Choral Singing Technique, Or, You Aren’t Leaving the House Wearing That, Young Lady

I sing in a small choir; we sang two Advent concerts last weekend.

When I sing in a choir, I hold my music folder almost horizontal just about at neck level, much like a waiter holding a tray. This has several advantages over holding it lower or at a greater angle. First, the sound of my voice can move freely past my folder and out into the hall, as opposed to bouncing off my folder back to my body. The audience can see my face better and if I am trying to emote in some way they’ll catch it better than if I’m looking down. But most important, I can focus on the notes in my music while at the same time keeping the conductor in the upper part of my peripheral vision. I can also glance very quickly between the conductor and my music. This lets me follow the conductor’s beat and direction while still reading my music.

Something strange happened at our first concert last weekend. As I was singing, a twinkling light began to appear and disappear in the blur of my peripheral vision just over the conductor’s left shoulder. I managed to keep singing and during some long held notes tried to figure out what was going on.

There was a gentleman in the audience who happened to appear just to the left of the conductor from where I was standing who was dressed for the season. He was wearing a bright red beret, an impressive set of sideburns and mustachios, and a red-and-black shirt with a bright red tie. He was evidently a nervous sort, because he kept picking up his program, reading it, and putting it down. Whenever he put it down, he revealed the flashing red and blue LED lights on his tie pin.

Just a tiny bit distracting when you’re trying to focus on an inherently multitasking effort — reading your music, watching the conductor, listening to your section, listening to the other sections. Oh, and singing too.

Mr. LED caused a triggered a lot of hilarity in the choir room afterwards, but as I was thinking about what would possess someone to wear such an ornament at all, let alone at a choir concert, it ocurred to me that this situation has some bearing on my future — a future that’s a decade or so away, but something I’ve thought about a bit.

You see, I have a two-year-old daughter.

Let’s set up the beginning of an analogy here. It is certainly within Mr. LED’s rights to wear all the (literally) flashy bling he wants, and no one would dispute it. It would have been impolite and uncharitable to ask him to leave, and obviously immoral and illegal to do violence to his person in response to his insensitivity to the distraction he was causing. But he was still causing a distraction, significantly degrading my and the other choir members’ powers of concentration, and causing not a little annoyance and frustration.

You see where I’m going here. Before my daughter is a teenager, I’m going to have to talk to her about the fact that although she has (or will have, once she’s no longer a minor) the right to wear anything she wants, it might actually be insensitive of her to do so.

It is obviously impolite to stare at or comment about a scantily-dressed female, and the pathetic loser who would make wardrobe an excuse for assault should feel the full force of the law.

However, she will need to be aware that her style of dress will have an immediate effect on any present male’s powers of concentration, and, for the well-socialized at least, cause not a little annoyance and frustration.

I read a fascinating article just this morning that talks about a recent study that found that when people (of either sex) see a scantily-dressed person, there is a reduction of activity in the region of the brain that is dedicated to modeling other peoples’ agency as independent thinking beings.

So it’s not a bad upbringing or choices that cause men to objectify women who show skin (and vice versa!). It’s a basic biological fact.

That is not to say that this fact is desirable! My poor eyesight is a basic biological fact too, but that didn’t stop me from wearing clumsy technological prostheses to compensate for it, and finally getting a doctor to cut the front part of each eyeball off and used a high-powered laser to burn layers of corneal tissue away.

This basic biological fact is actually detrimental, because it causes us to undervalue others’ abilities. If you are interviewing a prospective employee, for example, you need to evaluate them in a realistic fashion, not with half your brain shut down!

A Newer Testament

I have been studying Ancient Greek for many years now, but my skillz seem to have reached an epic tipping point recently.

In fact, I can now report that I have discovered a hidden text in the manuscripts of the Synoptic Gospels that will surely shake contemporary politics to its foundations. What follows is my translation of the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 6 3/4, Verse 2.18:

And Jesus answered, saying, “Sell all you have and give your money to a government bureaucrat who claims he will use it wisely to help the poor and needy, and not waste it giving massive loans to corrupt businesses who will fritter it away, nor buy lots and lots of guns and give them away to Mexican drug cartels, no sirree.”

That is all.

Assign Blame where Blame is Due, and Treat People as Independent Moral Agents

The past couple of days have seen two unfortunate events, and two very curious reactions.

The events:

  1. The Vancouver Canucks hockey team lost the Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins in the seventh game of the final.
  2. Some members of the crowd of people gathered in downtown Vancouver to watch the game engaged in violence and destruction of property afterwards.

The curious reactions (there were obviously many different reactions, but these are the ones that I find curious):

  1. One person whose internet output I read uttered a vicious and vulgar condemnation of one particular member of the Canucks team. Another person said that the referees of the game allowed the Bruins’ style of skirting the edges of the permissible level of violence1 in the sport to disrupt the Canucks’ “artistic” style of play and thus cost the team the final game.
  2. The latter person also opined that the riots were the fault of the city government, who failed to provide enough police officers to quell the violence.

Both of these people are ministers of the Christian Church, one quite prominent on the national level.

I think the common element that I find deplorable about these reactions is that they utterly dehumanize the actors in question by depriving them of their status as independent moral agents with their own free will.

The first reaction is typical blameshifting to anyone other than one’s favourite, in a situation of cognitive dissonance where somone (in this case a sports team) whom you believe is the best at what they do is demonstrated to fail in this regard. The fault cannot be in the team as a whole, but must be either that of one renegade element, or else malevolent external forces.

The proof that this reaction in the case of the Canucks’ game is invalid is simple: the Canucks won three games of the series in the face of all the internal and external forces that were present in the 7th game, thus showing that it was entirely possible for them to win the series. The fact that they didn’t is simply a reflection of the fact that they failed to adapt their tactics or maintain their collective motivation: they didn’t play well enough to win. Last time I checked, a hockey game is not scored on “artistic merit”, but by putting pucks in the net. If you are so wedded to your style of play that you cannot change it when it obviously doesn’t work, then you don’t deserve to win.

To assign blame elsewhere actually does the Canucks a disservice. How does anyone become better at a given task? By first being worse. By honestly analyzing one’s failures and adapting one’s tactics appropriately. Claiming that the Canucks played as well as possible in this series is to deny them the chance to improve in the future.

The second reaction is, I think, similarly born of cognitive dissonance. Canucks fans/citizens of Vancouver obviously cannot be the type of people who would trash a downtown over a sporting event, so the fault must evidently lie in the government and the police.

This is far more serious than shifting the blame from your hockey team. It serves to completely deprive the rioters of their status as moral agents, and deprives them of both the opportunity and the responsibility to improve themselves. It’s analogous to saying a woman’s rape was inevitable because she didn’t wear the right clothes.

The blame for the riots rests entirely with those persons who chose of their own free will to commit violence, and no one else.

Saying “we need more police” is the answer of tyrants and oppressors. If you truly believe that state-sponsored violence is the best solution to private violence, then why not just go the whole way and use automatic weapons on the crowd instead of tear gas? I guarantee that this would quell the riot in a very short time, and act as a considerable deterrent to future rioters.

I think that the final and largest reaction to the riots is the correct one. Don’t deprive the rioters of their chance to improve themselves by ignoring their moral responsibility in favour of blaming the police. Don’t call on the government to “crack down” on public celebrations in the city. Rather, do as thousands of Vancouverites did yesterday. Show that you can get in the news by doing good and not evil. Go out and provide a praiseworthy counter-example by getting your own hands dirty cleaning up the streets, repairing the damage, and showing the world how to lose graciously, take personal responsibility, and show your support for your gallant defeated by acting nobly and building up, rather than tearing down, your community and society.

  1. I’ll blog about my opinion about violence in sports some other time. It’s probably not what you think.

Linguistic Prescriptivism as Class Warfare

The grammar of a language consists of rules that govern how you arrange the morphemes, words, sentences, paragraphs, etc. that make up your utterances.

That said, why would I be hostile (and I am, if you’ve ever talked about it with me) to the idea that some utterances are “better” or more “correct” than others?

The problem is that “language” is a fuzzy concept. Language varies enormously between different communities, social groups, and all the gallimaufrey of human interaction.

Why do people persist in attributing value to one particular variety of language over another? As a tool of social dominance and status signalling. As Geoff Pullum notes in his excellent talk on the subject, the written expression of a particular form of English spoken in London a couple hundred years ago has become associated with, not to put too fine a point on it, being successful in business and politics. Therefore, using this one dialect, which is called Standard Formal English, merely out of a myriad of others in the continuum that is mutually-intelligible English, signals that you are a member of the upper class, that you had the priviledge and leisure in your childhood to become fluent in it.

Note that this post is written in pure SFE. I don’t wish to discourage the use of Standard Formal English, as it serves a useful purpose in facilitating communication around the world.

What I do intend to discourage is the notion that using other varieties of English is “wrong”, “bad” or “broken”. This is as ludicrous as the idea that wearing jeans and t-shirts is “wrong”. There are situations in which wearing jeans would be inappropriate (a funeral), just as there are times when wearing a formal suit would be inappropriate (the beach). Likewise, there are times when Standard English is appropriate (a job interview), and times when it doesn’t matter one bit (a text message to a friend).

To think otherwise is, in a nutshell, a morally reprehensible prejudice. I had a conversation the other day with someone who had believed all their life that “Low” German was a “funny”, primitive pidgin, thus consigning millions of people to the status of subhumans. I had some trouble convicing them that the “Low” and “High” in varieties of German referse to geography, not any qualitative judgement, and that the only reason that the “High” variety has the higher prestige is that it happened to be the variety that Luther spoke when he translated the Bible.

I will teach my daughter that Formal Standard English is a useful life skill, but I would never dream of telling her that she is a lesser sort of person if she uses abbreviations in a text message, any more than I would insist that she wear a formal business suit to the beach.