Cambiata – the changing voice

Here’s the next chapter in my desire to enable every pupil to find their own voice. The last few weeks have seen an amazing series of personal discoveries, largely through reading some of Dr Martin Ashley’s extensive research both here and in his book Singing in the Lower Secondary School. Don’t be put off by what sounds like a rather unexciting title – this is a must read for everyone who teaches music. The issue – how to keep boys singing.

Voices don’t break, they change. The problems with getting 13/14 year olds singing are numerous – it’s embarrassing, it’s not cool, and many claim not to be able to sing. But actually, that last claim is quite legitimate. As the voice changes the accessible vocal range is massively reduced (and less reliable) and is also very specific. So if you don’t choose repertoire very carefully, they actually can’t sing it because it’s outside their range. This seems so obvious now that it has been pointed out.

We have a healthy number of year 10 boys in the Choir who can’t sing, but the fact is that some of the songs we have been singing go too low for them at the moment. And my solution has been ….? Well, I’ve just ignored the problem with a ‘Don’t worry if you can’t get down there just yet.’ How is that helping them to find their voice? It isn’t. The actual solution is to have them sing in a range which they can manage; it might only be in a range of a perfect fifth, but that’s fine. And it’s a beautiful sound, and unusual. Unusual because we don’t often hear our 14 year olds singing.

At the moment, the few boys who do sing treble in the Chapel Choir move down the SATB structure as their voices change – but this doesn’t work, and never really has. Alto is right in the gap where they quite possibly have no notes at all; tenor goes both too high and too low and the changing voice it too unreliable to cope with this. We’re asking them to sing in a place where they have little or no voice. I’m guessing they stay because they feel loyal to the choir and are hanging on, looking forward to the day when they can sing properly again. It’s far from ideal, but it’s what we do anyway, perhaps because it’s all we have or know.

cambiata rangesI’m reluctant to change the Choir who can’t sing format because it has worked really well, but at the same time I’m keen to explore the possibilities of getting, and keeping, our younger boys singing in a choir with the line-up specified here. Look out for Cambiata Choir, coming soon! I put together a quick arrangement of Fields of Gold yesterday [which we sung through with the Bevan family choir!] and a certain 14 year old sounded just gorgeous – although of course I’m biased. But he did really enjoy it, not least of all because he could sing it.

Meanwhile, what about the girls? I think it’s fair to say that Monkton girls have probably felt a little neglected with all my attention on getting the boys singing, but Ashley has something to say here too. Doubtless encouraged by popular vocal models, many only use their modal (speaking) voice – in short, they don’t even realise that they have a singing voice! This is certainly an issue to be addressed, unlocking the girls’ singing voices: again, the problem is going to be persuading them that it’s a safe and exciting place to be. Challenge to self accepted!

In the meantime, composers of both educational and choral music, take note – there is a big gap in the UK market for repertoire for changing voices choirs.

Concert Posters

Over the past couple of years we have amassed a wonderful selection of posters for the numerous music events which we put on. Thanks Caroline!
[Click on an individual poster to enlarge]

How we learn

Not so long ago I read a fascinating book called How we learn, written by Benedict Carey, a reported for the NYT.

Our brains take in a huge amount of information – that’s not news to me. But what really caught my interest here is this: it’s not just about what we can store and recall, but also about what we need to forget. This is not the place to go into the complexities of the different areas of the brain and their functions, but suffice to say, we filter everything (subconsciously and pretty well instantly) and this information is stored in different ways, dependant on how useful it is. And in general, random stuff – stuff which doesn’t appear to relate to anything else – is pretty quickly sifted out. [It is in fact stored as well, but retrieval can be hard because it is seen as uneccesary so it’s put somewhere at the back I guess!] There is so much that we need to have access to that it would be impossible if our brains had everything immediately to hand, so actually it’s vital that these filters work well.

In the 1880s, Hermann Ebbinghaus developed a series of more than 2300 three-letter nonsense syllables, such as RUR, HAL, MEK, BES, SOK, DUS. And then spent months learning lists of up to thirty-six of them! He then tested his memory of them at specific time periods – 20 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours, 48 hours etc. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as time passed, his recall was less and less successful, and after 12 days he could remember little more than 25%. [I can vouch for this with my own experience of learning digits of Pi!]

luriaIn the 1920s, the Russian neuropsycologist Alexander Luria began a series of experiments on Solomon Shereshevsky, who had a seemingly endless memory. Once he had studied a chart like the one here for about 3 minutes, he could recall it – reading up, down, backwards – not just for a few days, but for years! Shereshevsky was a synesthete, and for him numbers, letters and words were tinted with associations of colour, taste, shape etc which enhanced his recall.  He might have had an amazing memory, but because his ‘memory filters’ were effectively switched off, he found day to day life very difficult because he found it impossible to sift out the constant conflict of associations attached to just about everything.

Aside from the fact that learning lists like these would appear to be pretty pointless, I suspect that most of us would look at both of these scenarios and think it unlikely that we could remember them – the main reason being, of course, that they are totally random.

Contrast this then with work done by Philip Ballard in the early 1900s, who conducted experiments on memorising Longfellow’s The Wreck of the Hesperus.

At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach,
A fisherman stood aghast,
To see the form of a maiden fair,
Lashed close to a drifting mast.

In short, unlike with Ebbinghaus’ random syllables, he found that people’s recall actually improved at successive intervals; there is so much here of imagery and story that the brain recognises it as useful and so it is not assigned immediately to the trash!

So where is the musical application is this?

Whether notated music is written for a single line, or in the case of pianists and others, several notes simultaneously, in one respect it can be seen simply as a series of events.

partita3

On these three lines there are 110 note events. My question is this: How random are they? The answer is, undoubtedly, that these notes aren’t at all random, quite the opposite. To a young musician, however, learning a new piece of music, it is often the case that they don’t yet have the experience to place a new piece of music in context, and therefore much of what is before them might well appear, to them, to be random.  Rather like the list of numbers above. Wow, imagine how horrible that would be: to go to a maths lesson and wade through all of those random numbers, in the knowledge that you are to be quizzed on them the following week… No thank you!

Somehow we need to be sure that we help our pupils to access the imagery, the story [theory maybe?] or whatever else they might need to help them to make sense of the notes in the piece of music which they are learning. Otherwise, perhaps it’s no wonder that, although we think we’ve spent time teaching them a piece, we sometimes find ourselves frustrated that they don’t seem to have taken anything in…..

 

 

Genesis choir

A few weeks ago I was approached by The Genesis Trust with an interesting proposal: would I like to form a new choir? Yes please!

The Genesis Trust is an amazing charity based in Bath which strives to “hold up hope for people until they are strong enough to hold it for themselves.” Currently they are involved in 10 different projects, all of which meet the homeless at their point of need, including The Bath Foodbank, the Furniture Project and the Lifeline Centre.

In 2013 The Genesis Trust was Monkton’s chosen charity. The year before that our charity was Neema Crafts in Tanzania. This is a charity which not only gives opportunities for people with disabilities, but also aims to change negative attitudes towards them. Or put another way, it aims to give them back their dignity.

gtThe benefits of singing in a choir are well documented. In the case of Monkton’s Choir who can’t sing my hope is that both the boys themselves, and those who hear them, accept that anyone can sing. I think it’s a strong message. My long-dreamed-of day when the whole school comes to Chapel and sings has arrived, and last Saturday the school sang Be thou my vision and In Christ alone with extraordinary energy. The choir has been part of changing the whole school attitude towards singing, and I believe that Monkton is much healthier for it.

So what about a vision for the Genesis Choir? [working title] Well, it’s going to be the same as for Neema Crafts – it’s about giving people dignity. I guess in life you can find yourself with very little, but one of things which nobody can take away is your voice. In this respect a choir is a real leveller, and the guy with the wonderful tenor voice is king, whoever he is!

Should be an interesting time ahead as we plan our approach. Watch this space!

 

What does the word ‘dynamics’ mean?

It’s a pretty common experience for me to hear concerts or competitions in schools where a large number of young soloists play one after another, and at one such event recently I was struck by the simple fact that some perform and others play; some are instantly compelling and just ‘have it’, whilst for others the whole experience can be pretty soulless.

Some find the whole ‘playing an instrument thing’ easier, undoubtedly, but I think what really sets them apart is that they have already made a connection that music is about being expressive. These are the ones that we might call talented. The others are not untalented – they just haven’t made that connection yet. I believe that they can, and of course their teacher has a big part to play in this. I have a piano pupil who, on paper, has it all – perfect pitch, brilliant sight-reader, secure technique and great work ethic. What more could you want? Well, as yet, she still plays rather than performs. If I ask her to play piano she’ll do that, but it can sound … well, dull, if I’m honest. Quiet, but no expression. She has talent, but some of it still needs unlocking. We’ll find it in due course, but in order to get there we need to make lots of connections with music being expressive.

Wikipedia tells us that “dynamics means how loud or quiet the music is.” Please no! Actually the word piano (p) translates as soft, which is so much more expressive. But still not specific enough in my book….

What would we normally understand by the word dynamics, in a different context? Wikipedia again:

dynamics: the forces or properties which stimulate growth, development, or change within a system or process.

Well done Wikipedia, that’s much more like it! Dynamics is a much bigger word than ‘how loud or soft?’ If we walked into a room and encountered a red-faced person shouting at someone else cowering in the corner, would we describe the dynamics in the room as loud? Angry, uncomfortable, tense, volatile maybe, but to describe the dynamics as loud would make for a pretty lame description, and even strong wouldn’t really do the job in this context.

mfSo, back to my piano pupil. I could instruct her, in great detail, to play each bar in a particular way – begin quietly, crescendo here etc – but who am I kidding? I know that this isn’t the way to draw out her musicianship. Worse, sadly, she might not know that; she could end up giving a very ‘musical’ performance and not have the first idea why – she’s just following my instructions. That would not be empowering teaching.

So I’m going to try an experiment this term: I’m going to ban the use of the following words in my lessons and rehearsals –  soft, piano, loud, forte – and instead use words like vibrant, energetic, punchy, reverent. In doing so, I hope that my students will be clear that music is always about being expressive in some way, and that dynamics is not just another element of the performance to be remembered along with the correct notes and fingerings.

Paul Harris’ new series of flashcards, Practice Starters (published by Faber) include this wonderful little exercise –

Play the last note or chord of a piece you’re learning. Now play it:

Abruptly       Calmly      Dying away-ly      Magnificently      Triumphantly

Nonchalantly       Happily       Unhappily      Surprisingly      Finally

These are dynamic words, and they will encourage your pupils to think expressively and creatively.

By way of a foot note, yesterday I had a rehearsal with a sixth form student ahead of her forthcoming Advanced Certificate diploma. She is an excellent singer, although in her own words, she over-thinks things, and I suggested that perhaps some of this might be getting in the way of giving a real performance. We talked briefly about the dynamics of the song. Not the volume – the real dynamics in the room which the character in the song is trying to convey, which is this case was joy. “Don’t think about support, intonation, vowels, just focus on the joy part.” The difference was dramatic, quite literally, and she knew it – a thrilling experience for both of us.

 

You raise me up

Here it is at last – our video of You raise me up, recorded and filmed at Monkton. Enjoy!

The story behind each and every one of these boys is amazing. Some were told as young children that they were tone deaf, and so quite literally never even learned the basics of singing. Others have ‘discovered’ singing and tell me genuinely that our Thursday evening rehearsal is the high point of their week.

You can read more about how this project has developed by going back to The Tone Deaf Project and then follow the link at the end of each article. I genuinely believe that we are now beginning to see and hear a change in the way the whole school sings in Chapel, and this is in no small part to these boys🙂

The Choir who can't sing

 

Top trumps

Every child has played top trumps at some point: let’s face it, so have most adults too. Whatever your favourite theme – cars, superheroes, dangerous animals – they all work in the same way. Each card has a score for certain characteristics, and the highest score wins.

top trump

Here’s how a game might sound –
Player 1: Height, 182cm
Player 2: Height, 191cm. I win!
Player 1: Oh no, you’ve got Clark Kent haven’t you?!
[Player 1 is a real geek, and has memorised all of the data on all of the cards!!]

I’ve been thinking lately about devising top trump cards for my piano pupils. None of them are superheroes, or even dangerous animals (!) but they do have a variety of rateable skills. Self-assessed (that’s important and I’ll come back to that), a pupil card might look like this:

 

sophie smithMy point is this – why is the pupil calling note reading when that’s the weakest number on their card? Surely they’d have a better chance calling on the memory category.

Player 1: Note reading, 33
Player 2: Note reading, 98, I win!
Player 1 (geek): Oh that’s not fair, you must have Mr Bevan!
Player 2: I am Mr Bevan!!

Let’s take an example. A pupil is reading through a piece of music, perhaps for the second or third time, and is still struggling to read the notes. Some are on leger lines, it’s in A major and she keeps forgetting that there are G#s in the key signature. In short, her note reading is pretty weak (33 in fact). Time to draw on a different skill instead. How about memory (90)? After all, having played it through a couple of times now, she ought to have some recollection or either how it felt to play, physically, or maybe visually.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that we ignore reading skills altogether; we should be trying to develop all of these skills all of the time. [In this respect, my analogy to top trumps breaks down, as (hopefully) all of these numbers gradually increase as our pupils progress.] What I am suggesting is that we should be encouraging our pupils to draw on a variety of skills rather than just one. When it comes to learning new notes, I find that it can be a huge encouragement when our pupils realise that they don’t have to rely entirely on their reading skills. Discovering that memory, aural or even guess work can give an additional boost to their reading skills, which in turn may well boost their self-esteem.

For me this has also been a really helpful tool for encouraging pupils to make an honest (if approximate) assessment of their general musicianship skills. There is no harm in getting it out in the open that Susie’s note reading leave a little to be desired – we both know that anyway don’t we? But it’s also a lovely opportunity to let her know that you agree that her memory is terrific, and that we should be looking for more ways to use that, since it’s clearly one of her real strengths.