Tone Bianca Dahl on Communication

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Tone Bianca DahlTone Bianca DahlOne of the sessions at the ABCD Convention at the end of August was workshop on communication between choir, conductor and audience led by Tone Bianca Dahl. Tone teaches choral conducting at the Norwegian Academy of Music, and her book on this subject has recently been translated into English. Her central question in the presentation was: what creates the magic?; and can we create it at will?

Her answer was that the secret lies in communication, and in the sense of communing together, communality, rather than in the sense of exchange of information. The magic will only happen, she said, when the people involved in a msuical performance are ‘breathing as one body, thinking as one brain’. And she sees this happening in three layers:

First, communication within the choir:
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Second, communication between choir and conductor:

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Third, communication between choir and audience:
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As an exercise to develop the first layer, she suggested having everyone start walking at the same time, then stop together three times. An extension of this would then be for everyone to walk in the same way as each other, but in a different way each time. What was interesting when the delegates attempted this exercise was how difficult we found it; it was clear we were a bunch of people who had not spent time with each other at all! But you could see how, over time, it be a very simple and effective way to help people develop mutual awareness.

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She spent longer on the second layer, and pointed out that in this relationship, it is the conductor’s responsibility to make the relationship work. There were three key areas she discussed, all to do with the conductor’s use of the self, both physically and mentally:

  • Presence
  • Courage
  • Balance

I was particularly interested in the way she thought about balance. This was a physical attribute, but also a mental/attitudinal one, and she diagnosed imbalances of character and/or culture from different forms of physical imbalance. There were three planes to balance: top/bottom, front/back, left/right. Unsurprisingly, left/right had to do with the hemispheres of the brain – the verbal/analytical and the nonverbal/holistic – and the particular relevance for conductors in the way the two sides of the body are controlled by the opposite side of the brain.

With the top/bottom dimension, she diagnosed conductors in western culture as having a tendency to be top-heavy, linking this with the cultural value placed on the cerebral and intellectual relative to the physical or instinctual. To restore this balance she gave us exercises such as ‘kicking empty bottles’ and fast stamping. With front/back balance she again saw a cultural tendency to push forward through eagerness or goal-directedness. She invited us to balance the tendency forward, showing ‘what we can do’, with a focus on our backs, which show ‘who we are’. When she spoke here about ‘showing your back’ as means to personal openness and honesty, I found this in turn facilitated her next stage – the relationship with the audience.

In this layer, she talked a lot about flow – something I have also been interested in. In particular, she focused on the importance of a non-egocentric attitude if one is to gain the unreserved support of the audience. Those who saw my post a few weeks back about how to hear your choir more perceptively will know that I have been interested in the way our ego boundaries can interfere with our musical perception, so it was interesting to hear a similar argument played out regarding connection with an audience.

Overall, the thing that I really enjoyed about this session was the way it integrated mind and body, the way it recognised how we feel and what we can think are both facilitated and constrained by our ways of being in the world. And this epistemological stance played out in the combination of carefully-constructed analytical categories and practical exercises to enact them. After all, the measure of a good theory is that it helps you be more effective in what you do in real life.

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