Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Can't you hear yourself? (The X Factor)

I was watching The X Factor last night and thinking briefly about some of the issues behind what must surely be the most popular music programme on TV at the moment. I'm sure that most people don't give such things a second thought, but I find the questions that pop music and TV raise in relation to music fascinating.

Although I find programmes like The X Factor to be at the very least frustrating, and often completely exasperating to watch, it's clear that a lot of people love it, and there still doesn't seem to be any shortage of applicants. Of course, the auditions themselves vary hugely in quality - in fact, a lot of people enjoy watching the terrible auditions more than the final rounds - and for me that raises very interesting questions about self-awareness and hearing in relation to music. Why is it that some people think they are singing in tune and with good tone but sound awful, while others are very good but don't really seem to realise it, seeming shocked when people like what they hear? It often seems as though people simply cannot hear themselves when they sing.

I think there is a common issue lying behind many of these auditions, which is not lack of pitch recognition or musicality (although they are clearly problems for a significant number of applicants!), but lack of musical or auditory self-awareness, by which I mean the ability to proactively and critically listen to themselves, and the sound they make in relation to others. I suspect this stems from two main factors (although I must proceed with the caveat that I don't really know anything about the musical backgrounds of the contestants for definite).

Firstly, the majority of the contestants seem not to have had any genuine, sustained musical or vocal tuition, in a group or individual context. I'm also not sure that many of them have ever spent very much time singing with other people. When I look back on my musical training so far, self-awareness appears as a constant theme, although it didn't necessarily seem so at the time, especially when I was younger. This is because whether it is developed consciously or not, self-awareness or proactive listening is important for someone to become a skilled musical performer. Without being able to judge how you sound and compare it to what you want others to hear it is much harder for a performer to either improve their skills or perform music to a high standard. It is this proactive listening that you learn when comparing your performance to that of a teacher in a lesson, or when trying to match intonation and tone quality with the other members of a choir. If contestants on The X Factor have not had musical training or spent time developing their listening skills then they will often not have learned to really think critically about what they hear when singing. Therefore they will not be able to get an accurate sense of how they sound to other people, or improve very significantly, which goes a long way to explaining both why they are bad, and why they don't know how good or bad they are.

Secondly, the format of the auditions means that the vast majority of applicants sing along to a backing track. I suspect (although again I don't know for sure) that most of them therefore practice by singing along to the track in question, which means that they probably don't focus enough on how they actually sound. When working with recordings it is easy to get lost in passively following the track, and therefore assume you are putting across a particular performance rather than analysing what is actually happening. This can result in a rather nasty surprise when trying to perform in a different context.

These two factors do not provide a full picture, but I think they are intriguing starting points for an explanation of why people seem to completely misjudge the nature of their abilities and performances on talent shows. (Although I suppose I could just be over thinking the whole question - maybe they know they're bad and just want to get on TV?)

We hear lots about how music can help with fostering team work and cooperation, but there seems to be less about how it can help the individual. Surely the fact that music-making can improve self-awareness, an important skill in every area of life, is another argument in favour of increased musical participation in schools, and something that deserves to be considered in music education?

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Stradivarius Obsession

This morning I have been reading (via Gizmodo) the news that someone has discovered a method for treating wood with fungus in order to make violins good enough to rival the famous Stradivarius models. Apparently one of the reasons for the legendary tone of the Stradivarius violins is that the wood they are made from is particularly dense and also highly elastic, properties that are ideal for encouraging resonance in a violin but also very hard to recreate. Treating certain types of timber with two specific species of fungus alters the wood to make it closer to that ideal, and therefore excellent for violin making - so good, in fact, that 'in a blind test a panel of experts was unable to distinguish the fake Stradivarius from the real thing.'

This is hardly the first such story to emerge from the woodwork, I'm sure it won't be the last, and I'm also sure I'm not alone in treating these reports with a a rather large dose of scepticism. For much of the media, the word 'Stradivarius' seems to have a special quality and attraction. I think this is because it is such a recognisable name, even for many people with almost no interest in classical music, and therefore radiates potential for a slightly unusual, quirky story on a subject (classical music) that most people find a bit boring.

Whatever the reason, I suspect similar stories will keep appearing. Which is a shame, because it's all a bit ridiculous, and not really that interesting once you realise how pointless the whole thing is.

I'm no expert on violins, but the fact that so many people hold Stradivarius violins in such high regard is enough to make me believe they have some special qualities. On the other hand, just as with many other musical figures (Josquin, Mozart, Beethoven), the reality has clearly been distorted by mystique and legend. Stradivarius violins may be exceptional, but there have no doubt been many other outstanding models created since then, of which this new version made from fungus treated wood is just the latest. The idea of comparing them in a blind 'taste' test is pointless for so many reasons - surely there must be better things to talk about in the musical world, especially regarding the intersection with technology, than these clearly ridiculous 'experiments'? What about how technology is helping disabled people make music (as at the Paralympics)? What about the future of musical notation and input with touch sensitive devices? This Stradivarius research and the subsequent articles are a vaguely interesting diversion for a few minutes, but nothing more, and it is such a shame that these are the aspects of classical music that get written about. Let's try and move on from our Stradivarius obsession shall we? They're good, yes, but they're not going to make me play like Joshua Bell, and not having one isn't going to make Joshua Bell sound like me.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Finding concerts

I often feel that trying to find out what concerts and shows are happening in a particular place on a specific day is quite difficult. The internet and search engines make things much easier of course, but finding out if there is something happening that you might want to go and see is still quite a long process. Trawling through the websites of every group you know of takes a long time, and their events calendars tend to include tours rather than gigs in a specific location. There are various websites that aim to let people know what's going on in a particular city, but they are often of dubious quality, tend to leave things out, and can't really be tailored to your specific tastes.

Because of this I've been wondering if there would be value in a customisable service that collated information from various sources and then kept people informed and updated about concerts, gigs, or events in general. You could choose a place, group, or act that you were interested in and then either receive updates when there was an event happening soon or get complete listings. The value would be in the customisable element - there are very few people interested in absolutely everything happening on any given night of the week in a place like Birmingham, for instance, and from my experience it would be very useful. It's actually something that Google seems to be trying to offer as part of their drive towards more personal search results. Now a Google search for a film provides times for cinemas near your location, but their service doesn't seem to cover music yet, and isn't very thorough.

This was one of the resources that I intended to provide on this blog when I first started it - hence the events pages and calendar - but at the time it proved to be too time-intensive. I'm thinking of starting it up again in a slightly different format similar to that described above, so if you are interested or know of a service similar to what I've just described (in which case I would probably sign up!) your feedback either here or on twitter (@andywarnock) would be very welcome.

Welsh National Opera: Things Classical Music Costs Less Than

This is the second in the new series of posts I'm writing on 'Things Classical Music Costs Less Than' and I've decided to take a slightly different, more local, approach this time, looking the Welsh National Opera's production of La Bohème.

The basic idea is to contrast the cost of classical music with other activities or purchases to show that great live music is much cheaper than many people think. However, in the first post in the series (which looked at the BBC Proms) the things that I chose to compare a ticket to were fairly random. Having thought about it, in the future I'm going to compare ticket costs with local activities that are actual alternatives to going to a concert, rather than with different types of products. In this case, I'll be focusing on Cardiff, as although the WNO is a touring opera company, they are based at the Welsh Millenium Centre

WNO - La Bohème at the Welsh Millenium Centre: £12 £5 - £40
Both the WNO and Welsh Millenium Centre websites advertise £5 as the cheapest ticket price for this production, and although I couldn't seem to find any that were available (they may have sold out or be concession prices) £12 is still very cheap. Having sat in some of the cheapest seats in this particular theatre, I can testify that they aren't so far away that everything will pass you by!
This production is sung in Italian, with surtitles in both English and Welsh, and has had plenty of good reviews (from The Telegraph, The Guardian, and The Arts Desk among others), so should appeal to both newcomers and opera regulars alike.
If you're not in Cardiff then this production will also appear in Swansea, Llandudno, Birmingham, Oxford, Liverpool, Southampton, and Bristol.

Update: The WNO has informed me that £5 tickets are available for everyone, not just concessions, but they might get sold out - I assume that's why I couldn't see any. That makes it even better value, and cheaper than a few other events, including some of Glamorgan's cricket matches.

Wales vs Argentina at the Millenium Stadium: £32.40 - £42.70
This is the first match of the autumn for the Welsh national rugby team against Argentina, and although tickets for children under 16 are £11.35, the cheapest adult ticket is more than double the price of a ticket to La Bohème. For the match against Australia there are some cheaper tickets, but the most expensive goes up to £73.80.

John Bishop - Rollercoaster: £34
For those who like having their funny bones tickled, the popular standup comic John Bishop is also performing at the Motorpoint arena next week. However, despite all the tickets that are left being the same price, getting in is only £6 less than the most expensive seat for La Bohème.

Cage Warriors Fighting Championship 49: £26.50 - £41.50
If mixed martial arts is your thing, then you'll be please to know that the Cage Warriors Fighting Championship, 'Europe's leading mixed martial arts organisation' is coming to Wales for the first time in October. You may not be so pleased to hear that the cheapest ticket is more than double the cost of the cheapest ticket to La Bohème.

Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds: £50.75 - £65.50
This weekend Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, the former Oasis guitarist's new band, perform at the Cardiff Motorpoint Arena, but the cheapest ticket costs £10 more than the most expensive ticket to La Bohème.

George Michael - Symphonica, The Orchestral Tour: £83.60 - £100.10
After his recent performance at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics George Michael has resumed his Symphonica tour, and will be performing in Cardiff for two nights in October. However, the tickets are rather expensive, and if you find paying £83 to see George Michael a bit steep, you and several friends could probably get the cheapest seats to La Bohème, as well as a rather nice dinner, for the same price.