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Expressive Performance and the Duchenne Smile

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When someone smiles, you always know immediately whether they really mean it or whether they’re just going through the motions to be polite. The actual position of the facial muscles is very similar, but humans are expert at reading each others’ emotional states from subtle clues, and find the distinction unmistakable. Nonverbal communications studies calls this smile that you know is felt the ‘duchenne smile’.

I’ve been thinking about this quality in choral performances I’ve seen recently. Sometimes a choir can give the impression of just being obedient: singing the notes and words required by their music in the manner required by their conductor. Other times, you get a sense that they are really living the music, that they are experiencing the performance as a meaningful act of communication. And I’m interested in what goes into making one of the latter ‘duchenne’ performances.

It’s not primarily – or at least not only - a matter of skill. I have been touched by quite inept performances that had little to recommend them except a certain joie de vivre, and I have been left cold by technically secure and controlled performances. I think it may have quite a lot to do with semantic depletion – rehearsing the music into a rut until the singers start to take its messages for granted.

The imaginative techniques propounded by Tom Carter are largely about finding ways to keep music’s communicative power alive and real to singers in order that they can experience performance as a meaningful interaction with their audience. His goal is to find ways – often, but not exclusively, focused on story-telling - to get the singers emotionally hooked into the music, so that they place these meanings at the heart of their performances.

The discourses of authentic communication that coaches like Tom draw on go back to early Romantic aesthetics (E.T.A. Hoffmann brought us the phrase of music speaking ‘from the heart to the heart’). And they frame the experience in terms of stripping away the distractions of technique and artifice to discover a personal response to the music. And if what you’re after is a truly felt performance, this is exactly what’s needed.

But interestingly, the extent to which these qualities survive in the performance situation itself depends on the degree of imaginative stamina the performers have been able to develop. There are all kinds of distractions in the performance situation – both anxieties and excitements – and if these thoughts dominate the performers’ minds as they sing, they can crowd out the sense of story-telling, leaving the singers running on autopilot while they process these distractions. You get an expressive performance, but it's expressive of the singers' response to the performance situation, rather than expressive of the music's meanings.

That is, the duchenne performance is as much a Foucauldian ‘technology of the self’ as a Romantic act of spontaneity. The emotional response at its heart is authentic, but the capacity to connect with that response at will is learned and improves with practice.

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