Here are some thoughts originally aired as a guest blog on international barbershop quartet champion Tom Metzger's website.
While I'm not a member of an established quartet or chorus, I do have some experience with barbershop – as performer, rehearsal guest, audience member, and club moderator (working with high schoolers). Suffice it to say, I love barbershop singing ... but find that its performance paradigm would benefit from a little shift as well. (Tom Metzger agrees with me on this, and I encourage you to check out his website for more of his perspective.)
Impressively, barbershoppers place a great deal of emphasis on expressive singing. That said, I believe that the widely accepted barbershop approach to expression could be more genuine, for the standard performance paradigm tends to be more external than internal, more inauthentic than authentic. End result? Many barbershoppers work much harder than they need to, and end up with a final product which is not nearly as engaging as it could be. I propose a paradigm shift: Toward authentic expression.
To answer those who might be skeptical, not only do I think authentic expression exists, I think we can actually agree on what it is and isn't – once we examine it more closely.
Basic Psychobiological Principles
We humans are authentically expressive. When we speak, thoughts begin a neurochemical reaction in our brains, leading to facial, physical, and vocal muscles expressing those thoughts and their related feelings. Invite a bunch of people to a party, aim a hidden camera at each one of them and follow them through the night, and you will see amazingly authentic facial expressions, body language, and speech – all of it connected to the thoughts and feelings of these individuals. And all of it happening without the speakers controlling it, presenting it, or emoting it. Were Steven Spielberg to see the footage, he would be impressed with each and every person there – their "acting" would be so real, so genuine, so authentic; their facial expressions, movements, and voices so congruent.
We act truthfully under imaginary circumstances. When we use our imaginations to create thoughts, our psychobiological process is virtually identical to that of our truthful selves. The face, body, and voice react just as truthfully to imaginary circumstances. If one of the partiers shares details of a fantasy vacation, their expressions would be just as vibrant as if they were describing an actual vacation from which they just returned. No need to pretend, manipulate the face to fit the words, or go over-the-top with excitement. Authenticity happens, even when we're using our imagination.
Our audiences connect as we do. Human beings can mentally model the events going on in other people's minds, leading to "emotional contagion." This means that our audience members will think and feel things similar to what we're thinking and feeling. In addition, we humans read faces, bodies, and voices – beginning this ability during infancy and refining it to an art by the time we're adults. Therefore, audiences know when there is an authentic connection between the words being sung, and the truthful expression of those words. And they know when we're faking it. We humans are great BS detectors!
So, to summarize, in our truthful and unmanipulative moment-to-moment lives, human beings have thoughts which lead to automatic and unbidden expressions. We may smile, grin, shout with joy, tear up with sadness, or glower with anger – these are all authentic expressions directly connected to what we're thinking, and we embody such expressions on a daily basis.
As we do so, we affect those in our presence as they affect us.
If we want to sing with the same authenticity and organic expression, all we need do is transfer our speaking process to our singing. When we do so, we express thoughts and feelings just like we do when we speak; our mind/body connection is virtually identical. So, applying this notion to barbershop, can you tell which scenario describes authentic expression, and which describes inauthentic expression?
My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean
My Bonnie lies over the ocean,
My Bonnie lies over the sea.
My Bonnie lies over the ocean,
Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me.
Scenario A: You're singing "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean." Your director tells you to emote and sell the song. You do so, consciously invoking your face to fit the words and the sentiment; and the musical expression of both in the song. You've got your eyebrows working, your body leaning forward and "into it," your hands subtly imploring, your head moving side to side with poignancy, and your face artfully molded into a liquid mask of yearning. While you sing, you constantly monitor and guide your overall expressivity, making sure that you are always "on." Hopefully, the audiences and judges will notice. When you finish, your director applauds and nods approvingly: "You really sold it, folks!"
Scenario B: You're singing "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean." You're aware that were you to say these words in real life, you would know a few things. For starters, 1) Who is this "Bonnie"? What does she (or he) look like? What exactly is your relationship with her? Where is she? How did she get there? Why did she go/leave you? 2) Who are you talking to (your Other) and what's your objective? What does your Other look like? Who are they to you? Are you singing to a friend who's going overseas, wanting them to actually find your long-lost love? Are you singing to a relative, wanting them to know how heartbroken you are so they'll stop trying to set you up with someone new? Are you singing to your best friend about your estranged daughter who has moved to Norway to get away from you, hoping that they'll help you figure out a plan for her imminent return? 3) How does your Other react? Does their reaction change as you repeat the lyrics? 4) Where are you, and what do you see behind and around your Other? 5) What just happened to motivate you to sing these words? Did you just get a "Goodbye letter" from Bonnie which prompted you to call your friend over? Did your relative just show you a photo of a potential partner on a dating website -- for the umpteenth time? Did you just hear from a friend who said they saw your daughter while they were on a trip to Oslo? (If your interpretation is different, some of these guiding questions would be different as well.)
As you analyze both A and B, notice that in the fully authentic scenario (B) you NEVER ONCE think about what your face or body is doing, nor about expressing a certain feeling, looking a certain way, or emoting. All that happens automatically when you have all those other details in place. Just knowing such details will flesh out your truthful connection to text, so before you even begin singing you have a mental picture of Bonnie, a "memory" of Bonnie, and an attitude toward Bonnie – and all of this within a context that compels you to sing. As you sing through the song, you will continue to have authentic images, hopes, and objectives – all connected to the text and your overall story. And all authentically expressed.
The result? You will be just as engaged and engaging as if you were actually talking about this Bonnie ... to a friend at that party I mentioned earlier! Your face, body, and voice will be "on," but without pretending or controlling. And since you're being authentically expressive, you will affect both your friend and Steven Spielberg more powerfully and poignantly. Since you're really into it, so will they be. Ultimately, your audience will be connected to a deeper, richer, and more satisfying experience of our shared humanity.