Welcome

A warm welcome to my new blog linking music making with music psychology.

This blog is intended to be helpful to anyone who is interested in the processes and practicalities of teaching, learning and performing music. It is partly inspired by my own experience of enjoying musical performance, developing practical musicianship, and adopting a broad spectrum of teaching strategies. It is also partly led by my interest in the real-world applications of the psychology of music.

Music psychology is a relatively new discipline, which began to gain prominence towards the middle of the last century. The first well-known writer on this subject was Carl Seashore, who published his book (simply entitled Psychology of Music) in 1938. Since then, there has been a rapidly growing number of researchers in this field, and an ever-increasing potential for applying our findings in real-life music-making.

Whenever I mention music psychology, someone usually expresses surprise that such a thing exists, and they immediately want to know what on earth it could be.  The most straightforward answer is that music psychology helps us to study musical behaviour and experiences. It helps us to explore the connections between what is going on inside our heads and what is happening in the music when we are participating in musical activities, whether as a listener, audience member, learner or performer.

The areas covered by music psychology include musical development, which explores the origins of human musicality and how we acquire musical skills; music in everyday life, which examines how we use music to influence our mood and environment; and performance psychology, which investigates phenomena such as music performance anxiety or ‘stage fright’.

There is also a burgeoning interest in the related field of music and wellbeing. Virtually every month there is new research-based evidence demonstrating the effects of musical participation upon physical, psychological and social wellbeing.  In this blog, I will highlight some of the research into music psychology, and music and wellbeing; to record some of my own relevant experiences; and to suggest some practical applications of the emerging body of literature in this area.

I hope that anyone who happens to read this blog will find some useful information, some thought-provoking anecdotes, and some helpful ideas about teaching, learning and making music. Enjoy!

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Community Music Article

Yesterday I collected a heap of ‘snail mail’ from my pigeon hole in the Music Department at Sheffield University. Amongst the usual brown envelopes was my copy of a journal for which I wrote an article a while ago. This was a lovely surprise, as it always feels very special to receive a printed version of my own work, even when it has already been published online.

This article explores some of the social and musical interactions in amateur choirs; the impact that singers can have upon each others’ learning and performance; and the ways in which, through taking account of these interactions, choir leaders can help to optimise the singers’ confidence, enjoyment and performance quality.

Here is the reference for the article:

Bonshor, M. (2016). Sharing knowledge and power in adult amateur choral communities: The impact of communal learning on the experience of musical participation. International Journal of Community Music9(3), 291-305.

The full online version of the article is available here.

Singing Together for Wellbeing

Last night I conducted a concert with the Radcliffe on Trent Male Voice Choir at Bingham in Nottinghamshire. Our current theme song is ‘Stout Hearted Men’ from ‘New Moon’, which was one of the first musicals that my mother took me to see at the theatre. One of my favourite lines in the song is ‘Hearts can inspire other hearts with their fire’, and the gentlemen of the choir are among my main sources of inspiration at the moment.

As I rapidly approach a significant birthday, I have been constantly looking for good examples of healthy aging, and I am now fortunate enough to be surrounded by positive role models in the male voice choir. The youngest members are in their mid-sixties, and the rest are mainly in their seventies and eighties. Two of our singers have recently celebrated their ninetieth birthdays, which makes my approaching landmark seem comparatively modest.

After telling last night’s audience about the singers’ longevity, I realised that I had possibly delivered a slight insult to our younger members when I added ‘…And I defy you to work out which of the men are the ninety-year olds!’ Of course, I meant that it is quite difficult to identify the most senior singers, as they look so well and continue to make such a strong contribution to the choir.

Radcliffe on Trent Male Voice Choir
A Great Advertisement for Singing and Wellbeing!

The longest-standing members of this group have over 250 songs in their repertoire (not including their Christmas songs), and pride themselves on performing everything from memory. Post-performance celebrations in the pub are often enlivened by spontaneous renditions of old favourites, such as ‘The Rhythm of Life’ and ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, as many of the singers can (and do!) perform these items with very little persuasion. Newer members quickly learn to catch up by memorising the songs for each concert.

The choir operates as a learning community, with more experienced members of the choir mentoring new recruits, making sure they have everything they need (sheet music, choir uniform, performance directions etc.) and helping them to get up to speed with the music. Often I look around and see one of the basses discreetly gesturing to his neighbour to indicate where the pitch goes up and down. On other occasions, I might see one of the tenors helping his colleague to work out which verse we are singing, or a baritone quietly explaining the ‘map reading’ for those who hadn’t noticed a repeat mark or coda.

The singers’ collaborative approach to learning and performing extends into their social life, as they have a healthy relationship with the local pub, and many of them keep in touch outside rehearsals. Some of the gentlemen sail together, meet to play golf or bowls, belong to other networking organizations, or simply visit and support each other in times of need. There is a strong sense of community within the choir, and the singers also play an active role in the wider community. They arrange collaborative performances with local schools and colleges, provide opportunities for young soloists to perform in their concerts, and are constantly fundraising for local and national charities.

All of this means that this group of singers, like many other choirs, are a very powerful advertisement for the wellbeing effects of singing. Their physical wellbeing benefits from the good posture, deep breathing and general relaxation necessary for healthy vocal production, while their cognitive skills remain sharp due to the constant need to learn, revise and memorise their words and music. Their social wellbeing is enhanced by their own supportive community and their valuable contributions to the wider community.

Our plans for this year include an open day to enable newcomers to gain first-hand experience of the wellbeing benefits of singing together. This will take place on Saturday 17th March at Lutterell Hall  in West Bridgford, starting at 10 am and finishing at around 4 pm.  Participation is not dependent upon vocal skill or musical training, and male singers of all ages and abilities will be welcome.

The open day will start with a short presentation on some of the ways of accessing the benefits of singing and making the most of our voices. Practical workshops will then help new singers to learn how to use their breath efficiently for relaxation and optimum performance, to explore their voices, to take part in musical team building activities, and to have fun singing in harmony with other people. The event will finish with a brief ‘show and tell’ session at which we will perform our songs to a select audience of friends and family – by invitation only! There will also be opportunities to socialise and to hear the gentlemen of the choir demonstrate some of their current repertoire.

For further information about the choir and this event, see the Radcliffe on Trent Male Voice Choir website here.

‘The Confident Choir’ – A New Book for Choir Leaders and Singers

There’s been some excitement in my house this week, as I’ve just received several copies of my new book, ‘The Confident Choir: A Handbook for Leaders of Group Singing’. I was delighted to see how beautifully the publishers have presented this, and I particularly love the cover design. I think the image of the conductor emerging from the roots of the ‘musical tree’ conveys some of the main messages of the book, which emphasize collaboration, cohesion, communication and community development in the context of confidence building for singers and their choir leaders.

Conductors, choir leaders, facilitators or teachers who run group singing activities are obviously vital components in amateur group singing, but the contribution of the choir members is also key to the success of every ensemble. This book explores the effects of group dynamics, interpersonal communication, body language, giving and receiving verbal feedback, teamwork and team-building, acoustics and choir positioning, and leadership and teaching styles, all  from point of view of the singers, and extrapolates a set of confidence-boosting strategies for leaders of choirs of all shapes and sizes.

Along with a range of psychological, philosophical and pedagogical approaches to confidence building for choir leaders and singers, ‘The Confident Choir’ contains a selection of suggestions and tips, activities and exercises, real-life case studies, and transcribed conversations with singers about the things that affect their confidence, both positively and negatively.

The book was principally designed with choir leaders in mind, and contains practical applications of many psychological frameworks for use in rehearsal and performance. However, because it is packed with insightful and enlightening perspectives from amateur singers, any choir members who read the book are likely to appreciate hearing about other performers’ experiences, and will probably have a few ‘me too’ moments!

‘The Confident Choir’ is now available from a wide range of outlets, including Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Blackwells, WaterstonesThe Telegraph Bookshop, Barnes & Noble, and many more retailers worldwide.

More details about the content can be found here.

Here are a few reviews:

Michael Bonshor has created the new number one companion for every Choral Conductor. His assiduously tailored chapters provide insights, tips and strategies to create confidence, clear direction, sound communication, and a positive contagion from both sides of the podium.  Robert T. Elliott, festival director, Cornwall International Male Choral Festival Ltd

This realistic, well researched and practical guide provides conductors and scholars with transformative advice for building confidence in choirs. Bonshor’s comprehensive approach and coherent writing provide pragmatic solutions for all readers. An influential book which will stimulate motivation and inspire confidence!  Mary Black, post-doctoral research fellow, Music Department, Leeds University

This immensely thoughtful yet extremely practical book is based on a satisfying mixture of established psychological and pedagogical research, and Michael Bonshor’s own qualitative research and experience of directing groups of singers in a wide variety of settings. I will almost certainly revisit this book at the beginning of each new choral society season to remind myself how to get the best out of my choir!  Matthew Redfearn, conductor and music director, Glossop Choral Society

This fascinating new book is a great resource for both beginners and experienced practitioners working with amateur singers who seek to develop their professional skills and knowledge within this field. This scholarly yet richly practical guide is supported by checklists and thought provoking statements from singers and conductors relating to collective singing performances. The book is underpinned by the extensive expert professional experience of the author and will be of significant interest and value to all who lead amateur singing ensembles.  Joy Hill, choral conductor, Royal College of Music Junior Department

And here’s the gorgeous front cover!

Michael's book cover