Participation, Performance and Musical Standards

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Recently I was having a facebook chat with a friend who wanted to talk over a dilemma, and it occurred to me that it was worth sharing, as it has at its heart what is probably the biggest question community arts face. The dilemma is this: he is the director of a village band which has an active committee that succeeds in getting them lots of paid gigs. However, it is an open-access band, and many of the players are not very skilled. He was therefore worried whether it is right to accept money for these gigs when the artistic product is often shaky at best.

Isn’t this an interesting question?

It is intensely practical – you either play the gigs or you don’t – but at the same time it goes right to the heart of questions about the role of the arts in society, and the relationship between artistic integrity and moral integrity. The director was very clear about his values in relation to the band’s open-access policy: he loves what they do and relishes the challenge of helping people with very undeveloped skills get better and play together.

But at the same time, he can’t pretend to himself that something sounds good when he knows it doesn’t. There’s no doubt in his mind that the band should be playing together; the doubt is whether it’s fair to accept money for doing so from third parties for its current performance level.

My first thought was, I confess, good for the committee! Getting gigs is a great skill to have.

More helpfully, I probed a little to see if they were getting repeat gigs or just one-offs. My thinking was that if people invited them back, that indicated that they felt the band was adding value to their occasions, and that they were happy with the level of payment. If they only got one-offs, then there’s more of a concern that they might be leaving a trail of disappointed punters behind them.

As it turns out, they are getting repeat gigs, and the feedback they’re getting is very positive. As he put it: ‘The audience are always saying, "It sounds great" even when it sounds a disgrace.’

So, that led me to the opinion that, if it were me, I wouldn't withdraw the band from the gigs, so long as I felt confident that the people booking the band knew what they were getting. But I would use the fact that they had high profile gigs (i.e. paid and in good venues) as a way to try and motivate some more focus on quality. Cancelling may have the short term benefit of safety, but may be counter-productive in the longer term as it will knock the confidence and make people feel defeatist.

Reflecting on this conversation afterwards, I noticed a couple of things about the terms we used to conduct it. There was an implicit appeal to an abstract notion of ‘The Music’ as something to which we owed an obligation. Neither of us mentioned it, but it was there lurking as the reason why one might feel bad doing an inept performance even when the audience was happy.

And I notice that my preferred solution to the dilemma was basically to prioritise the needs of the human beings involved over The Music. If it was needs of audience vs needs of players, I’d probably have advised prioritising the audience – it’s fun to perform, but don’t do gigs unless you’re putting smiles on faces. But as it was needs of The Music vs needs of happy players and audiences, my position was to put the people first. However, even a pragmatist like me was not prepared to relinquish the claims of The Music entirely, but evoked it as something that could be served better by using the prospect of gigs to motivate investing effort in musical quality.

The other thought I had in retrospect was about rehearsal methods. Amateur choral ensembles often work on the assumption that their members need to be taught both musicianship and singing technique in rehearsals since they may not have any form of training. Rehearsal techniques thus routinely include skills training as integral to the process.

Instrumental ensembles by contrast tend to be more exclusively focused on preparing repertoire, working on the assumption that people will have learned how to play their instruments before joining the ensemble. (Indeed, the brass band tradition includes training bands as the entry route so as to ensure this is the case.)

But in this kind of open-access group, clearly this assumption is only partially true. And of course it’s harder for a director to have appropriate expertise to offer technical help to the range of instrumentalists that may turn up (voices have the advantage of all working on very similar principles). It strikes me, though, that the longer term solution to this kind of difficulty could lie in modelling the rehearsal process more on choral training than the more usual approaches instrumental rehearsal. Just a thought.

Hi Liz -- great cartoon (and article of course)!

This jumped out at me:

‘The audience are always saying, "It sounds great" even when it sounds a disgrace.’

So there's another element here about judgement. We often play down our own abilities, are too close to the material and are 'experts' at what we create. The downside to this is we can be our own harshest critics.

What this shows is that the audience are judging the band by a different set of criteria to the band themselves. So what the band leader is selling is not the same thing as what the audience are buying!

From the Front of the Choir

Nice point, Chris! There's a whole extra set of questions in there about the relationship between technical control and artistic value, and the way you've put that is a really useful way to understand how and why it's not always a linear relationship.

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