So...What Do I Do With My Mouth?

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The benefits for a choral director of not mouthing the words are something that I have explored on several occasions in this blog over the years. Let's assume for now that we've covered those points well enough to make the point; I'll append a list of those previous posts at the end here* for anyone who's not seen them yet. For today, our question is the perfectly reasonable one of what to do instead.

It was asked by a conductor I worked with recently who found himself at something of a loss about how to use his face once he stopped mouthing the words. My first thought when he said this, I have to say, was admiration and delight that he had taken the advice seriously and acted upon it rather than the more usual response of making cogent arguments about why it is hard to do so. My second thought was that it's a good question, and one that other directors who grapple with this element of technical control might also be interested in, and thus a prime candidate for a blog post.

So my immediate response was not to worry too much about your face. People are naturally expressive - you can tell what they're thinking about and how they feel about it just by looking at them - so if your attention is on the music and the singers, you can trust your face to provide appropriate expressions without your conscious intervention. It's much like having a conversation: you get interested in the subject and the people you are interacting with and don't need to make specific decisions about what to do with your face.

I'm happy with this as advice in these circumstances, but after I had sent it, a collection of further thoughts started to bubble up that I thought it might be useful to tease apart.

The first was about self-monitoring. One of the hard things about improving your conducting technique is that whenever you are making music in real time with a choir there is so much to pay attention to that there really isn't cognitive space left to notice and adapt your own physical actions. This is why it is so hard to change habitual ways of doing things, and why private practice is so important if we are to stand a chance of doing so.

The second thought was about how one's accustomed use of the self is the state of 'normal' and any changes - whether they involve adding to, taking away from or simply adjusting that state - are liable to commandeer attention that you would normally use for attending to the choir. This is why preventing yourself mouthing the words takes so much effort: in Daniel Kahneman's terms you are having to make a sustained and continual intervention from System 2 to inhibit a process System 1 had happily automated.

And this is also why people feel a need to do something else with the mouth and/or face: stopping doing an accustomed action generates an awareness of absence that just won't be experienced by someone who has never done that action. It's not just a matter of 'switching off' an unnecessary movement, that is, it's building a new relationship with your state of being in the world. It is no surprise that people sometimes report a sense of disconnection with musical emotion at first when they stop mouthing the words. Fortunately, as new habits become automated, feeling returns.

So, after thinking this through in a bit more detail, I think I'd add a couple of extra bits of advice to my initial response.

First, find a practice gadget that helps you make the change without the need to constantly self-monitor. Personally, I like blowing through a drinking straw held gently between the lips as you conduct, as that helps you model good breath flow for singers at the same time as physically preventing you mouthing the words. You can use this while working with your choir if you don't mind sharing your practice goals, but it also works well while you practise by yourself at home.

Second, practice in front of a mirror and focus your attention on watching your hands as you audiate the music. This is a good way to practise conducting anyway, to get continuous real-time feedback on what your gestures look like. But the point here is about your attention. If your head is full of the relationship between your hands and your musical imagination, your face will recede from your conscious awareness. As you increasingly invest your sense of musical shape into your hands, the feeling of 'blankness' that afflicts a face suddenly inhibited from mouthing the words will dissipate.

At that point, my initial advice will feel more natural than it probably does in the first instance.


*General posts about mouthing words:
On Mouthing the Words
More on Mouthing Words (and why not to)
Also some case studies:
Developing the Director-Chorus Bond with Avon Harmony
Concentrating in Coventry
A Cappella Adventures in Amersham

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