On Mouthing the Words

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A reasonably common conversation I have with directors when working with them on their technique is to suggest that they could usefully stop mouthing the words to the music they are conducting. They very rarely ask why (it is generally known to be a good idea), but they do object that it is very difficult. Well, I’m not going to argue with that.

But it’s probably worthwhile reflecting both on why people find it hard to stop doing this, and why they can become better directors if they do. It’s not so much that it’s a bad thing (though it can introduce specific technical flaws), but that it limits what you can achieve with your singers.

So, the reason people want to mouth the words is primarily because they become directors by first having been singers. Their foundational experience of musical expression involved the words coming out of their mouths. So it’s deeply-rooted not just in the sense of habit, but also in the way they think in music. A typical response to stopping mouthing the words is that the director no longer feels expressive, or that they feel disconnected from the music. (Interestingly, the singers don’t often share this impression - it is very useful to have them on hand to reassure a director that they still look musical.)

The reasons why it is worth developing the capacity to resist this automatic response, though, are quite compelling. Any one of these would be enough to make a strong case, let alone all added together.

  • You are effectively directing the song in two simultaneous dimensions, with your mouth as well as your hands. Given that these two dimensions are of quite different physical shape and size, it is almost impossible to guarantee that they will be exactly coordinated all of the time. So, if some singers are looking at your hands and some at your mouth, you will have problems with synchronisation. This is the specific technical flaw I mentioned above.
  • Giving information in two channels simultaneously also divides people’s attention. They won’t pay nearly as much attention to the nuance of your gestures if they are constantly distracted by your mouth. It’s like watching a film in your own language with subtitles in your own language.
  • If the words show on your mouth as a matter of course, nobody will notice if you want to draw attention to a particular word. It’s like perpetually crying wolf about vowel shapes.
  • Mouthing the words inhibits the director’s capacity to listen. If you want to play close attention to something, you keep your mouth still, don’t you? You stop broadcasting and focus on receiving. When you mouth the words, you are singing along in your head to some combination of your imagined ideal and the actual sounds the singers are producing. In order to listen in detail, you need to shift the focus away from what you’re doing and onto what others are doing. Mouthing the words is wasting cognitive bandwidth you could use for more important things.

Thanks Liz for a great post. It's one of the few things that I've actually managed to do successfully when directing - ie stopping myself mouthing words... although I was a bit flummoxed at Harmony College last year when I was directing the College Chorus (wow) and one of the criticisms from one of the chorus members was that I wasn't mouthing the words! So unfortunately, you also need to train your chorus members not to expect the director to mouth the words, so they really do need to learn the words!

Indeed. If I work at it, I manage to say this not too unkindly :-) They need to be able to tie their own shoe-laces too.

Interestingly, though, if the director has moment of memory-blank on the words, even when they're not in the habit of mouthing them, the singers will likewise forget what to sing.

It's also the case that sometimes different voice parts have different words simultaneously, and since you can't do both at once, you'll be giving a conflicting message to whoever's part you're not mouthing.

Hi Liz

When I first saw a choir leader mouthing words at a concert I thought it was deeply patronising, that she was spoon-feeding the singers and not trusting them.

I never used to mouth words, but since I teach mostly foreign language songs and always by ear, I'm often asked to mouth the words as a kind of cue to help people stay on track. So I do it to some extent, but never in rehearsal.

I used to think it was taking the responsibility away from the singers having to learn all the lyrics well, but with so many weird languages I see it now as a kind of live hint mechanism.

Of course, as Allen points out, many songs have different lyrics for each part, so then I give up!

Chris

It's a toughy this one. I totally get what you mean and have no argument but as a less experienced director with a multinational group I thought I'd give my slant:
One reason (sadly) why I tend to mouth the words is that I find if I don't, I get lost and forget where we are in the song (I need a new brain!) The other reason why I've done it up to now, is that my Dutch and German singers are singing in a foreign (to them)language and still need reminding about pronunciation and vowel shapes during a song. However, I now realise that after 6 years of bashing away at them, it's time to hand over the responsibility so that the chorus can progress.
I will now probably have to use the suggestion in your picture and apply Gaffer tape to break my habit! I'm suddenly feeling a little silly and am reminded of an 'ex' relative who couldn't spoon feed her baby without opening and shutting her own mouth.... ahem!

Ha! That is a great simile for the process Sylvie :-)

You'll find that once you're not mouthing them all the time, it has more effect when you really need to give a mouth-shape reminder.

If you want a silly exercise to work on this, holding the rim of a plastic cup between your teeth works...

Saves time at tea break I suppose, like having a nose-bag. I could also do my best Schnozzle Durante impersonation...

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