take the warm-up. I’ll always oblige because I too enjoy watching other people lead warm-ups, seeing what they do and how they do them. Part of what they’re paying for when getting an outsider in is approaches they may not have thought of (the other part of course being validation of good things they do already).

Facsinating Melody

fr18jun20

They say that if you lose one of your senses, your others increase in acuity to compensate: you become better at hearing if you lose your sight, for instance. It has seemed to me that as remote rehearsing strips out our capacity to operate harmonically, our awareness and appreciation of melody has blossomed to fill the aesthetic gap.

To be fair, I was always a sucker for a good tune, and had I been able to go and work with Fascinating Rhythm in person on Thursday, we probably would have spent a lot of our time thinking about melody anyway, given the character of the music we were dealing with . But I was particularly glad that the song they had asked me to arrange for them last autumn* that we explored together is so profoundly melodic, as it gives them the opportunity to reach much of what the heart of the music is about, even while they are stuck in their Zoom rooms.

Directors Connecting

dirday2020Saturday 13 June was supposed to have been the day when directors of LABBS choruses convened from around the country in Coventry for our annual training event. Instead, we met online. On the bright side, it meant that costs for both individuals and organisation were negligible, and notwithstanding all the drawbacks of the medium, it was wonderful to get everyone together. It is wonderfully supportive community.

Inevitably, the shape of the event had to change. Instead of a whole day, we shortened it to an afternoon in recognition of the obstacles to focus and engagement on Zoom. And the practical training model I was so looking forward to sharing, involving small groups working on the intimate connection between gesture and sound, will necessarily have to wait until we can get into a room together once again to make that connection.

Book Review: Singing Through Change

singingthroughchangeTl;dr: this is a useful book, and you should read it.

Singing Through Change: Women’s Voices in Midlife, Menopause, and Beyond is, as you would imagine, relevant to the vast majority of people involved in singing. If you are a man who never makes music with adult women it may not touch on your activities very much (though you may well have female friends and relatives who would be happy for the men in their life to have some insight into their experiences), but for everyone else there will be direct relevance either for yourself, for the women you make music with, or both.

On the Power of Boo

In the wake of events in the US over the past week or two, I have seen friends making comments along the lines of: I hate that this is happening and I feel helpless because I don’t see what I can do to help. In the spirit of Justin Trudeau’s point that the best response is to put our own house in order, I’d like to share with my barbershop friends a point made by the inimitable Elizabeth Davies.

Those of you who have been following the #donewithdixe debates will know her landmark blog post articulating the reasons why a genre with barbershop’s history of appropriation and exclusion needs to leave a significant chunk of its C20th repertoire in the past if it is to aspire to be the kind of inclusive community it claims to be.

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