Getting Gritty with it: the real thing

So here’s a thing. I’ve begun some long overdue editing work. It’s kinda boring, because it’s editing, y’all, but I discovered something. In doing this, I want to start writing again. The editor of the book is a personal friend and writing colleague, and the book is about a particular form of qualitative research called Narrative Inquiry, which is my thing.

Narrative Inquiry methods “story” the data and findings. In lay terms, we make meaning of social science research by putting raw data into a readily readable narrative for humans to connect to. In true terms it’s of course a rather messy and frustrating approach to analyse data but in meaning-making it beats most quantitative studies in the social sciences, because in the end quantitative researchers, with all their numbers, still have to put their discussions of the findings in ways that make it meaningful to humans. In narrative form. Often in the form of storied case studies, that sort of thing. Which Narrative Inquiry does from the get-go. Does it make the research any less rigorous? No, however, there may be ways of interpreting the research that quantitative researchers find using other means. Now, remember folks, I said the SOCIAL SCIENCES. NOT medical or earth sciences, or biotech or any kind of tech, really. Medicine and biological sciences need quantitative data much more than, arguably, the social sciences do.

As I’m sitting here doing the editing (which has to be done in little increments because it’s impossible to focus for more than an hour at a time on the stuff without losing the will to live), I’m all fired up and excited about writing again. I’ve offered to write a chapter in the book – according to my friend the volume’s a little short, so I’ve taken the bait. I had originally offered to write something about 100 years ago but I wasn’t in a good emotional space to be doing that, so I never submitted an abstract. I’ve given myself a 2 week turnaround for a rough draft of 8000 words. This doesn’t seem overly onerous, but there’s a whole heap of extra research and reading to do.

For every article I reference, there’s about 5 I read and discard. So if I include 50 references then I’ll need to read up to 250 articles for this chapter. Luckily I already know the field so more than half of the references are stored away in my brain somewhere, to be dragged out as a hoarder drags out his favourite rusting, teensy doo-dad from under the piles of equally rusting detritus, which he kept just in case. I’m going to send my friend the rough draft in early March and she can make the decision as to whether it’s good enough for inclusion. It’s a tight turn-around but it’s doable. The review process might be problematic because it’s usually very slow but the editors will no doubt send it to someone in the field who is known to do things quickly.

Seriously. It’s not as if I have better things to do with my time.

On the the Live Below the Line thing. I’ve been having another think about my starchy foods, and I’ve taken a little inventory of the food I usually eat on a normal day. Toast, eggs, sandwiches, pasta. I’m thinking I could buy a loaf of day-old bread from the bakery (cheap as chips), and some ready-made pasta, and this will do me just fine for 5 days with the other things. I’ll need to get fighting fit for the challenge. Perhaps a 2-day challenge to see how I cope with no coffee and wine? Not that this will hurt me, as my girth is back to its old chubster state.

I’m thinking on it. As you may have noticed, I’m a problem solver and this problem is rather delicious to play with. Also worthy. And as a cis-heteronormative white woman living near the 1% dream, I have very few excuses to shirk my duty as concerned world citizen. 😉



The wheels of change grind slowly…and then they don’t

Feeling slightly bloggy today. That is, I want to be saying something, yet I’ve nothing much to say.

This week is the week of waiting and editing. Waiting for the bathroom to be done (ONLY the electrician is left now); waiting for some editing jobs to come in; waiting for Friday.

Friday is job interview day. I’m asking myself why I’m not walking the dog or doing some shopping but hey, there’s not much to be doing here other than TV watching (now onto season 3 of The Good Wife – a step down from The West Wing because it’s not as complex and just a little bit more melodramatic, but otherwise excellent).

I’m waiting for something to start. And start it has. I’ve just had a phone call from a colleague who may have some project work for me. So for a few weeks at least, if I don’t get the Friday job I now have some editing work, a DECRA grant to prepare, teaching singing to organise (although not much because I’ve been winding it down slightly), a possible project, and 4 singing gigs.

The year is gearing up again. So I really should be planning my research work. For those who care, I have a PhD in music. I have a bunch of stuff to do with this research, even if I don’t have a paid job to go to. I could plan and write my monograph, I could write a couple of research articles. However, as everyone in research knows, writing research articles is like pulling teeth. I get engrossed in it but I hate starting it off. It’s like writing a term paper but much, much harder. Nearly everyone you know hated writing undergraduate term papers. It’s no different just because I’m a grown-up. Luckily everyone I know procrastinates on journal articles, too.

Stooges pulling teeth

Anyway, so. Editing. It’s a thing. Yesterday I wrote a Flash Fiction piece, 130 words long. Today I edited it. Let go, much? It’s better, but not much better. I read it aloud this time. It helps to read stuff out aloud. One gets a feel for scansion, flow, word placement, comma placement, narrative and dramatic tension. I’m no good with grammar rules or poetry / narrative / syntax / phrase rules – I wasn’t taught any memorable English language rules as a child, and as an adult I struggle to retain information like that. I might remember a Kardashian moment, but I won’t remember syllable emphasis. I have to go with intuitive rhythmic/ melodic placement of the spoken word.


Fiction so short is like poetry. Smells, sights, sounds, interactions, and a narrative arc told in 100 words. Brevity is vital, quality is paramount. No passive voice. Very few adjectives. The right word for the right scene, no excess or repetition unless the repetition adds narrative value. Tricky but doable. I’m getting better at it, I think. At least, my eye is sharpening.

So, waiting and editing is my thing this week. And now: to walk the dog.




I’ve got it, by George!

My dissertation has passed with minor changes. Huzzah!!!!

Just thought you’d like to know. Got the news on Xmas eve, a fabulous gift if ever I’ve had one. I was at the South Melbourne Market with friends, idly reading my mail because I truly did NOT expect any news about my PhD until after New Year. It’s Xmas, after all. People go on holidays at Xmas, and some universities shut down all together for a week. South Melbourne Market is a fabulous, noisy, busy market, doubly so on Xmas eve at 3pm. I was standing near the Gozleme stall (mmm, yummy yummy Gozlemes….), contemplating a late lunch.

Aaaanyway. The email subject header was: Outcome of Thesis Examination. Gulp. With kerthudding heart and trembly hands I tried to open the email on my big new shiny iPhone 6+, fumbling with gifts and bags and the crush of too many people having a good time. Too much noise. Appetite gone. I sat down on a bench. Legs not working too well.

The first thing I read: the Graduate School has now reviewed the examiners’ reports on your thesis and is pleased to advise that you will be awarded the degree, subject to completion of the following to the satisfaction of your enrolling School/Institute and the Dean of the Graduate School.


That’s all I managed to read for a bit.

After what seemed like a LONG time I read the rest of the email and eventually found the examiner’s comments. Huzzah. Positive comments mostly. A few critiques of analysis approaches and some awkward juxtapositioning of methods I needed to fix. Some minor editing throughout, and a minor exhortation to be consistent with meanings.

Otherwise easy peasy. Hooray!

Last week I did the changes. I know, I know: people who get their theses back are often shocked by the amount of changes they are asked to make. Not me: I’ve already published. I’m used to being critiqued. Also, being a musician, we’re always critiqued – it’s part of the feedback loop. Sing for someone, they tell you what to change, you change it. Done. Plus, I work better with concrete suggestions. I spent a week crafting the edits in line with the reports, then sent it to my supervisors. There are probably a couple more things I could do for added perfection, but I think I’m really done now.

In a few months, I will be a Doctor of Philosophy.

But don’t ask me to explain my thesis – I still can’t explain my study to the lay person without their eyes glazing over.

Revisiting old ground

Hello, narratives.

Discovered a lovely thing about my narrative chapters, visiting them after a long break: they’re too long. I can cut them down by paraphrasing lots of the participant quotes (even though the quotes themselves are fine), and by reshaping or re-analysing the text.

So I will. At 15000 words each, they’re too long. I WAS warned. My book chapters and journal articles are much better, cleaner, leaner, meaner. Time to remove, renovate, reword. 13000 words should do it. See below for the red pen of death.


My article was accepted!!!

Today, a little happy dance. For my article to an “A” grade music education research journal has been accepted!

I had been hiding from doing the revisions, mainly because I didn’t know where to start. It was when the assistant editor wrote a very polite third email – 6 months after the second – asking whether I was actually going to resubmit that I sat down to make sense of the comments.

In the end, it was a fairly easy revision process. The reviewers were very kind. They weren’t savage. They wanted the article to be published but one reviewer in particular saw that the article lacked structural clarity. So I created a table of revisions. My revised article was much, much better. The writing was clearer, the structure more sound, and even the way I explained and analysed my research was better articulated.

In the end, a blind peer-reviewed process is an excellent way to ensure a quality product. The process has made me much more aware of how I write for these types of journals. Tragically, it’s much easier for me to analyse the work of others than create my own. Damn you, musicology brain. Where’s composing brain when you want it?

And as I was doing the last set of revisions for the editor this morning, I even fixed the references. Not being a fan of EndNote, I keep all my references in a big reference list stored in the cloud (Dropbox, I love you). But they’re not always accurately cited, and sometimes journals want Chicago or something hideous like Harvard or MLA. Still, it’s not hard to fix, and doesn’t take all that long. I think my old fashioned approach is still better than buggy EndNote.

By the time I get my PhD I should have 10 publications to quality journals and publishing houses. A good start. So happy happy dance today!

The “submitting draft” fear

Yesterday I sent my supervisors a 25000 word draft of one of my Narrative chapters. I wanted to hug them and tell them not to cry, because if someone sent me a draft containing 25000 words I would almost certainly break down in tears and sob uncontrollably. I’ve only 80000 words in total that I’m ALLOWED to submit*. I have to cut my draft down to 15000, still say what I want to say, and still have my participants say what they’re saying without speaking for them. This is hard because there’s so much lovely data, such rich veins of material that I’m having trouble finding my way through. In a way this is good because I have a chance to see what my supervisors think, and to have them help me find the rigour and tautness of the data.

At the same time when one submits one’s first draft to one’s supervisors it’s always a little bit like the “death of a thousand cuts”, and you have to be very disciplined about one’s writing and not get too precious about the ideas. They are nascent, messy things at first. Drafting and editing requires some of the most disciplined effort I have ever done, and even though I can whip up a quick essay overnight and can look at it weeks later and realise that it’s very good, I can’t do this with my PhD material. It won’t stand up to scrutiny in the same way, and also, because the work is longer, it’s harder to keep an outline in one’s head, unlike a 3000 word essay. Still, every time I press the send button on the email with my draft attached, I feel a little sad, like I’ve just had a baby who’s going to lose its head very soon, or at the very least, a series of limbs.

I am about to start redrafting another chapter I did last year, before I had finished all the interviews and before I had transcribed the end interviews. At the moment it just looks like a lot of interview transcript and lessons excerpts and there is not much analysis linking all the data. It will be good to get back to it, and revisit this case.

Presentations and the hell of the night before

I gave a presentation today. My presentation, which was thirty minutes long, went extremely well and I was congratulated on my spoken English. I was also congratulated on my ability to read stories well. I am thrilled with how my presentation went, and while I have some reservations about how to sort and deal with my subject matter, I am overall thrilled with my work. I feel, rather than elated, more happy that I was able to do my work and have it appraised in front of a willing audience who were quick to praise and slow to criticize.  A thrilling moment, possibly made worse because now I have to send this to my supervisor for reflection and discussion. UGH. So, because everything I do re: me is on this blog, here is an excerpt of my autoethnography and my thoughts on my development as a thinker.


I knock on her door at the appointed hour, perfectly on time. She greets me; I make some inane comment about her glamorous appearance, eager to please. She ushers me into her studio, a big, purpose built room at the rear of her house. It is quite dark in the room, and I have to ask for more light so that I can see my scores.

I place my bag on the floor, prop my music on the wooden stand, position myself in the recess of the black grand piano and grab the pencil she leaves on the lid. She sits at the piano, looking up at me closely, as light from the large bay window falls on the keys. We chat a little bit about the weekly happenings and she gossips madly. She wants to tell me about her life, about her experiences with appalling people.

She asks me if I have warmed up. I reply that I have had a bit of a yell, but I am not fully warm. I am nervous already. She asks me to sing some exercises. At once a nerve racking and yet thrilling ordeal. Before I have finished the first scale she stops me, peremptorily. What was that? She demands. Sounds like a dog howling or some sort of bullfrog. This said with a twinkle in her eye. I understand: I am not offended. I trust her opinion. I sing again, she stops me again. I’ve done it the same way. I can’t seem to get it into my body how to change my sound. I sense something wrong about my vowel shape or mouth position. I can’t change it at first. She is patient. She tries to explain it another way. Think of the sound like you are walking across a deep gorge on a tightrope in very high heels. I gape at her. What? Like little jewels; pearls strung on a necklace. I don’t understand what she means. She opens her mouth to sing the phrase and a flood of glorious sound emerges, warm, beautiful, perfect. Like that, she says. I try to mimic the sound but my ears and voice are not responding. I can’t copy her luminescent quality. I am not discouraged. I listen, I watch. I mimic. Sometimes she nods; sometimes I am doing it right. Usually I am all wrong. But today, today I discover my mask resonance, at last. It is an epiphany. I am elated. She is relieved.

I begin a French chanson without accompaniment and we analyse it word by word, phrase by phrase. She tells me my vowels are appalling. She tells me my French is appalling. I am discouraged by my attempts to sing French as my vocal line and phrasing are not good enough. I don’t want to disappoint her and I am frustrated by my inability to sing this subtle music to her or my exacting standards. I scribble on my music with her pencil, trying to write a pidgin English phonetic translation of the French words. I feel mealy mouthed and muffled and I am not pronouncing the words properly. I even stumble over the pronunciation of mischievous: I start to say mis-CHEE-VI-OUS, but it’s not the normal way I say it, and so I stammer. She corrects me. I let her correct me, even though I know I have no problems with the English language normally. I can’t retort. I feel utterly stupid and dense. I am dumb with slowness. Why do I pronounce the word wrongly? Am I nervous? She is a formidable person and I sense she enjoys confrontation. She can be unpredictable. I feel a bit afraid of her at times, and I don’t want to disappoint her or upset her as this time in my lessons is special. It’s my time.

We move on to my German repertoire. I have no trouble singing German. She leaves it alone as it’s not her specialty and she recommends I go to someone who can better help me with the music. She names someone well known in the industry and I jot down the name and phone number. She wants me to know as many influential people as possible – I feel she is building me a network. She is very generous and I am grateful to her for this help. She is very encouraging of me despite my apparently appalling diction, my awful technique. I must be doing something right as she is supporting me in developing my future career.

My voice at the end of the hour is fresher than when I began. She looks at her watch, looks at me mock regretfully and announces the lesson has ended. I thank her and leave, checking that my lesson the following week is at a mutually agreeable time. I hug the things she has taught me to myself, determined not to forget them. I decide to experiment with some of her better concepts and images on my own students as a way of keeping them in my memory.


This is a distillation, if you like, of several singing lessons I had over the years. Everything I have related here has happened at one time or another. In this recreation I’ve emphasized some threads that have emerged in my study as being crucial, and possibly unique, I believe, to singing teaching and learning, which I will unpack for you shortly.

The title of this talk today – we ARE our instrument, is one of several comments made by my participants in this study, and one made by singers and writers about singing generally. As musicians, singers house their instrument in their bodies. Their instrument also serves as their communicator and it can be argued that their voice IS the conduit to their soul. Of voice education, Renee Fleming, American opera singer and author writes:

“in a young singer’s training, a teacher and a student have to develop a terminology, to find a language in which they can easily communicate. The essential component is rapport. The student has to feel cared for, because singing is such an exercise in vulnerability. The voice, after all, is the only instrument that can’t be sold. You can’t say: “I really don’t like this one, so I’m going to trade it in for a Stradivarius.” …For that reason it’s also important that teachers be able to navigate through a person’s psychology. Criticism can feel extremely personal when you are the instrument that’s being discussed” (2004, p. 21).

Singing teaching, then, becomes as much about caring for the psychological wellbeing of the singing student as it is about the development of their vocal technique and artistry. Singing teaching is about finding a common language in which to communicate. Fleming argues that rapport between student and teacher is essential in singing training. Clemmons, researcher in voice, argues similarly, when she writes “the emotional connection rapport creates between teacher and student is dynamic and significant. This connection creates a sense of relatedness in the student that fosters motivation. Because the relationship between rapport and motivation is so strong, the relationship’s success can be an indication of the success of the student” (2006, p. 209).

Communication, rapport, personality, instructional skill and instructional systemization are five areas identified by Abeles in 1975 to codify behaviours and activities in the applied music lesson, and it might be argued that these areas remain pretty much at the core of all one to one learning and teaching. These are rather dry terms, however, that fail to really unpack the unique qualities of learning to sing, which has at its heart the need to understand the voice as a physiological and biological element of our bodies, a tool developed over aeons to become our primary form of communication, and a tool subject to emotional upheaval: we cry, laugh, scream with our voices, we choke, we sob. So when I talk about singers being their instrument, I see that a core element of their identity as singers requires that they possess the ability to communicate through music and lyric the meaning of a song, and their emotional embodiment of the song. Take the voice away and one takes away a vital part of the singer’s identity. Criticize the voice and you criticize the person. This is significant for a singer and one area that has enthralled me during this study.

My background is reasonably similar to that of my participants in the study. I come from a middle class, well-educated, urban-based Australian-born white Anglo-Saxon family and my parents believed that the individual, not the state, pays for extra-curricular education. They provided my four younger sisters and me with enriching learning experiences such as music lessons and concerts and ballets and opera. Money, although tight, was never an issue where education was concerned and at every step my parents supported me in my music making. As a child I learnt piano, cello, and, from 16, I learnt singing.

In singing lessons I was the student and the teacher was the master. In a retrospective haze, I recall feeling that my singing teachers were the fonts of all wisdom in regards to classical singing, although I certainly did not feel this way about any of my other school teachers. I did not expect to be friends with my singing teachers, nor did I expect to go to them for personal advice. I did not consider my singing teacher to be my psychological advisor. I think I was in awe of all of my singing teachers, each of whom offered a unique perspective into the life of the working classical singer. I recall being extremely compliant in my lessons, which is not my resting state, I must admit. As you will have noted from my account, I also experienced fear, and respect in my lessons. I trusted my teachers implicitly, but I frequently felt bewildered by their teaching, and I was never asked to reflect on how I made a sound or understood a concept. At times I was subtly denigrated by my teachers, whose superior skill and experience was often used as a weapon against me, a potential competitor, particularly by the younger women teachers, who I suspect saw me and other sopranos as a threat in a cutthroat industry. Most of the time, however, I was treated well, and my teachers were, in the main, helpful and thoughtful people who taught me the mechanics and musicianship and artistry of singing as best they could, given their experience as teachers and singers. I experienced, many times, great joy and elation when I finally mastered a skill, and the concomitant disappointment and discouragement when I was unable to grasp a concept.

What I have found by examining my own experiences is a series of deeply held assumptions that I attribute to life-long cultural values espoused in part by my education-rich upbringing, my personality type and some tacit notions of teacher as master and student as willing sponge. Are my experiences characteristic of those now experienced by young and emerging singers? Do they hold similar beliefs and values to mine?

Seeing one’s work in print

I think seeing one’s work in print is the best and worst thing one can see, as an emerging writer and researcher. Now my work is out there. I am now a published author, albeit with only 8000 words to my name. I had a read of my work, and as is normal with work like this, first time out and all that, I’ve picked up a heap of issues with the work that needs fixing. Oh well, too late now. Some of my English expression is, frankly, awkward. I’m learning that I need to read my work out aloud so that it makes sense to my ears as well as my mind. In other writing that I am doing, I am making this transition and it is working well.

In other news, it is really good to see one’s ideas articulated fairly well. I’m not a crap writer. I’m a good writer who just needs a bit of an edit from time to time. Yay!

Getting into work.

Yesterday I came into work at 8.00amd, was at my desk and editing by 8.30am. Today is not so good, but I’ll start editing in 10 minutes. I like to stay at work until 7.00pm, if I can. Does this make me weird? I like to work hard when the fancy takes me, and I also have a teaching studio after hours. Am I odd? I do enjoy down time and take plenty of it: traveling and playing computer games, that sort of thing. But when I need to, I like to work until I’m too tired to do any more. Some would argue that my work/life balance is out of whack. But this weekend I had three dinner and lunch parties and a concert on the Sunday to attend. I did not work then. So, how does any one else feel?

My work load is driven by me: I am self employed and my study is formed around my availability. My work habits tend to run in cycles of high activity, followed by fallow times. Currently I am highly active and driven to complete things I need to do for others. Once that is done, I have two papers to prepare and some overdue transcriptions to complete. Who else has a similar pattern to mine? Is it always the way that high activity is followed by fallow periods? Is this only true of research or is it found in other work places also?