Channelling Wonder Woman

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Recently a friend shared a rather wonderful TED talk with me, that resonated with all kinds of interests I have about performance and musical identity. It was given by a social psychologist called Amy Cuddy, and it dealt with research into the relationship between body language and how you feel about yourself, with particular reference to questions of power and social status.

If you know my second book, you’ll know why I find this so interesting. One of the things I was looking at there is the way that particular musical traditions share particular ways of using the body and the voice as integral to the style. Gesture, timbre, inflection - all those things that are too subtle to be caught in notation but are essential to competent performance - are encoded in the body. Getting the music needs a degree of willingness to empathise with it, to ‘mentally sing along’ as Schumann described the act of listening.

This all relies on the process of emotional contagion - the capacity to pick up states of feeling from others. This in turn relies on what the pioneers in the field refer to as the facial feedback hypothesis - the idea that facial expressions are not merely the visible sign of an internal state, but actually contribute to helping you feel that way. (Amy Cuddy refers briefly to this research in the video.) So, you pick up emotions from others by intuitively mirroring their physical state, which in turn gives you access to how it is to feel as they do.

The work reported in the video adds to this general framework by focusing on how adopting the physical manifestations of power affects people’s internal states and external behaviours. What happens to their hormone levels and their willingness to take risks? And it is presented very clearly in the context of how it can be useful to people who worry that they’re not good enough.

This of course is of direct interest to me in my work with performers. People going out to make music for others like to feel confident, but this doesn’t always come naturally, especially before they have acquired much experience. We spend a lot of time as coaches and directors telling people to stand up tall and to smile; we use imagery and characterisation to get people to imagine themselves positively into the role.

This research tells us we are right to do this, and why we are right. It tells us that to open our arms wide (as Magenta did as a confidence-building tool in our early days) will actually raise our testosterone levels and reduce our cortisol. We will feel more powerful and less stressed.

Cuddy suggests two minutes spent in a powerful pose privately before going into a high-pressure situation is enough to change your internal state to handle it well. So one can see why she suggests the Wonder Woman pose for this - legs apart, chin slightly raised, hands on hips. This will be more comfortable and stable to maintain than the raised arms of triumph, which is a more dynamic gesture, not suited to stillness.

I’m sure that the fact that a well-balanced support for one’s weight, relaxed shoulders and an open chest are also good for support and resonance is purely a coincidence. I don’t believe I ever heard Wonder Woman sing, but if she did, she’d be giving herself the best chance to sound good.

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