Somewhere out there in the world of widely accepted ideas, there exists the notion that choral singers should stand still. This must change if we are going to tap into the full potential of the choral experience.
The Mind/Body Connection
When humans talk to each other, our brains send signals to the body which are then expressed through a series of muscular contractions and relaxations. When we tell a joke, for example – or a personal anecdote – chances are that our hands are gesturing, our faces go through all sorts of permutations, our voices shift and change in pitch, volume, rate, and quality ... and our bodies move as well. It’s undeniable – when we engage in the process of authentic communication, we humans are amazingly expressive. Our minds experience an incredible array of ideas, memories, images, and feeling states – and our bodies express them with clarity and subtlety.
Just as our minds affect our bodies (the mind/body connection), so do our bodies affect our minds. While this process might be a little less obvious, it’s just as true.
Here’s what happens during the body/mind connection: The body sends neurological signals to the brain, corresponding to the body’s physical state. If a body is slouched and the face is frowning, for example, the muscles involved send messages through their associated nerves, up through the spinal cord, and into the brain – where the brain actually releases neurochemicals associated with the body’s orientation. With a slouched frowner, the neurochemicals released would be those associated with apathy, lethargy, depression, and/or sadness. A different body/mind state, such as smiling and bouncing up and down, will yield the release of entirely different neurochemicals – resulting in feeling states such as excitement, anticipation, joy, giddiness, and anticipation.
Why Should Singers be Free to Move?
Authentically expressive singers use the same mind/body processes described above. If they were speaking the song text in real life, their entire being would express the meaning of the words organically and congruently – the mind would affect the body, and the body would affect the mind. So, if the singer’s body is still or stiff, the neurochemicals released will be those associated with disengagement and passivity – on the one hand – or concern and even terror on the other. Because of this neuropsychobiological connection between the mind and the body, a singer’s still or stiff body will prevent their full engagement with the song – unless the song is about passivity or fear(!).
Try as a singer might, if they’re singing a joyful “Hallelujah” with little or no movement, their entire being will be disengaged or “dampened,” if you will – including the face, the heart, the spirit, and the voice. The same goes for the singer who is told, “Don’t smile on the outside, but ‘smile’ with your eyes.” While directors who give that direction are usually trying to prevent a 'spread' vowel, there is a way to have good tone and still experience/express authentic joy. “Smile tall rather than wide” is an instruction that can allow both. “Match your vowels there” is another.
When singers are encouraged to move and express freely, their minds can authentically affect their bodies – and their bodies can return the favor. Their whole being works in synchrony now, and the singer can connect much more "wholeheartedly" to the composer and poet/lyricist's work. The resulting experience of the text and the music will be much richer ... for the singers as well as for the audience.
Performing is just like a conversation – with one person doing most of the talking. And in human conversations, we impact each other. Due to some impressive neuropsychology, most of us experience similar thoughts and feelings as the people we’re communicating with. Our bodies tend to subtly mimic each other's bodies and faces, and through a process similar to empathy, we have the ability to “read” each others’ hearts and minds.
However, when we "read" each other we're not just focusing on the words being spoken. Much of the time, we glean the most important information by monitoring the person's body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Since most of us have learned from infancy what these non-verbal elements usually mean, we are quite skilled at interpreting them – and we use that decoding ability to create a much fuller understanding of what's really going on for the person. In fact, we can usually tell when a person is truthfully engaged in a particular experience, when they're faking it, and when they're completely disconnected from the meaning of the words they're speaking. Or singing.
We also get constant information about their feelings toward the subject matter they're discussing. While their words might be, "I love to sing," body language and facial expression (along with tone of voice) might give us any of the following refinements: "I hate to sing." "Singing sends me into an ecstatic state." "I want you to buy me a karaoke machine." "I think you should consider joining the choir." "Isn't it laughable – I'm tone deaf!"
Some social scientists posit that these "reading" skills gave us a survival benefit, but whatever their evolutionary course, the fact remains – what we humans see has a powerful impact on what we think and how we feel. When we attend a choral concert, we can see what the singers are thinking, and we can see the nature of their connection to the text.
We know, therefore, when they're primarily thinking about singing well, and when their thoughts are more connected to the meaning of the text. And it makes a difference in how we experience the concert.
A relatively still or stiff choir whose focus is primarily technical will impact their audience members very differently than a choir whose singers are moving in response to their authentic "whole body" connection to text and meaning. We can tell when that "Hallelujah!" is connected to a truthful inner experience, and when it's not. When it's not, no matter how much we appreciate the singing, we are disengaged from the potency of the music. But when that "Hallelujah!" is truthfully expressed and experienced by the singers, we will have a much better chance of feeling the spirit ourselves.
Combine that with the latest research on Mirror Neurons (parts of our brain which are activated not only by doing something, but by watching someone else do that same thing), and it's clear that humans mentally model the events going on in other human minds. And bodies. When we consider that humans are first and foremost affected by movement rather than sound, and the case for releasing singers from stillness or stiffness becomes even more compelling. "We are a visual culture," indeed.
Bottom line, if the singers in a choir are standing still while their thoughts are primarily focused on technical elements, their performance potential will be compromised. Their external affect will be less expressive. Their internal experience will be relatively flat. Their sound will be less vibrant, less powerful, less nuanced. And their audience’s experience won’t be nearly what it could have been.
The Active Neutral Stance
Before the singers can move freely, they must have a firm base and a sense of vitality and flexibility. I call it the Active Neutral stance: Feet are hip or shoulder-width apart, with one foot slightly in front. The weight is tipped ever-so-slightly forward, toward the balls of the feet. The sternum is elevated, the head and shoulders are comfortably held (not too far back, nor too “high”), the pelvis is slightly tucked, knees free and loose – and the singers feel a vibrant sense of aliveness and power rather than stiffness or tension. The hands, meanwhile, are not touching the leg or thigh. Instead, they are in a "ready to draw" position – as if the singer were walking down main street in the Old West, and they're comfortably ready to pull out their six-shooter and fire.
When they’re in this position(no bending at the waist), have the singers move their bodies all around – front to back, side to side, and in a circular motion. Have the singers experience this, then contrast it with trying to move while maintaining a “Passive Neutral” stance (feet close together, sternum collapsed, weight back on the heels...). Have them sing while switching back and forth (at your signal) from one to the other. They’ll notice the difference, because singing is a Whole Body Activity.
Warming Up the Whole Person
Common case: As singers warm-up, so will they rehearse. As they rehearse, so will they perform. Unless you want your singers to perform with a lack of physical engagement, have them experience some kind of movement or dynamic energy during warm-ups. The Charlotte Adams DVD, “Daily Workout for a Beautiful Voice,” is a classic resource. Here are a few more ideas that you can use or adapt at will (make sure the singers have enough space, and are in Active Neutral stance):
SOUND AND ACTION MIRROR
Working in pairs, one person makes sounds, the other uses their body to draw the sounds. Do this for about 90 seconds, then switch.
Drawing the Song
Applying the concepts above (Meaning + Music), singers draw the song, using their whole bodies. I call it "WholeBody Draw" when I talk about it, and explain it this way: Use your entire bodies to draw the Meaning of the words you sing. There's no right or wrong way to do this, there are only different levels of commitment – with "going for it" being the most useful. So, the phrase "This little light of mine" could look like this (I model something simple/obvious), or it could look like this (I model something more abstract).
Once the singers "go for it" enough for the exercise to be helpful, I'll tell them to start out with WholeBody Draw, but then bring it "in" to a more typical choral stance ... BUT keep that feeling of energy inside you (like you have an entire dance crew inside you now, and their inner movement impacts you). Singers need at least 18” between shoulders – and space in front of them, too – to get the most out of this. For best sound and maximum freedom, try to provide anywhere from 12” to 36” between singers, with no one in their “window.” If their Inner Critics suppress their commitment, have them close their eyes as they do the exercise (and make sure they have enough space around them if their eyes are closed).
MOVE THROUGH SPACE: VARIATIONS ON A THEME
Singing a song from the rep, the choir moves through the space with the following variations you call out
Clearly, there are LOTS of variations. Even if they seem frivolous as you contemplate directions like, “Belly button is the Meaning, left ear is the phrasing,” I encourage you to go with it. The singers are exploring, building, and mastering the connections between body, mind, music, and imagination. The very skills they’ll use when they perform.
Move Each Other as the Music Moves You
You can also have them stand on the risers, placing one hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them. Front and back rows can put their other hand on the shoulder of the person next to them. Then, "Move each other as the MEANING of the music moves you. This is not swaying, or bouncing to the beat, but something connected more to the Meaning of the text." Make sure you tell them "Safety First!" if you're going to do this one. Side-coaching is often necessary and appropriate, during which you can shout for them to "move more" or “move a little less.” NEXT STEP is for them to take their hands down, and "Move Yourself" as the Meaning/music moves you."
Imagination To The Maximus: The Whole World’s a Stage...
With the following, singers begin to move within their scenarios when the music starts – preparing in whatever way they need so that they’re ready to launch into specific action when they start to sing.
Note: All of their props and implements are imaginary.
THE HOUSE OF CHORDS
Have the singers spread out. They are about to build a house, using tools, collaboration, blueprints, paint, wiring, et cetera. They decide which part of the house they’re going to work on first, and what exactly they’re going to do. “Pick up the first item you need,” you might instruct. Then they sing the song, moving and working to the rhythms, phrasings, harmonies, tempi, dynamics..., and Meaning of the song.
As with many of the following, the closer the songs are to memorized, the easier the activities will be. BUT these can be done at all stages of the rehearsal process – and can also be repeated at will.
WHOLE BODY PICASSO
Using a song in your repertoire, the singers paint an oil or water color of the song. Before they start, they mentally establish their palette, dip their brush into the first color, and begin with your downbeat. They don’t pre-establish (or “sketch”) the piece, but let their body/mind connection and imagination inspire them, one brush stroke and image at a time. Just as in The House of Chords, they are free to incorporate all the song’s musical elements as well as the text.
They can sit or stand for this one – and if they stand they might imagine a tall “cat tree” of many levels in front of them. Choose a piece in your repertoire. Using the song’s elements as inspiration and motivation, they play with their imaginary cat/s. Don’t shy away from this one because your singers are “too old.”
Singers spread out throughout the room, working in pairs or two larger teams, depending. Once the music starts, the ball is served, and all other elements are in slow motion and connected to the song being sung. These elements include chasing the imaginary ball after it goes out of bounds, high-fiving each other, adjusting clothing, tying shoelaces, et cetera.
Again using all the song’s elements for body/mind incorporation, inspiration, and motivation, singers spread out in their makeshift cafeteria. They decide the specific foods that are on their plate, choosing at least one that’s stringy (like spaghetti), one that’s dense (like meatballs), one that’s gloppy (like pudding) – and a cold drink. When they start to sing, they manipulate their foods into the most effective missiles, and away they go. One thing about their food supply – it automatically replenishes itself so they never run out.
SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE?
Best with a memorized piece, singers dance the meaning, mood, and music of the song while singing it, using their sincere and committed take on ballet, modern, or jazz. Excellent for Inner Critic work as well (see the "Safety First" page).