August 2013

Preparing for Big Performances

I had an email this week from a quartet I worked with last year asking for any tips or advice for preparing for competition. They have about 6 rehearsals to go, so this was a great time to ask. I’m answering the question in terms of preparing for any ‘big’ performance, where ‘big’ refers not to length of set (contest performances, after all, tend to brevity), but to the emotional importance of the occasion, and how long it has been anticipated.

(I’m leaving aside for today the question about whether people should consider competitions important. Not all contests matter to the same extent after all, and different groups will care to different levels. Let’s just accept that the one in question is important for this quartet, for all kinds of reasons, of which a competitive spirit is only one.)

So, things it is good to do include:

Concentrating in Coventry

Belles Aug 2013
I spent Wednesday evening in Coventry with the Belles of Three Spires, working both with the chorus and with their directors. Well, that's always the case of course, but our focus was sometimes on changing what the singers did to improve the performance, and sometimes on the person out front.

Read almost any book on conducting, and you will find some comment about how the director's communication and expressiveness comes not only from their conducting gestures, but from their whole demeanour: their face, their stance, their way of being in the world. (That includes my book, I should add.)

Now, both Belles director Lucy and her assistant Lindsey are expressive musicians who clearly have a full-body experience of music. So I didn't need to tell them this. Actually, what we found ourselves doing was concentrating the musical attention more closely into the gestures.

Sound, Vision and Musical Judgement

There’s been a certain amount of heat coming from under collars in the musical world over the last few days over reports of research that showed that judges in piano competitions appear to be using visual information more than aural in picking winners.

Or, to be more precise, people asked to second-guess judges in piano competitions got the same answers much more reliably by watching silent videos than by either audio alone or video+audio clips. Which isn’t precisely the same thing, but the research sounds like it is robustly enough constructed that one can reasonably draw that conclusion.

Now, the heat has come in the rather predictable form of fulminations about:

  • Young performers getting promoted on glamour rather than ability
  • How shallow and dumbed down everything is getting with all this focus on visual things instead of the Music Itself
  • How nobody ever listens properly any more

Which is interesting in all kinds of ways, not least that all these points, except possibly the last one, are at best tangential if not completely irrelevant to the research. But they do help reveal why the research is proving so disturbing.

Dreams, Metaphors and Music Theory

Do you ever dream about music theory?

I have a feeling people are going to give me those looks about this post. Never mind, I'm used to it... Anyway, it's my blog and I can post about the random stuff that happens in my head - that's part of the deal. At least this is on topic in its way.

The dreams we remember are the ones that capture our imaginations enough on waking for us to rehearse them over in our minds to fix the memories. Mostly when I wake, I find I do not understand in the slightest what has been going on in my head, and those dreams disappear back into the gloop they arose from. But some have enough internal logic to hold onto, and I find them entertaining, sometimes even illuminating.

On Self-Belief, Self-Sabotage and Empathy

EsaaI spent a very happy day last month at the English Schools Athletics Association championships in Birmingham. We went because a family member was competing for his county, and since it was on our doorstep we could go along to support him, but once there we made a day of it, and I found myself learning quite a lot about performance psychology.

The thing about sports at this level - i.e. the best in the country, but not yet fully mature - is that you see a lot of technically very able performances, but the mental and emotional control displayed by professional athletes is not yet fully developed. It makes you realise how much high-level achievement is governed not only by what someone can achieve, but also what they will allow themselves to achieve.

On Big Pieces of Music, and Making Them Smaller

A recent negotiation about a bespoke arrangement got me thinking about what we mean when we talk about a 'big' piece of music. I'm not going to tell you what the song was, as it is intended for a grand unveiling in due course, but if I tell you the original song was about 8 1/2 minutes long, you'll get the idea that it's a substantial piece. I had cut it down to under 5 minutes in arranging it, mostly by cutting out large-scale repetition such as multiple verses, but had retained the overall trajectory and order of sections.

The negotiation was about whether further cuts were possible in order to make the song quicker to learn. The chorus had identified several places where they felt that cuts were possible in terms of key and phrase structure and were asking my opinion on their viability.

Musings on Chord Voicings

I've written before (here and, more tangentially, here)about the inherent energy implied in different chord voicings. I particularly like the way the Sweet Adelines manual recommends alternating tight and wider voicings. This feels to me like the voicings are being used to propel the music forward, like the pulsing of a jellyfish, or the pumping of bellows. Or indeed the beating of a heart.

Whichever your preferred metaphor, the pattern alternately allows more musical space into the texture, then squeezes it out again. When it happens suddenly, we get a 'dammit chord', as discovered with Silver Lining recently.

On the Control of Tempo

I wrote recently about how hot weather has been challenging the capacities of some vocal ensembles in the UK to control tempo. And I said that I was seeing this as a good opportunity to develop techniques to help people control this. So I thought it might be useful to do a quick follow-up with some practical ideas on the subject.

First, a general point. I spend a lot of my life pointing out that it's at the place where we can't quite do something that we grow. Hence, one of the reasons it is valuable to exercise our skills in varying and challenging circumstances is both to stretch ourselves in the dimensions we are not used to being stretched, and thereby to discover which skills we need to develop in more depth.

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