Music Theory

On the Relationship of Structure to Detail

Sometimes you find a thought sloshing around the back of your mind in an intriguing but unfocused way for quite a while, when suddenly you come across something that brings it sharply into focus. I’ve had a couple of these recently, both sparked by the same stimulus.

Towards the end of last year I read Donald Weed’s What You Think is What You Get, in which he makes a distinction between axial and appendicular functions in the skeleton, and, consequently, between postural and gestural dimensions of bodily use. This is in itself a useful concept to have to hand when learning motor skills. It is very easy to put all our attention on the bits that are specific to the task in hand ( e.g. conducting, playing piano, chopping onions, to take examples from my own life), whereas the success of these specialist, gestural movements is to a significant extent dependent upon how well we are managing the general, postural use of the self.

On the Writing of Parody Lyrics & Comedy Songs

I’ve had several conversations recently with people involved in writing comedic parodies and/or needing to update references in existing comedy songs. And in the process a few themes have emerged that I thought it worth pulling together a bit so I’ve got something useful to link to if I find myself having more such conversations.

Have enough jokes

Like the concept of Retroactive Inevitability, this is something that Roger Payne used to talk about. It’s very easy to get a brilliant idea for a parody, but end up with essentially just the one joke. For sure, having one major concept you build around is a good strategy for a coherent whole, but you also need regular laugh-points along the way.

On the stand-up comedy course I did way back when, the guide-line we were given was to make sure you never went more than 30 seconds without a punchline. Given that songs tend to be a more compact and less wordy form than stand-up, I wouldn’t be surprised if you need them more often than that in music. I tend to measure musical time in bars rather than seconds, and my feeling is at least every 16 bars, but with some at 8-bar intervals., is what you’re aiming for.

Finding the Moments

I wrote a while back about the experience of listening out for our favourite bits in familiar music, and the obligations thus placed upon performers to make those eagerly-anticipated moments special. This opened up the question as to how we identify which moments these are if we’re new to the repertoire – either because we’re relatively junior in the genre or because the music itself is not yet widely performed.

That’s a good question, I thought, and then: hmm, that’s a really good question, how do we do this? What looked on first sight like a nice rhetorical question to which I thought I knew the answer actually had me more baffled than I anticipated.

Tuning in to BABS Directors Academy

Jay's selfie captures to joy in the roomJay's selfie captures to joy in the room

The weekend saw the first in-person BABS Directors Academy since 2020 (and my first since 2019, as I missed the last one). We had Dr Jay Dougherty as our guest educator, who brings with him a deep and abiding understanding of the barbershop style along with higher degrees and HE teaching experience in choral conducting. He is probably most known in the barbershop world for having taken over Joe Liles’s ‘Tune it or Die’ course at Harmony University, which he has made his own by drawing on research undertaken in his doctoral studies. He led front and centre with this material, dedicating three consecutive sessions on Saturday to it.

New Technical Term: Canute Passages

There are those who attempt to make music theory into a fully-rational and systematic endeavour, but those of use working at the sharp end of music-making* know that it is messier than that. Yes, you can organise a lot of it into logical patterns that help you generalise and draw inferences, but a lot of music theory is about finding ways to identify and make sense of stuff that happens in real life.

So, from the Concrete-Experiential school of music theory that brought you the Icicle 7th (Karri Quan), the Phnert (Lori Lyford) and Swooshythroughiness (me), I bring you the concept of Canute passages.

Explorations in Troubled Waters

Continuing with the theme of how returning to regular piano practice is having interesting cross-fertilisations with my vocal-harmony musical brain, today I’m going to share some discoveries made while working on Margaret Bonds’ piece ‘Troubled Water’.

The piece is based on the spiritual ‘Wade in the Water’ and was originally conceived as one of a suite, though it has developed an independent life having been published as a stand-alone piece in 1967. The suite was finally published in its entirety in 2020. I have linked to Samantha Ege's recording;'Troubled Waters' is the 3rd movement, starting at 6:58.

On Metaphors and Messing with People’s Heads

[On executing a vocable using the syllable ‘ha’ without making the tone breathy]

Don’t let the h invade the vowel. You want to keep the salt on the edge of the margharita glass, not put it into the drink.

The coaching process produces all kinds of metaphors for different aspects of musical performance, many of them emerging spontaneously from the needs of the moment. One of the things, I am told, that Amersham A Cappella appreciate about my coaching is the vividness and idiosyncrasy of some of the metaphors that pop out during the process. One of the things I appreciate about working with them is knowing that they’ll go with whatever wild imagery comes to hand: not needing to filter insights for sensibleness on the way gives an incredible sense of creative freedom.

LABBS Quartet Prelims 2022

Seeded first on the day, In House talk to LABBS social mediaSeeded first on the day, In House talk to LABBS social media

On Saturday, The Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers held the preliminary contest for quartets to qualify to compete at Convention in the autumn. With 31 quartets competing for 16 places, it felt like the quartet scene is in good shape, and there were a good many new ones who have formed since we last convened in person in 2019. Many of the quartets stayed on for the Sunday to receive extended evaluations-cum-coaching sessions, a model that encapsulates the philosophy at the heart of LABBS contest system: that competing is a means for growth, and that education is an inherent part of the cycle.

A friend I ran into during the first break remarked that he always wonders, seeing me at the events, what I’m going to write about in my blog after it. This made me laugh, because at that point I was wondering the exact same thing! As it happens, two observations rose to the top as the day went on.

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