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Keeping it Real

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For all that all choral genres generally share an overall sense of shared ethos (executive summary: singing is a Good Thing To Do), moving between different traditions can throw up some interesting challenges. I had an interesting Facebook chat recently with a singer who has plenty of experience in the kinds of choir that simply ‘stand and sing’ – i.e. where it is about the music, not about the performers. He was talking about some of the challenges he’d had in moving into a world that was much more focused on personal expressiveness.

What he found was that, while he was quite comfortable finding his way into the mood of the music in a general way, his peers were asking for a more active narrative, particularly in the way he used facial expression. ‘And at this point ,’ he said, ‘one of two things tends to happen:

(a) I get so caught up in trying to convey a different "happy" for every single bar of the song that I forget to pat my head whilst rubbing my tummy and, worse still, I'm trying to vary my smile so much that it quickly become non-Duchenne, or,

(b) I just stick with an overall "I'm feeling good" look but get told the judges will mark me down because I'm not continuously changing my expression.

I’m sure I’m not the only person to sympathise with this predicament. It’s one of the paradoxes of an aesethetic of expressive performance: it isn’t enough to feel it, you must be seen to feel it. But if it isn’t showing automatically on your face, how do you get it there without looking like you’re just doing techniques?

Well, the first advice I gave was to have a good old rummage in the archives of Owning the Stage – Tom Metzger hasn’t posted much there for a while, but there’s lots of good advice still lurking around from when he did. And Tom Carter’s Choral Charisma methods are also designed to help this kind of problem.

And, after reflecting on what you’d learn from the two Toms on the use of story and characterisation, it occurred to me that the difficulties my friend described result from conflating cause and effect. A mobile face may come over as more expressive than a still one because it is seen to be living the song in a moment-to-moment fashion, as if the persona singing it were experiencing it all for the first time. So, a mobile face is the symptom of a certain way of relating to the musical and narrative content.

But you can’t recreate that effect simply by deciding you need to move your face more. What happens if you do that, as my correspondent discovered, is that you get so embroiled in the analytical detail that you lose your successfully-established general mood and start to become expressive of over-eager control of cheeks and eyebrows.

It’s a bit like telling someone they need to blow their nose less often, when the problem is they have a cold. Or telling an asthmatic they’re breathing too loudly. The identification of the symptom is correct, but it’s not somewhere where you can usefully focus your efforts in order to get the result you’re after.

(Tuning is like this too. When people try and adjust the fine-tuning pitch using their conscious brains they inevitably over-correct and get anxious. Tuning issues are invariably a signal to address some other vocal, aural or psychological issue.)

So, if someone tells you that you need to move your face more, actually that’s a signal that you need to spend more time understanding the persona of the song. How did they get to be delivering this message? What do they hope to achieve with it? What happens if the person they’re singing to doesn’t believe them? The feedback you get about your face, that is, should be taken not as a comment on your features, but on your characterisation.

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