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Singing, Movement, and Depth of Learning

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My recent workshop on voice and movement with Zemel Choir and their workshop guests have given me lots of food for reflection. I am very accustomed to using movement and gesture as rehearsal tools, as well as working with groups that use choreographic presentations as a matter of course. I am less accustomed to introducing these elements to a choir that does not have an established history of them, though.

This means that I have had the opportunity to learn lots about people’s reactions and modes of learning when starting from scratch. (There are echoes here of my session with Cleeve Harmony back in October - it is one thing to teach something when people know what they’re after and just want to learn how to do it, it is quite another when you have to help them imagine as well as execute the vision.)

As I recounted in my write-up, we had two different pieces, with two different approaches to movement. A gospel-influenced psalm-setting used a step-sway movement likewise learned from the gospel tradition, while a witty Tom Lehrer piece (is there any other kind??) invited the use of narrative gestures.

Now, from a standing start, one would have imagined that the latter would be harder. It involved a lot more different movements, and thus required a lot more cognitive flexibility and detail of memory. And indeed we spent a lot more time on it for these reasons.

But here’s the interesting thing: the result at the end of the workshop was also significantly more assured than the ‘simple’ step-sway. There was a greater panache and expressivity in the performance that made it more visually convincing, and a greater visual agreement between the singers. This isn’t to say that the step-sway wasn’t worth doing - it still helped coordinate the rhythmic feel and support the voices - but just that in the practice time available it was less immediately accessible to the singers as the ‘wordy’ gestures. It was performed somewhat in inverted commas - you could see a gap between the singers and the style. They were quoting rather than embodying it.

This resonates with one of the observations that underpinned the research questions for my second book: the way choirs within a particular tradition have a characteristic body language. Welsh male voice choirs look different from cathedral choirs who in turn look different from gospel choirs. Musical style, in the sense of the texture and feel of a performance tradition, with its distinctive patterns of feeling, is stored in the bodily habits of its executants.

This is of course how you can achieve things like blend, synchronisation, and all those other subtleties of coordination that are subsumed in the idea of ‘ensemble’. But by the same token, the subtleties entail a rather deeper engagement, a holistic and intuitive relationship with the style, than the description of a simple bodily action may suggest. The feel, the meaning isn’t in the what but in the how of it.

In this sense, stylistic flexibility is akin to taking on different identities. We do this all the time in real life of course. In different social contexts, we play different roles, use different vocabularies, crack different in-jokes - sociologist Anthony Giddens calls these different aspects of our lives ‘lifestyle sectors’. We moderate our behaviour by observing what are the accepted norms within this particular group, and bring out the bits of personalities that fit best there, while underplaying the bits that seem less appropriate.

And, whilst some basic instructions can be useful for avoiding the grossest faux-pas in a new social setting, it’s actually the immersion and observation that teaches us to fit in as an accepted insider.

In the same way, knowing that step-sway is the stylistic thing to do with a gospel-feel song is a necessary step to finding your way into the style. But it takes living with it over a period of time for it to start to feel natural, to shift from feeling like you are doing it because you know it’s appropriate to doing it because it feels natural. The musical feel and its wider meanings are imbibed together through participative action, until you ‘become the music itself’.

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