Dear Editor, I enjoyed Amelia Nagoski’s “Thoughtful Gestures: A Model of Conducting as Empathic Communication” (CJ, April 2010), and particularly appreciated her comprehensive review of the neuroscientific principles involved. That said, I respectfully submit that the conducting model upon which the article is based is outdated, and needs to be replaced. I was once working with the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and they were singing a song about idyllic and romanticized love. I had suggested some scenario that related to that, but said, “If this doesn’t work for you, come up with your own story and objective that gives you a meaning-filled connection and purpose for singing.”
Have you ever witnessed a choral director desperately attempting to "breathe some life" into a somewhat passive or disengaged choir? The director's arms waving wildly, their face contorting, their eyes pleading or demanding... "People, COME ON! Please! PLEASE be expressive!!!," their every pore seems to be shouting. Alas, most of the time this is ineffective, leaving directors exhausted and frustrated even though they might try to hide that from the choir as they give a suppressed nod of "Good job, folks" once the song is (finally?) over.
For directors to take such an approach makes sense, for it continues to be the dominant notion that they are responsible for the singers' facial expressions and emotional connectedness. WHILE THEY CONDUCT. How are directors supposed to do this? Here's one published quote reflecting the established pedagogy:
Facial expression and eye contact are two of your most important tools. Use them constantly. Use your eyes and face to tell the choir what expression you want them to put in the music....
What's Wrong with Making Faces?
While it is true that humans tend to subtly reflect the facial expressions of others, this advice is misguided. Even if it worked well, it would lead to inauthenticity – resulting in a diminished and less engaging impact on the audience.
The key here is that the neuroscientific process called Emotional Contagion results in one person "catching" what the other is authentically experiencing. Emotional Contagion is related to the recently discovered mirror neurons, which fire in the brain when we do an activity (and experience the associated thoughts and emotions), and when we watch someone else do that same activity. For example, if a singer asks Mother Mary to deliver peace and healing to the children of Darfur during the singing of Ave Maria – and the singer's objective is sincere in-the-moment – then the audience members related mirror neurons will fire, and they will catch that authentic Ave Maria-related thought and feeling from the singer's face, body, and voice.
On the other hand, if the director 'makes a face' and 'presents a body' in hopes of inspiring the singers to connect to the music in a unified way, THAT face and THAT body are not communicating the desire for Mother Mary to save the children. Rather, they're communicating the desire for the choir to be facially and physically expressive. This can't be helped – what's really on the mind is really on the face, in the body (and in the voice). Because of our ability to read other people, we either consciously know, or can sense, what others are really thinking and feeling. And we'll tend to mirror those actual thoughts and feelings.
Primary versus Secondary Affect
However, even if the director is relaxed and comfortable, just attempting to be vulnerable and expressive so that the singers' mirror neurons and sense of empathy will be activated – and even when the singers are open to this process with their director – what the singers "catch" and then "spread" to the audience will be their reaction to the director's connection.
And this director's connection is an indirect one, at that – it's their internal reaction to the text and music which happens to get expressed. This is not the same as what I call Primary Affect, which is the expression of the person compelled to sing the words in the first place. The person who exhibits Primary Affect within this musical model can only be the singer.
In other words, the person with the most intensely direct experience of the text and music is the most emotionally contagious. The audience will "catch" much more from such a person than they will catch from watching someone whose engagement is secondhand and diluted. An apt analogy might be that a singer exhibiting Primary Affect will "have the disease," while the singers attempting to catch a director's contagion are only being innoculated with the vaccine. Depending on the choir's connection, then, the audience will catch either the live virus, or the singer's reaction to the dead virus being relayed through the director.
Look at it this way: You go to two different concerts, and watch two different choirs sing the Agnus Dei. In the first concert, you watch as every singer actively begs "Jesus" for forgiveness, using the text and the music as their own personal mode of expression. In the second, you watch singers who are singing the same text, but – instead of praying to Jesus for forgiveness – they are trying to reactively connect to the director who is thinking about the music and the text ... and expecting the singers to be moved accordingly. The brain activity in each set of singers will be drastically different, and they will look and sound different as well. And so it is with the audience – different mirror neurons firing in their brains, and a completely different sort of concert experience.
The first paradigm is that of the audience watching the singers experience and express something thoroughly engaging –they're going through it, they're living it in the moment, they're experiencing it firsthand. Therefore, what you see in their faces and bodies is Primary Affect – and your connection with their human experience will be clear, direct, and powerful.
The singers trying to react to their director don't even display Secondary Affect – for that is reserved for those who witness
Primary Affect to begin with. What the audience may get in the traditional paradigm (If they're lucky), is a much watered down Tertiary version of the human experience that is the song. It's more removed, more detached, and less engaging overall.
So, when a director believes it's their duty to prompt and guide the singers' expression by having them "catch" their own facial and physical expressive cues – they would do well to reconsider. Instead of trying to affect them externally, directors might consider empowering the singers to connect authentically to text and music. To help directors do this is my goal, and it motivates all that I write and say on the subject.
So, what's a director to do, then, with their own face?
Certainly, directors can allow themselves to express their own music or text-related thoughts. Whatever their genuine reaction is – be it joy, serenity, pathos, righteous indignation, awe, or something else – they can allow their face, body, and gesture to automatically express these thoughts and feelings.
And that's fabulous – it's honest, respectful, and will actually allow them to connect more powerfully to the music. Why? First, their experience is now much more about the music, and less about the singers' expression; their brain's pie chart has a greater slice of that Ave Maria, for example – and a smaller portion of 'Gotta Get the Singers to be Expressive.' And secondly, because of the mind/body connection, they are now reinforcing the feedback loop which will result in their experience of the music being richer and deeper.
They might also allow themselves to be affected by the singers, if that effect is genuine rather than forced.
Or, they might buy into the singers' notion of who they're singing to, playing the part of Mother Mary in their Story. This, however, is more difficult and ultimately unnecessary – the singers will do fine as they try to impact their Other, as long as the director isn't simultaneously trying to impact them.
This includes, by the way, the director whose face is as deadpan as a corpse. I've worked with many choirs whose directors were thoroughly inexpressive (both physically and facially), yet the singers were not constrained or limited one iota. In fact, they were just as expressive as choirs with extremely charismatic directors.
The bottom line is this: IF the singers are actively engaged in trying to affect their Other, and have fleshed out the text in a meaning-filled way, the director can relax their emphasis on the facial and physical cues. When a choir of unified expressive artists joins forces with their conductor, there's so much more potential for transcendent music-making (as compared to the the traditional "I LEAD/you follow" directing paradigm).
Not to dismiss the importance of gesture, but I propose that directors let their conducting gestures inspire (and be inspired by) singers with Primary Affect – they will get so much more to play with when they do. A choir of relatively disempowered, passive, and secondarily connected singers might be more compliant – but they are nowhere near as compelling, either visually or vocally.
Choral singers are expressive artists in their own right – just like soloists, opera singers, and musical theatre performers in that regard. Each of them has the ability to connect to the humanity within the text and music, regardless of the complexity or abstractness of the ideas being expressed ... IF the director expects and guides them to do so. I've worked with high school singers whose texts were the most obtuse and difficult of any I've ever experienced – graduate level stuff and beyond. After coaching them through a few text and meaning-related exercises, the singers had no problem understanding or relating, and their unified and expressive performance of the pieces was breathtakingly stunning.
The end result of this empowering approach is that the audience members experience the first generation of authentic emotional, physical, and vocally expressive connection – and their experience is transformed.
But the impact on the director may be even more significant. When doing a workshop in which directors experienced what it was like for the choir to affect them rather than the other way around, one director said, "That was a completely different experience. I didn't have to worry about the singers' expressiveness anymore. I was free to make music with them!"
PS: On a related note, I strongly suggest that directors not mouth the words. Doing so communicates that they have low expectations for the members of the choir; the message sent and received is that the singers can not remember the words without assistance. In addition, the director adds yet another obstacle to their own purely musical experience.
The Choral Journal Letter to the Editor ... and Responses
In the April 2010 issue of the Choral Journal, Amelia Nagoski's feature article suggested a state-of-the-art and neuroscientifically supported directing paradigm in which the director was responsible for the singers' unified expression. I then wrote a letter to the editor, to which Editorial Associate David Blocker responded. What follows is my original letter to the editor, David's published response, then some further correspondence between us.
The traditional model Nagoski describes holds the director responsible for the “unified” “emotional expression” of the singers – with the director being the leading spark in the circuit. From director to singers to audience the emotion goes – by way of emotional contagion, mirror neurons, empathy, and other processes originating in the director’s “body, face, posture, and gesture.”
Unfortunately, this model disempowers choral singers – who are considered incapable of singing with unified expression on their own. Thankfully, this is a false premise. After working with thousands of singers and hundreds of choirs, I know that choral singers are fully capable of being artists in their own right – while singing with unified expression.
Just as it disempowers singers, the traditional paradigm also prevents the audience from experiencing the full power of the performance. Because the singers are the second spark in the expressive circuit, the audience doesn’t get what I call “Primary Affect.” They witness singers reacting to the director’s affect, but they don’t experience them having a primary experience on their own. In addition, the director’s affect is Secondary in itself – a reaction to an internal response to the music and text, but not as the human compelled to express the song in the first place.
That human can only be the singer. When each singer has a compelling purpose for singing, the audience experiences a vital and authentic human connection – by way of the very neuroscience that Nagoski describes. But since this progressive paradigm involves the audience catching the singers’ “emotional contagion” firsthand, it leads to even more powerful and transformative concert experiences.
Rehearsals are more fruitful as well, allowing directors to focus more completely on the music – with the singers contributing earlier and more dynamically to the process.
Specifics? One method is to take the traditional paradigm and turn it (gently) on its head. Instead of the director trying to impact the singers, have the singers try to impact the director. Example: With “This Little Light of Mine,” the singers create a story wherein they need to encourage someone to “let their light shine” – even though that person is terrified to do so. Each singer knows the details, stakes, and circumstances surrounding their need to affect this other person – just as they know about their own “light.” As they sing, their director becomes this person who needs encouragement, and each singer does all they can to get that person to “shine.” Combine this with the authentically connected movement which Nagoski recommends – along with the respectful leadership style she suggests – and we end up with a choir which is much more engaged and engaging than the one whose expression is being prompted by the director.
Even when the director's affect is deadpan, such a choir will bring down the house. I've witnessed this time after time, watching choirs transform from singing with completely flat affect to singing with dynamic expression – within the space of an hour. And because of the mind/body connection collectively shared, the sound becomes more dynamic and nuanced as well – and even more unified.
Singers working within such paradigms are given the responsibility to be the primary spark in the Expressive/Connective process, and the results are profound. When choral directors have experienced this during clinics, they’ve said things like, “The choir was so much more expressive. But most significantly, I didn't have to worry about the singers' expressiveness anymore. I could relax and make music with them!" For more about this, visit www.choralcharisma.com – especially the pages entitled “Philosophy…,” “Director’s Face,” and “Movement."
All my best,
Author of Choral CHARISMA: Singing with Expression
(Santa Barbara Music Publishing, 2005)
David's Published "Note from the Editorial Associate"
I think this is a particularly thoughtful response to the article. I agree with some amount of it—however, I fear the response errs about the same distance as the original author, only on the other side of the continuum. Singer-as-expressive-respondant has never been a particularly potent argument for me since the concept of "ensemble" is more limiting than Tom's verbiage implies. Although every choir member needs to own the expressive elements of a piece—both in a macro and micro way—expressive anarchy is hardly a substitute for profound expressive insight generated collectively, but primarily, from the concepts of the conductor.
The issue here is "What is an ensemble?" When that is answered, the rest of the argument can proceed accordingly. Neither our author nor our respondant has defined it to my satisfaction so that their continuing arguments have something to hang on.
Since this surely is a hot-button issue for our members, I would invite any reader to respond to any of the points made in the article, the Letter-to-the-Editor response, or the editorial comment. Perhaps a "Brahms vs. Wagner" dialogue would be interesting in print.
Please send any responses to firstname.lastname@example.org as soon as possible and we will decide on how to proceed from there. Be succinct, and timely—no later than July 15th.
My Email Response to David's Note
I may be less clear about your “expressive anarchy” than you are about my definition of “ensemble,” but here are some responses to your letter regardless:
They sang, and all the singers but one were unified in their expression. The director and I looked at each other, gently smiling for we knew we were on the same page, and I asked the singer about her specific connection. After she shared her interpretation, I responded with the following – perhaps addressing your concern as well. I said something like, “You have every right to interpret the song that way [on your own time], but your current connection and expression doesn’t align itself with that of the other singers. So, while you see the text as an angry rebuke to your boyfriend [Say what?! J], you’re going to need to find a way for it to be something that doesn’t create such a contrast. When the audience looks at the group, they need to experience a unified connection – your [anarchistic?] interpretation is going to distract them and potentially confuse them … and we don’t want that.”
Hope that makes things a little clearer. And thanks so much for this forum.
All my best,
David's Email Response to Me Included...
I think you and I are in closer agreement than our original writings seemed to suggest.
I enjoyed Amelia Nagoski’s “Thoughtful Gestures: A Model of Conducting as Empathic Communication” (CJ, April 2010), and particularly appreciated her comprehensive review of the neuroscientific principles involved. That said, I respectfully submit that the conducting model upon which the article is based is outdated, and needs to be replaced.
I was once working with the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and they were singing a song about idyllic and romanticized love. I had suggested some scenario that related to that, but said, “If this doesn’t work for you, come up with your own story and objective that gives you a meaning-filled connection and purpose for singing.”