More on Mouthing Words (and why not to)

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The subject of why directors so often feel the urge to mouth the words as they conduct, and why it is a good idea to overcome this urge is a subject I have visited before. And I don’t need to say very much more than I did last time, so this will be a rather short post. But there was a communal penny-drop moment at the LABBS Directors Weekend back in July on this topic which I thought it worth sharing with you.

It was in one of the coaching sessions - three directors, half a chorus and a coach working together for 45 mins on helping the directors develop more effective technique. Often the directors wanted to work on how to become more expressive and communicative in their gestures, and often the answer was to do less at a full-body level so that the nuances of finger and facial expression weren’t constantly competing with other body parts for attention.

And into this mix, one of the wonderful singers from the White Rosettes gave the feedback that she found she had more freedom to contribute to the music when the director stopped mouthing the words. She felt more personally involved in the music at both an emotional and a vocal level.

This was a very motivating bit of information for the director. It can be hard (!!) to change our habits, especially when those habits are rooted in our own deep commitments to feeling the music. But to learn that those habits are actually making our singers feel inhibited - well, that gives a good reason to work on that bit of technique. To stop mouthing the words thus becomes an expression of trust in the chorus to use their own hearts and brains, a recognition that the director doesn’t have to do everything.

And possibly that’s one of the reasons it’s so hard - it’s not just about the mouth, it’s about the relationship. But if we relinquish some of that control, we are rewarded with a more genuinely communicative interaction between director and singers, and a freer, more resonant, and more meaningful choral sound.

The implication, Liz, is that we (I) mouth the words to support the chorus, as if we don't trust them to know the lyrics.

In my case I don't think that's true. I try very hard not to mouth the words (except, maybe to emphasise a vowel shape or something) but find myself doing it anyway about 50% of the time. I think it's because the song is 'playing' in my head and I have myself sung it during the learning process. Obviously, as a man, I have limited multitasking ability and with everything else going on in my head while I direct, that bit goes on to autopilot.

Also, what are your thoughts on the observation that lots of top directors mouth the words at least some of the time?

I think it is deeper than not trusting the singers to know the lyrics - at least in the case of the dynamic that informed this post. It was more a case of the director wanting to *do* all the music, so mouthing the words was part of a general tendency to over-direct. The trust issue was more about expression - letting the chorus sing, and accepting their contribution to the music, rather than imposing the director's vision with the singers as merely their 'instrument'.

I get the point about directors having started out as singers, too, though, both in the general sense of their musical careers, and the specificity of singing as part of the process of learning the music, which is of course essential. But part of the director's role is, having lived the music from the singers' perspective, to step out of that role in order to step into the role of guiding ear.

I'd add that it's not a specifically masculine multitasking issue at stake here - one of the big challenges for all directors is that merely doing what we do takes the full surface of our attention, and there isn't much headspace left to self-monitor our habits and mannerisms, whether good or bad. Which is why we need to develop practice strategies to address them, rather than just hoping for our good intentions to prevail over autopilot in the heat of rehearsal!

With any instance of someone we admire doing something that goes against 'textbook' advice, we need to ask: are they great musicians because they do that, or despite it? It may be that other aspects of their craft are so strong, they overcome the apparent 'bad' habits. Or it could be they're doing that thing at specific moments for a specific purpose, in which case it isn't a habit. So, difficult to generalise, but we should be wary of thinking, 'So and so does this, so if I do it too, I'll be that good' ;-)

Oddly, I mouth the words much less in performance than I do in rehearsal. Maybe a case of trying too hard and over directing in rehearsal.

I take your point about assuming that because Jim Henry does something I can do it too!

Fantastic blogs Liz. Thank you.

I totally agree about mouthing the words. And would add that often parts will not have the same text at the same time which can make it even more confusing. However in my work with amateurs/beginners the performances are 'off-book', and choir members consistently feedback that they absolutely want/need me to mouth the words. Whether they could manage without it or not isn't relevant because it makes them feel more secure - and therefore more comfortable and able to give more to their performance. On the occasions that I do work with choirs who perform from scores I just have to remember not to do it! You are so right, it easily becomes a habit!

I think there is a useful distinction to make here between beginner and amateur singers. For those to whom everything is new and unfamiliar, then I'd agree that indulging the request for help with words may be helpful while they find their feet.

But for those who have some experience, the fact that they are performing from memory isn't a reason to ask you to do their work for them. I note that the event that gave rise to this post was in a genre that works predominantly off-book - indeed, could usefully (in my view) engage with the paper rather more than it often does!

Of course, just asking people to go cold turkey when they have developed the bad habit of relying on their director mouthing words would create more anxiety and insecurity than you'd want people to feel. But there are ways to wean people off this, just as there are ways to wean people off clinging to the sheet music when you want them to perform from memory.

So, whilst I honour your sense of kindness to the inexperienced, I'd also uphold your right to reclaim your face for other expressive purposes and with it your singers' right to take ownership of the musical content they sing. :-)

Thanks Liz,

You are right, and I am going to think about weaning strategies for existing choirs, and not start it with new choirs - except possibly at the start of verses when they may need a prompt!

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