Being Sensible with Silver Lining

SLjun24

My title today comes from one of the more surprising bits of feedback I have had after a coaching session. To be fair, it wasn’t actually me that was described as ‘sensible’ (I was as daft as ever), it was the ideas we had worked on. The point was that the singer didn’t feel she had a long shopping list of things to remember, because the ideas fitted in with her existing musical concept of the songs, but her use of the word ‘sensible’ to articulate this point still made me laugh out loud (well, squawk).

My day with Silver Lining chorus had the brief to help them discover more musical opportunities with the package they will be taking to LABBS Convention in the autumn, with its first complete outing at a local festival this month. They already had a clear concept of what they wanted to do with the two songs, so it was a matter of finding ways to help them realise that vision more vividly.

More Musings on ‘Old Barbershop’

When I last reflected on the category of ‘old barbershop’ eight years ago, I finished up by wondering what sounded normal then that would sound dated 20 years on. Well, it’s only eight years on, and I found myself thinking about perceptible cultural shifts again at the BABS Convention back in May.

My musings last time were mostly about musical things like approaches to voice-leading and embellishment and performance things like styles of body language in the context of continuous performance traditions. I did mention subject matter in passing, but only mentioned the most ostentatiously outmoded lyrics in defining the category of ‘old’.

Now, by contrast, I found myself observing a clear division in song storyline and lyric between those that evoked social relations that we would wish to promote these days in an organisation that celebrates diversity, equity and inclusion, and those in which the social relations feel uncomfortably old-school.

Happy Half-century to BABS!

Anniversary quartet champions Fifth Element on their victory lapAnniversary quartet champions Fifth Element on their victory lap

The Spring bank holiday weekend saw the British Association of Barbershop Singers hold their annual Convention in Harrogate, at which they celebrated the organisation’s 50th anniversary. It was a full schedule, with long contests as well as shows and various other activities, and it would have been pretty much impossible to partake of everything on offer as well as catch-up with friends.

To mark the occasion, all quartets who wanted to compete had been invited to do so at the convention itself (rather than going through a preliminary round some months earlier to select the top tranche to compete on the big stage); this meant that Friday was completely filled with the quartet semi-finals. Fortunately, the first ever livestream broadcast of a BABS convention meant that those who were still travelling up during the day were able to keep tabs on what was happening en route. (I hope it was only the car passengers watching while actually on the move, but as everyone turned up alive, I assume this was the case!)

In Memoriam: Valerie Clowes _

Valerie front and centre in blue: surrounded by some pretty awesome peopleValerie front and centre in blue: surrounded by some pretty awesome people

The first words Valerie Clowes said to me when I met her in person were, ‘I fucking love your blog!’, which I’d take as a compliment from anyone, but was particularly powerful coming from someone who could communicate so clearly and vividly about things that matter. A few days later, she greeted me as I ran into her on the Harmony University campus with the words: ‘Liz! We were just talking about female sexual autonomy...[in response to my ‘do go on’ face]...My Wild Irish Rose.’

Many words have been written over the past few days about Valerie, what she brought to the world, and how much she will be missed, and I’m not sure if I can add anything useful here. But even if I’m repeating what everyone else has already said, I’d like to take the space to honour her.

On When to Persist, and When to Forgive…

I’ve been thinking quite a lot recently about the balance between being uncompromising with one’s standards, and about when to let things slide. I’ve been having a number of conversations with people about this, and have also (possibly as a consequence) been particularly aware of it as a question in my own praxis.

Clearly, holding people (including oneself) to a level that you know they can achieve is key to maintaining and developing performance standards. Jim Clancy puts transforming good things that you do sometimes into things you do all the time at the heart of excellence; John Bertalot writes about choral rehearsing as being like pushing a man up a greasy pole.

On Vulnerability

The leadership literature, both conductor-specific and general (which, come to think of it, I usually read through the lens of the conductor’s role), often talks about the importance of allowing yourself to be vulnerable as a means to inspire trust. This is usually framed in terms of admitting when you don’t know something, or that you need help.

All of which, on the face of it is perfectly reasonable. A leader doesn’t have to be omniscient or infallible to be effective – which is just as well given that human beings are typically neither. And I’ve always read these pronouncements with a degree of complacency, since I am very comfortable sharing my fallibility. I’ve known myself long enough to know how well developed my capacity for truly dumb errors is, and am endlessly grateful when people spot them for me.

Building the Arc with Norwich Harmony

NHapr24

Note that’s ‘arc’ with a C; whilst it was a bit rainy in Norfolk at the weekend, we didn’t need to construct emergency rescue vessels for us and all land mammals on this occasion. But we did have a productive time thinking about expressive musical shape and how it relates to both narrative and vocal legato.

I have visited Norwich Harmony for coaching days several times over the years, but this was the first time I joined them for a full weekend’s retreat. They had an interesting model, choosing a venue that consisted of a number of holiday cottages around a central courtyard and event room. Most of the catering was organised within the groups sharing each cottage, except for a bring-and-share dinner on Friday and a meal delivered by outside caterers on the Saturday.

More On the Relationship of Structure to Detail

I recently reflected on how Abby Whiteside’s book Indispensables in Piano Playing had helped bring into focus thoughts I had been toying with about the mapping of the structures of a body that plays music onto structures implicit in the music itself. The other set of thoughts she helped bring to the surface were about theoretical traditions in how we think about music.

Those of you with a background in academic music will recognise the distinction between structure and ornament, and the idea of shunting attentionally between different levels of structure (surface details to mid-range and longer-range processes) as belonging to the theoretical tradition generally taught in higher education under the banner of Schenkerian Analysis.

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