Thursday, July 22, 2010

moving day

Hiya.  I've been working on this for a while, having gotten some feedback on problems posting comments.  After looking around for a better blogging service, I've moved to

See you there.


the beast below

Cocteau's Belle et la Bete was on Turner Classic Movies recently.  I hadn't seen it in well over ten years, so I watched it again.  So amazing, for its time and now.  I also noticed how similar it is to the Disney version--set and costumes, character designs, even lighting.  Some shots were lifted verbatim from Cocteau.  Because if you're Disney, you use the best there is; you get Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury and you copy Cocteau.

After watching it and thinking these things, I then had to watch the Disney version.  Yes, I own it.  My husband's kids used to be small, so we own many, many Disney cartoons on DVD.  Fewer musicals than you would think, though.

Here's a thing I noticed: in the Disney version, the transformation of the Beast into the Prince has gold light shooting out from his hands, then feet, then face as he looks up in to the camera.  This is also how the regeneration of the Doctor has been depicted in Doctor Who the past two times.  And there's an episode of Doctor Who this season called "The Beast Below."  That title, which made me think of beasts and baritones, and thence to Gaston's juicy voice and wondering why he was the bad guy...

So here's what this post is about: Why is Gaston, the bad guy, the only legit singer in the whole movie?  The divide is so clear: there's the classical style of Gaston, the old school Broadway singers like Jerry Orbach (yum! that man could S. I. N. G.  Day-yum.), and the newer Broadway style of Belle herself as well as the Beast, whose suddenly tinny tenor I always found jarring and unlikely. I won't even go into the ensemble singing.  So.  Why is classical singing villified?  It reminds me of Moulin Rouge, where the only real singer is the master of ceremonies guy.

Is it because they think operatic tone sounds pompous?  Mouthy, bright resonance sounds friendly?  Chest voice--singing more like a man--makes a woman sound... what?  Stronger?

When I was in high school--when Beauty and the Beast came out; and, yes, I saw it in the theater--I didn't like women's choirs, but I loved men's choirs.  I didn't even really like Belle's voice.  I associated the male voice with warmth and richness and I couldn't hear that in a woman's voice.  If a woman's voice was rich in overtones, all I heard was the woof and I couldn't hear the ease and the core.  Of course, now my ear has developed and I love women's choirs and the sound of trained women's voices.  In the fifteen-plus years since I was a high school student, my taste as skewed towards the classical while the rest of the world has gone even further in the direction of Belle and the Beast/Prince.  Broadway singing is no longer closely related to classical singing.  Bleagh.

It's not that it's bad singing, objectively speaking.  Disney movie Belle's voice is nice.  Often balanced between head and chest, carefully blended, it's nice.  She's very good at that style and that style isn't awful.  I just don't prefer it.

I suppose I'm just complaining, because I have no insight into why this has happened, why Americans have developed a taste for this style.  There is so much beauty in a more complex sound, and so much versatility.

And I like my singers to have complexity and versatility.  It takes training, but it's totally worth it.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What We Wear Wednesday 6: addendum

Allegra wanted a feminine tuxedo and I found one.

I would totally wear a tuxedo if I could look like that in one.  Ooof, that's feminine.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Multiple Intelligence Monday 7: Interpersonal

Interpersonal intelligence is the capacity to sense the feelings of others and respond appropriately.  Of course conductors need this.  We work with people!  We are the leaders of a little community, making music together as a team.  The better we are at sensing people's feelings and responding in healthy and healthful ways, the better job we do.  

Is high interpersonal intelligence required?  Oddly, no.  There are a lot of stories of jerks who flail: mean, selfish, ego-centric conductors who treat musicians poorly. In fact, that's part of the stereotype of a conductor.  I have a theory that sometimes people revere a jerk because they assume that someone who treats others with disdain must actually be better than those other people.  Obviously that's just a theory, based on some early experiences of my own. 

These days, EQ, or emotional intelligence, is growing in importance.  People are realizing that treating people well is good for business, being a thoughtful and insightful leader is profitable.  It also makes better music.  And interpersonal intelligence is half of that.  So, more and more as time goes forward, high interpersonal intelligence is not required but highly desirable.

The other half of emotional intelligence is intrapersonal intelligence, to be tackled next Monday.

For now, I'll just mention the example of Gareth Malone, from The Choir.  I've been writing about that show, and I believe I've already mentioned Gareth's charm and enthusiasm.  He's also nice and pretty sensitive and that carries him a long way.  I mean, he's an okay musician and a pretty bad conductor, but those are musical and kinesthetic skills, which are only part of the picture.  The man's rocking the interpersonal intelligence and working it out.  

Check it: 

Sweet, right?  That kind of charisma can't be dismissed.  That's what makes it work for him.  And, the point of this whole multiple-intelligence series is to show how all these strengths can benefit a conductor, but that no conductor needs all of them as long as he knows what his strengths are and uses them to make it work.

And I'll get to that bit next week.

jaw on floor

I sang in a choir once with the NY Phil under Lorin Maazel.  Daphnis and Chloe.  He was good.  It was fun.  He made $3.3 million his last season???

I.  Had.  No.  Idea.

A conductor can make that much money doing something so... fun?!  Wow.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

the choir, continued

So, this week was the second episode of The Choir on BBCAmerica.  There was some funny reality--the bass section all singing different pitches, a kid quitting and trying to act like he's cool, the astonished expression of a girl standing next to a professional soprano.  Cute.  Real.  I liked those moments.

I'd like to mention a couple of English Oddities.

First, Gareth clearly has almost no conducting training.  His gesture is atrocious.  Honestly, any one of my undergrads from last semester could stand up in front of a choir and look better than he does.  But he does have musical ideas, and I do heartily agree with his general philosophy; so I almost sort of forgive his incompetence as a conductor.  And he is described as a choirmaster, not a conductor; but, it's odd that a choirmaster isn't a good conductor, because good conducting can make quite a difference.  I mention this in the category of English Oddities because my experience with English conductors (I've never met a Scottish or Welsh conductor, and the only Irish conductor I've met was a quite good opera/orchestral conductor.  So maybe it is an English thing.  Or a choral English thing...) is that their musical ideas are generally in line with American colleagues but I've never met an English choral conductor whose actual conducting was anywhere close to as clean, free, easy, expressive, and generally legible as most American equivalents.  I'm sure they're out there (aren't they?!), but I've never met one.  What is up with that???

Another oddity of British choral stuff is their insistence on describing what happens to the voice at puberty as "breaking."  I don't know when or how this changed in America, but we now say "his voice changed" instead of saying, "it broke."   Maybe this seems picky or shallow, but honestly, if you tell a kid his voice is broken, even if he understands what it technically means, it can't be encouraging him to use his voice any more.  I've written before about the importance of language, and being careful about words.  The voice is directly attached to the imagination, which is not entirely under our conscious control.  The brain knows the word break means multiple things, so shouldn't we be careful not to pollute neutral and positive things like a voice changing with puberty with the negative connotations of the more common meanings of the word break?  If his voice is broken, why would he want to use it?  Changing the word won't change the world, but I think change is a more neutral term less likely to carry any inference of derision and therefore is a superior word for the purpose.

I haven't given up on The Choir yet, but I think my opinion may be settled on "enh."  Gareth's niceness and generosity of spirit almost make up for his mediocrity as a musician, but that doesn't make for enticing television entertainment.  I mean, I'd buy him a beer any day of the week, but I'm not particularly interested in watching him do what I do but not as well as I do it.

Ah, well.  Maybe next week will yield something more compelling.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

convenient controversy continued, and other alliteration

A few weeks ago, I began a conversation about the role of a conductor in expressive leadership, and it has continued.  I've been trying to sort out exactly what the difference in perspective is, and I think I've got it.

I still don't think there's any controversy.  My perspective on the blog, and in the "Thoughtful Gestures" article, is of a conductor who can count on the performers to know how to be expressive of their own accord.  When I taught high school, yes, I spent lots of time having my students journal and tell stories and use emotion memory to discover how to be expressive, but on the blog I take it for granted that the ensemble already knows how to do that--like the NY Phil--and talk about how a conductor facilitates it.

I think the issue is not a wrong paradigm, but two paradigms: 
  • One that should change, which exists at the level of students and amateurs, in which beginning singers are barely taught to sing with healthy technique, much less with authentic expression, so their desperate and often under-trained conductors try to impose expression on them.  I hate to characterize anyone in my profession this way, but the truth is that there are lots of people conducting choirs who have very little training, or poor training, who still have to resort to this.  
  • And the ideal, which already exists at the highest level of professionals, in which a conductor models expressivity and can count on the members of the ensemble to share in the expression, giving of themselves in performance as the conductor does.
Could and should amateurs and students do it, too?  Absolutely!  I try my damnedest to get mine to.  But that's a teaching skill, important but mostly separate from the "thoughtful gesture" conducting skills.

I have seen bland, boring choirs lead by bland, boring conductors.  That's the conductor's fault--he didn't ask for humanity, so he's not gonna get it. 

I have seen exciting, expressive performances by choirs with no conductor at all.  That's because they learned somewhere else that it's their job to be expressive of their own accord.

I have seen exciting conductors trying desperately to conduct amateur and student choirs as immobile and leaden as oceanic mud.  I see it that a lot.   That's a shame.  That's the conductor's fault because he needs to teach them how.  But that's not an issue that I've addressed.  Yet.  

I have seen choirs of experienced professionals and/or well trained students lead by emotionally invested conductors.  Most of what I talk about on the blog is why this works.  

So, basically, I think there's no controversy.  We all agree.  The last paragraph of my "Thoughtful Gestures" article says, "we don't just need to train more highly skilled musicians to get better performances."  That means we do need to train more highly skilled musicians, get them really comfortable with performing as independent artists, but that's not where it stops.  Teaching performance skills, a separate thing that I haven't written about, is a step in the process which precedes the rest of what I talk about.  

What I have written about thus far is, after we've accomplished the task of training more highly skilled musicians, we can get to the next level of unifying expression by connecting with each other beyond conscious choice.  Connect to deeper human instincts so we're not just making music in a group, but as a group.