I've been singing in choirs and attending choral concerts for over 35 years. One thing I've found is that the heart and soul of the music often doesn't make it to the heart and soul of the audience.
Here's the way I look at it. The lyricist and composer pour their hearts and souls into the piece, then the conductor does the same – lovingly preparing and rehearsing the score so as to honor the composer/lyricist's intent, while also adding their own particular interpretation. In rehearsals, the singers work hard to sing in tune, to blend, to bring the conductor's vision alive. Then the concert happens. And the audiences respond ... "What beautiful harmonies! Such control! Listen to those sopranos!"
Why not just sing well?
However, while audience members are often impressed by the sound of a choir, they are less frequently moved; their ears are actively engaged, but their hearts and souls lie dormant. Why is this? Because the most important "heart and soul connection" hasn't been developed fully enough. That connection belongs solely to the singer.
Audience members are moved deeply if and when the singer's personal connection to text and music is compelling and complete. If the singers' thoughts are primarily technical – if they are focusing on notes, phrasing, lyrics, dynamics, beauty of tone, vocal technique, et cetera – then these are the thoughts that will be communicated to the audience and this is the "connection" that will be made.
Unfortunately, this type of performance leaves both singer and audience member disconnected and detached from their common humanness, and the spirit of the music remains on the printed page. Even when singers try to convey the emotion of the music through their sound, attempt to communicate its mood and meaning through the use of corresponding facial expressions, or try to channel the director's vulnerable and empathic connection, audience members will remain relatively disengaged.
On the other hand, if the singers are genuinely connected at a meaningful personal level with the music and the lyrics, then their faces, bodies, hearts, souls, and voices express that connection ... and the audience can not help but be engaged likewise. When that happens, all involved are transported; the concert becomes a passionate celebration of shared humanity.
Clearing Up Some Misconceptions
Contrary to what some people believe, singing with authentic expression is not the same as "emoting." Displaying, wallowing in, or trying to express emotions are all inauthentic responses to most songs, so emoting is hardly ever the goal (unless the song is some over-the-top novelty piece). But this is not to say that singers shouldn't feel. Singers do experience real emotions when they are genuinely connected, but their feelings are natural byproducts of music and text-related thoughts.
Perhaps the most prevalent misconception is that expressive singing would ruin the unity, blend, and homogeneity of the choir – creating "expressive anarchy," as David Stocker put it (David is a Choral Journal Editorial Associate). While many people share that fear, the truth is that an authentically expressive choir will simply sing better.
Singing with Expression actually improves the sound
When a group of singers shares the specific connection, they share similar thoughts and emotions as well – with the individual and collective processes leading to the following improvements in vocal production and sound:
Again, contrary to some long held misconceptions, authentically expressive singing is not "out-of-control-with-too-much-emotion" singing.
Can you actually teach someone to be expressive?
While some in the choral world believe that charisma is difficult or impossible to teach, I know from experience that it usually takes less than one hour of direct instruction to turn a group of relatively inexpressive singers into a dynamically expressive choir. Both the book and the workshops employ a simple, step-by-step process leading to dramatic transformation in a very short amount of time. Note: This presupposes that the environment is safe and supportive – the safer the environment, the more readily the singers will commit to vulnerable expression.
So, what is "authentically expressive singing"? It's actually fairly straightforward: When a singer incorporates the same psychobiological processes that they use during normal conversation, they'll be singing with authentic expression.
That said, most of us haven't a clue about what mind/body processes we use when we talk to each other. If I told you that you were amazingly expressive when you were chatting during your lunch break – then suggested you get on the risers and just do what you did during lunch while you sing "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?" – chances are that you wouldn't know exactly what to do. Unless you were a trained Method actor/director or a social psychologist, you would probably be a little confused.
But it's really not too complicated. In a nutshell, when humans communicate with each other we see "mental movies" of what we talk about, and we tend to focus on the person/s we're talking to – trying to affect them in some way. It could be as simple as trying to get a friend to tell us what's wrong, then helping them feel better. Or, it could be as difficult as trying to get a legislator to shift their thinking about that Solar Energy bill – when their campaign receives $250,000 a year from the oil companies.
While we're conversing, we monitor the person/s we're talking to for signs that we're either affecting them as we're hoping to, or not – and we modify our behavior accordingly. As we do all of the above, our bodies, faces, and voices authentically express our thoughts and associated feelings ... without our controlling or "puppeting" any of these expressions. What's on your mind is on your face – and in your body and voice.
The process I advocate is adapted from Constantin Stanislavski's Method acting (based on the way people actually think and behave). The director and/or choir members determine the circumstances which might compel the singers to sing these lyrics and this music. They create a Story with themselves as characters in that story, and figure out who they're trying to affect – and how their Other is responding – as they do so. Along with that basic framework, they "flesh out" the images, people, and events within the text. After doing all of the above, they will be singing the song the same way they chatted during lunch – using the same mental and physiological processes.
What we humans do NOT do during sincere, truthful, and authentic communication is equally important:
We don't try to show emotions on our faces.
We don't try to feel a certain emotion.
For more on all of this, check out the "Barbershop" page and you'll find an example of how singers might incorporate the basic tenets while singing "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean."
If teaching expression is so easy, why don't more choral directors do it
It's simply a matter of perspective and training. While I have sung in many exceptional choirs, I don't have nearly the depth of knowledge that would enable me to successfully conduct. However, as a career acting teacher and stage director, I do understand the psychological process of authentic expression.
Most choral directors have a different background and education – one that is focused more extensively on musical matters than on stage presence – and their skills reflect this pedagogical emphasis. Having studied conducting for years, they may be experts in the nuance of gesture and its impact on sound, but chances are they will be less confident when it comes to guiding choristers to sing with authentic expression. They simply haven't studied that particular subject much, nor have their professors known enough about the expressive process to teach it. Regrettably but understandably, Singing with Expression has remained out of the curriculum – and outside the collective choral consciousness – for centuries.
For these and other reasons, I believe authentic expression is rare in the choral world. I want to change all that, and hope you are intrigued enough to want to explore further.
For more on all of this, check out the "Barbershop" page and you'll find an example of how singers might incorporate the basic tenets while singing "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean."
Here are some quotes by people familiar with my work.
I really enjoyed your session. The work you are doing is vitally important – so many choral directors and their choirs would benefit from working with you. Vance George, Director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, after attending the interest session at the 2006 ACDA Western Division Convention in Salt Lake City
Every choral director should be required to attend one of Tom's clinics. Not only are his sessions very informative, but his message tugs strongly at your heart and emotions – and will dramatically improve your rehearsals and change your choir forever. Diana J. Leland, past president of National ACDA, ACDA North Central Division, and ACDA of Minnesota, after attending the 2009 ACDA-MN Summer Dialogue Conference session
I am just so glad to have gotten to work with you and to be able to tell my colleagues about the life-changing transformations that I saw happening as a result of your work!!!! You have forever changed the way that I will approach text with the choirs with whom I am fortunate to work. I feel as though there is now much more depth and enjoyment in our process together.
The evidence of this was the beautiful connection between the choir and audiences throughout our recent European tour. Every audience was moved to tears. I had people coming up after concerts, pressing money in my hands and asking me to "Do something nice for those amazing children with it"! I had numerous people say things like, "I feel better about the world knowing that some youngsters like those kids are in it" – they created more good will for the
These children are so used to processing everything in SUCH a cerebral manner. Giving them a chance to feel – and know that their feelings are valid – is an irreplaceable gift for which we cannot thank you enough! I will do my best to continue this wave... and I WILL!
Kristina Ploeger, Artistic Director of the Spokane Area Children's Chorus' Ensemble Choir (an advanced group of 14 to 18 year olds), after two workshops and the following concert
We wouldn't have won without your help. Thank you so much!
You really created MAGIC with the kids! They had a great time and... what was so truly amazing was that you NEVER talked about the music, only the meaning and power behind the music. [And we had] a GREAT performance. I can’t begin to tell you how much people commented on our “performance” as well as our singing. They said things like “the kids were so connected to their music," “they all just LOVED to sing," “ you could tell how much they all enjoyed being up there." Thanks again for all your work with the kids. It really paid off and we are continually grateful!! Amazing!!!
Ken Abrams, California ACDA president and Director of Choral Music at San Ramon Valley High School, Danville, California, speaking of the workshop prior to -- and the Concert Choir's performance at -- the ACDA Western Division Convention in Anaheim
I can honestly tell you that the experience we had with you was a life changing one. They needed what you did with them. That was the journey they needed to travel.... They held onto everything, and our very next performance had elements of the "new" Vocal Ensemble in it. It grew with each performance, and by the final day they were a very different group, and they gave two back to back assembly performances at a school on Tuesday in Monterey that were nothing like any performances they had given all year.
The best news is that it wasn't a "what happens on tour stays on tour" experience. Their rehearsals are now focused, supportive, and productive times. We are accomplishing things that we have not been able to do all year. Thank you again for providing just the right atmosphere and experience for them that they needed. All is well with us now, and we are extremely grateful to you for the experience.
Scott Hedgecock, Choral Director,
Thank you so much for doing the workshop with us! I told the students before you got here that they were going to have a life-changing experience – and they did!
Brad Hayashi, director of Choral Activities at
Thank you so much for helping my singers become vulnerable and authentic!! My Laker Singers were so thrilled by the total experience! You were wonderful to work with and set up the entire session for success! I am very much looking forward to working with them after the session with you! I hope more students and conductors can experience what we were able to experience thanks to you! You have a wonderful message and I wish you continued success! What a great experience – thank you, thank you, thank you!!!
Kathryn Larson, director of the Detroit Lakes High School Laker Singers (the demo choir for the 2009 ACDA-MN Summer Dialogue Conference)
They did it! The chorus got a Unanimous Superior at CMEA on Saturday scoring the highest marks we've ever received. Best yet, all three judges commented on how great their expression was, especially on "Let All Men Sing." They said things (on their tapes) like "it really looks like you're having fun" and "that's what choral singing is all about." At the end of "Stars" one judge said "you really drew me into that one." The chorus wanted to make sure I thanked you personally for your help.
Jay Jordan, Director of Music,
You gave the choir just what it needed: the impetus to "get real." The exercises were to the point and your message, delivered without any hype, struck home because of its sincerity. Your personal style of encouragement and your concise, cut-to-the-chase approach worked magic for us. Our concert was amazing! Thank you!!
Shulamit Hoffman, Director of Viva la Musica! after two workshops and the following concert
The Washington ACDA conference was a blast, and the attendance was a record-breaker for them. It was a summer highlight, and anyone in the Northwest would benefit from attending this event. I really enjoyed Tom Carter's presentations and the demo choir. Also, the tech presentation was first-class. For the salmon, that was over-the-top wonderful. Thanks to everyone that made it happen -- Mark, Twyla, Howard, and all the leadership team. Fantastic.
Tim Sharp, Executive Director of ACDA, referring to the volunteer demo choir directed by Kristina Ploeger. I'm thrilled that Tim and I share this vision for authentically engaged choirs, and I look forward to collaborating with him and ACDA to spread the word. (We agree about the salmon as well!)
Tom takes expression beyond anything I had imagined, and the results are electric ... extremely exciting and moving. His methods bring choral music to where it should be – vital performances with the singers totally connected to the music.
Participants at the 2009 ACDA national convention, following the session with Pete Eklund and the
I am writing to tell you how much I enjoyed and benefitted from your work with our choir today. I am going to be attending UC Riverside in the fall as a theater major, and I was completely thrilled with our session this morning! I am absolutely inspired to become a better actress and performer. I learned an amazing amount about myself and the art of performance in the short period you were with us. Thank you for your positive attitude, and artistic inspiration!
Alexandra Franke, member of the Davis High School Madrigals, directed by Karen Gardias & Nate Reinking
I've been singing for 60 years and I have always had so many feelings I've wanted to include in my singing. These techniques have made that possible for the first time.
Peggy Williams, Cabrillo Symphonic Choir, Participant in a Choral Charisma Workshop
I'm so glad to have met someone who believes in the importance of the "soul-to-soul connection" between choir and audience! Your work with us helped immeasurably. I'll be calling you for more time in the Fall!
Susan McMane, Artistic Director of the
That was so powerful and moving! Truly magnificent! I can't believe the impact on the singers, and on me.
Elena Sharkova, Director of the San Jose State University Chorale during a workshop
Wow! I was blown away by [the choir's] energy as [they] were singing ... so much energy coming toward me! It was amazing!!
Sue Stuart, Choral Director at
The very first thing my students said when I asked them to comment on the workshop was, "We sounded so much better!" It wasn't about the imagery or the connection ... it was about the improvement in sound!
Ilan Glasman, Choral Director at
Thanks for the meaningful work last eve of opening, exploring, personalizing, releasing. It transformed the sound of the ensemble.
Shulamit Hoffmann, Director of Viva la Musica! after a coaching session
I have never had as much fun singing that song! / The music seemed to just flow right out of me. / I felt so many emotions and was so into it. / Our singing was so unified! / That's the best we've ever sung those songs!
Many different singers have voiced these common experiences during the various workshops
The singers were more responsive and had more stage presence. The singing was more from the heart!
Signe Boyer, Director of Cantabile (an advanced youth choir), speaking of their tour to
Saturday was great. [You] really made one aware of what one needs to concentrate on when singing in a choir.
David Lintott, Singer in Viva la Musica! after a workshop
I have always been struck by your calm exterior, your patience with young people, your gentleness but also your convictions and commitment to the dignity and respect of each person.
Tim Molak, Headmaster of Woodside Priory School in
I have never worked with anyone who could reach out from his soul better than Tom. His students and colleagues knew that he was committed to their excellence, and the excellence of every project with which he was involved.
Nancy Newman, Dean of the Faculty at
Credentials and Experience Include...