How to Empower our Singers

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One of the things I touched on in my guest post at Owning the Stage on Musical Performance and Flow last year was the question of how much a performer is in charge of what they do, and how much they are simply following other people’s instructions. This is important, because a sense of personal control is one of the five pre-requisites for attaining a flow state.

This is a potentially tricky issue for choral directors, since we spend a lot of our time asserting our control over what our singers do. We require them to watch our gestures, to listen to and act upon our instructions, to keep changing what they do until it matches our vision. There is a risk that our desire to refine and hone the choir’s performance may get in the way of the singers’ capacity to get into that zone where they perform their best.

So, it’s worth thinking about ways we can hand control back to our singers, without relinquishing our responsibilities to the ensemble and to the music.

Within the Choir-Training Processes

Unless you only ever conduct professional singers, you’ll be spending a certain amount of your rehearsal time in activities to train your singers - vocally, musically and as an ensemble. These kinds of activities present lots of opportunities to hand over control – and indeed, doing so will make them much more effective as tools for learning.

  1. Activities in which singers choose which notes to sing. There can be a certain amount of anxiety attached to making sure you’re singing the right notes. Certainly, singers are not comfortable while they are unclear about pitch. So devising exercises in which any note they choose to sing is by definition right allows both a lot more personal autonomy, and the chance to let go of that question and focus on other learning goals. Such activities may include:
    • Listening exercises where people close their eyes and hum, choosing their notes to resonate with what they hear around them.
    • Harmony exercises in which singers build up a chord a person at a time, each person picking their own note.
    • Rhythm exercises where each singer invents their own riff to fit into an agreed rhythmic framework, resulting in a many-layered group improvisation
  2. Activities in which leadership of the activity is passed around between singers. Musicianship games using solfege or scale degree numbers are more effective when the singers take turns to lead than when the director leads them. Likewise, handing round the control of tempo in riff-based activities not only gives individuals the opportunity to exercise musical authority, but also builds and strengthens the bonds within the group.

Within Repertoire

In Magenta, certain elements of these kinds of musicianship games have infiltrated our performances. We have one piece in which the first chords the audience hears after a unison opening result from the singers each picking their own notes at the point of performance. It’s never the same twice, and creates a really exciting moment. We have another where, in a long play-out, we gradually build up a complex clapping texture by each singer having two claps per bar, which they can place wherever they like, but in the same places in each successive bar. It produces a result that is both coherent (because of the internal repetition) and multi-layered, because of the interaction of fifteen different rhythms.

However, usually when working on real music we do need people actually to sing pre-determined notes at the correct time (in tune, at the right volume, with matched vowels, yada yada). But even when we take away the choir’s control over content, they can keep control of their own understanding of that content - and as directors we can either impede or facilitate the operation of that understanding. I have written elsewhere on reasons why framing rehearsal processes in imaginative rather than concrete terms is beneficial, but this is another reason for the same point.

If you ask a singer to perform something pianissimo, that is simply an instruction to follow, whereas if you ask them to sing something intimately, they have to make all sorts of decisions about how to do that. And you don’t even have to prescribe the expressive outcome for them. If you ask a choir to sing a phrase demonstrating how they think it should be shaped, you’ll hear a lot of natural musicianship that doesn’t always come out when we’re in control-freakery mode.

Tom Carter’s methods for what he calls Choral Charisma are based on these principles of inviting each singer to develop their own imaginative and emotional connection with the music’s meaning. And they also resonate strongly with the Inner Game principles of awareness, will and trust. So I’m not proposing anything radically new here. But given how easy it is for directors to disempower their singers, it’s always useful to remind ourselves of both the importance of individual autonomy and of ways to encourage it.

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