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If in Doubt, Look Up

We are learning, in these enlightened times, to acknowledge, and to deal with, ingrained prejudices which we may have absorbed without question or even without being aware of them. I know this to be true from my occasional perusal of Maureen’s weekly copy of The Observer. And indeed from Maureen herself, who seems to have become quite fond of the word ingrained recently.

It would appear to be the case that, left unchallenged, prejudice of all kinds persists. And that it needs brave men to face down these shibboleths. Men of courage to scatter the fog of ignorance with the cool calm light of reason.

Yes, Maureen, thank you. Women too.

I have been mulling this over and I think I begin to see what it means. In fact, if we look about us with open eyes, institutional discrimination is everywhere. Even close to home.

Reader, it may shock you to know that the Choral world is no exception. And therefore I am stepping forward; I am taking a stand; I am using the freedom of expression, which we must all treasure, to call out a pernicious example of discrimination in our very midst, and vanquish it once and for all.

I refer, of course, to the slanderous but widespread belief that the basses never look up at the conductor.

Oh, yes. This is what they say. You may hotly deny it but you know who you are.

But there is no point in fighting slander with mere rebuttal. We need reason and facts – and that means careful research. We must, as we now know, be led by the science.

And in the interests of science I have undertaken careful measurements of the lookup angle. For the less technically minded among my readers (for example sopranos), this is defined as follows. If point A is the singer’s eye, point B is the music in his score and point C is the conductor, then the angle between the lines AB and AC is the lookup angle. It measures how far the singer has to glance up (or down) to see what is going on.

Now the lookup angle isn’t by any means the same for everyone. Extensive data collection shows that it depends on the singer’s arm length, their optical prescription, and their position on the stage (it is smaller for those on the very top step of the town hall risers, but they need a telescope to see the conductor anyway), among other factors.

It also depends on what bit of the conductor they are looking at, so I have followed Euclid in taking the conductor to have position but no magnitude, which seems a reasonable assumption in my long experience.

But we can average all of this out, and when we do, a statistically significant difference emerges. The lookup angle for the average soprano is 15°; for the average bass it is 32°. Figures for other voices lie within this range.

Thus it is more than twice as easy for the sopranos to look up as it is for the basses. Not to mention the toll taken by the physical effort taken in moving the eye continually up and down during the two hours of a typical concert, which must be an additional factor to consider from the point of view of health, safety and wellness.

Why should this be? The data is clear. Granted, there is a small effect owing to the fact that the average soprano is shorter than her bass counterpart. But the key factor is where the notes are on the page. For centuries, the soprano part has been printed at the top of the score, and the bass part at the bottom. This practice, which is blatantly discriminatory, and has been accepted without demur, has saddled the basses with undeserved criticism. Indeed for us second basses whose notes are often below the bass clef, the lookup angle is even greater, at a shocking 35°.

The solution, of course, is obvious, and it is extraordinary that it has taken until 2021 to spotlight it. THE BASS PART SHOULD BE PRINTED AT THE TOP OF THE PAGE. At a stroke this would blow away the vile allegations that are so often levelled at us. Basses would be alert, attentive, bright and in direct eye contact with the conductor at all times, while it would be the sopranos with their noses way down the page in the score.

Needless to say, that’s why it will never happen.

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