Singing Outside the Box

telf12sep20

When the rules in England changed mid-August to allow group singing within certain guidelines, the Telfordaires were one of the first groups out of the blocks to restart live sessions. Our main rehearsal each week remains online, so that it is accessible for everyone (including those having to quarantine or self-isolate, both of which have occurred in recent weeks), but we have added optional ‘weekend supplement sessions’ for smaller groups to experience live harmonising.

Part of our decision back in March to start remote rehearsing some days before the UK went into lockdown was that we didn’t want those who were vulnerable – and thus already disadvantaged by circumstance – to have to miss out on the nice things. In a similar spirit, we established the principle for our return to live singing that anything we did that didn’t include everyone should have a focus on improving things for the whole chorus.

Conducting, and Teaching Conducting, Online

The new multiple highlight function is great, but only if everyone has the newest version of the appThe new multiple highlight function is great, but only if everyone has the newest version of the app

On Saturday afternoon I spent an hour teaching a session on Basic Directing Skills as part of the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers’ eOnline programme. (As an aside, it’s a fab programme – really varied classes, and there have been a couple or three a week all summer.)

This is a set of skills I have taught many times over the years, but never previously in a situation in which you can’t use sound as part of the learning process. Which is rather the point of directing, isn’t it? The process at the heart of both teaching conducting and the act of conducting itself is to listen to what you’re getting back and adjust your own posture, gesture, and facial expressions to make it sound better.

Singing and Happiness in a Virtual World

happinesshormones

Back in the early years of this blog, I used a rubric from a Mind Gym book to analyse the ways in which group singing can make us happy. I was reminded of it recently when a friend shared a different analysis of dimensions of happiness, articulated in terms of hormones, their effects, and activities to promote them.

Now part of me was a bit suspicious about this. It smelled a little like one of those pseudoscientific things that extrapolate from biology to behaviour in a way that goes beyond the evidence. All those hormones exist for sure, but the term ‘hack’ may well be code for ‘oversimplification’.

Still, even if the chain from chemical to lifestyle is factitious, the four quadrants still represent a useful anatomy of satisfying experiences: reward, love, serenity, and relief from pain remain useful categories when planning our experiential objectives.

Bibliography, Peer Group, and Framing

Back when I used to teach musicological skills to postgraduates, I used to encourage them to think about their bibliographical work in terms of defining the academic community which their work would enable them to join. The people you read to develop your ideas are also your ideal readers: your aim is to persuade those with whom you argue to adapt their views, and to offer something back in thanks to those whose work has facilitated yours.

Philip Ewell’s work on music theory’s White racial frame has got me thinking about this idea in a new light. This is how he opens his blog post on ‘New Music Theory’:

In Living a Feminist Life Sara Ahmed adopts a simple citation policy: she does not cite any white men. Further, she speaks of how “citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings”. Citations can also be antiracist bricks from which to create our dwellings. In citing an author we grant them legitimacy and authority, potentially turbocharging their worth to the field. Historically, the only authors who get so turbocharged in music theory are white males.

The Key to Remote Rehearsing: Opportunities to Listen

opptohearOne of the things that teaching, and in particular preparing to teach, does for you is to bring implicit knowledge into conversant awareness. I mentioned in my previous post reflecting on the session I ran for LABBS on Principles for Remote Rehearsing that two observations rose to the top in preparing and presenting it. I talked about the first there; it is now time to consider the second.

I have for many years used a quick and dirty rubric for describing the effects of rehearsal pacing on singer experience. As I discuss in the blog post that introduces it, there are nuances beneath the surface that lead to richer refinements of rehearsal technique, but it remains a really useful starting point for analysis.

A similar kind of rubric is starting to emerge for me that articulates quality of experience for singers in online rehearsing. The key question it asks is:

For what proportion of the rehearsal does each singer have the opportunity to hear other people’s voices in real time?

The Evolution of Online Rehearsals

A few weeks ago I led a session for The Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers on Principles for Remote Rehearsing. It was a good opportunity to bring together a lot of what people have shared over the last 4-5 months and extract some common themes from the various successes and failures. In the process, two more over-arching observations emerged. Edit: the first of these apparently is enough to fill the rest of this post, so the other will come another day.

The first observation is how varied the approaches to remote rehearsal have been. In normal choral rehearsals, you mostly know what you’re going to see. There are variations between choral traditions to an extent, and between the approaches needed for different skill levels, but these are variations on a common theme. Having visited a lot of choral rehearsals both in the course of research for my second book, and in my decade of freelance coaching, I feel quite safe in this generalisation.

Music Theory’s White Racial Frame: a non-Schenkerian Case Study

I have often told the story of the most useful thing I learned as an undergraduate. My tutor had sent me away to read any one of three books by L.B. Meyer and asked me what I thought of it. I said I had found it interesting but wasn’t sure I agreed with him. ‘Good God woman!’ he exclaimed, his fist pounding down on the desk top, ‘You’re not supposed to agree with books, you’re supposed to think about them!’

I don’t believe I have ever told the story of what it was precisely in Leonard Meyer’s Music, The Arts, and Ideas that I disagreed with, but I have been thinking about it a lot again this summer.

Several of the essays in this book develop Meyer’s implication-realisation model of musical meaning, first conceived in terms of gestalt psychology in Emotion and Meaning in Music, but now in terms of information theory. In the essay, ‘On Value and Greatness in Music’, he moves on from the processes by which music communicates to how one might measure the relative worth of such communications. Some music is obviously well-formed but trite, while some music touches us profoundly – can this theory explain the difference?

Singing in Masks

The Telfordaires at our first live meet since March: We sing outdoors, distanced, masked, in smaller groups, and for limited durations. Main rehearsals for everyone together remain online for now.The Telfordaires at our first live meet since March: We sing outdoors, distanced, masked, in smaller groups, and for limited durations. Main rehearsals for everyone together remain online for now.

Back in the depths of lockdown, when the only shops that were open were grocery stores, I was walking home along a weirdly empty high street with a bag of shopping, singing to myself absent-mindedly. After a while I noticed that (a) I had never sung in a mask before* and it was so easy that it had taken me a while to realise I was even doing it, and (b) I had no idea if I normally sing absent-mindedly to myself on the way home from the shops, or whether it was some combination of empty streets and the illusion of privacy behind a mask that had freed me up to do so.

This was still at the time when the general public were being exhorted not to buy medical masks but to leave them for those in health and care services. I had friends in East Asia telling me that masks were the norm for infection control in their countries, but it would be another 3 months before face coverings were made mandatory for indoor public settings in the UK. So my mask was home-made, in three layers of cotton; I later added a nose-wire to improve the fit around the top.

Since then, of course, we have learned from the work at the University of Colorado and colleagues what a tremendous difference masks make to the emission of aerosols by singers, and thus to enhancing the safety of choral music-making. Look at the graphics on pages 18,19 & 27 of this document to see what a dramatic difference they make.

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