Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

Gestures and Body-Movements in the Teaching of Singing: A Survey into Current Practice in Australia and Germany

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

Gestures and Body-Movements in the Teaching of Singing: A Survey into Current Practice in Australia and Germany

Article excerpt


The role of the body in singing can be viewed from several different angles: as vocal tone production requires the coordinated functioning of various interconnected physiological mechanisms, the singing voice is a bodily instrument. From this 'the body learns'-perspective, singing is a motor skill with all consequent implications for the learning process and the application of some central principles of perceptual-motor learning to voice instruction is arguably of great value for vocal pedagogy (Verdolini, 1997, 2002; Nisbet, 2010; Maxfield, 2011).

On the other hand, and without contradicting the above, there is the capacity of the body to communicate, to be a medium that may help the brain--or indeed the body itself--learn. Confirming long standing propositions about the power of body-language (Fast, 1977; Argyle, 1975; Pease, 2006) there is mounting evidence that "movement enhances and informs perception" (Rosenbaum, 2010, p. 29) and that gestures help the thinking process (Beattie, 2003; Goldin-Meadow, 2003; Kendon, 2004; McNeill, 2004; Seitz, R. J., 2000; Seitz, J. A., 2005) and also help learning in general (Goldin-Meadow, 2004). Apart from the capacity of communicating to others it seems that gestures' capacity to communicate (Hostetter, 2011) includes the communication with one-self. This perspective could be called 'the body helps learning'.

There is a well-documented tradition of utilising gesture and body movement as teaching and learning aids in music education and choral rehearsal. The Swiss music educator Jaques-Dalcroze first developed a method of learning and experiencing music through movement in the late 19th century. His method became known as Eurhythmies and within only a few decades two other music educators conceived their methods which should prove equally influential: the Kodaly-Method and Orff Sehulwerk. Despite certain differences, all three methods utilise an intrinsic connection between music learning and movement (Crosby, 2008, Jaques-Dalcroze, 1921; Kodaly, 1965; Plummeridge, 2006). It should be noted that in particular Dalcroze and Orff address the conceptual understanding of music which is not the main focus of this study. Yet, in view of their ongoing and far-reaching influence, a mention of these music-education-pioneers seems only natural in this context. Movement is also widely used in choral practice with plenty of studies attesting a significant positive effect of gesture and movement on learning and understanding of both vocal and musical concepts in the choral rehearsal (Wis, 1999; Bailey, 2007; Chagnon, 2001). However, material regarding the role of gesture and body-movement in one-on-one voice teaching is sparse; very few publications mention teachers' deliberate use of gesture (Kayes, 2004) and the majority of printed matter on vocal pedagogy discourages movement in the student (Miller, 1996; Nair, 2007) --apart from relaxation exercises prior to singing (Caldwell & Wall, 1995; Chapman, 2006).

The author has demonstrated in previous studies that voice teachers deliberately and consciously use gestures in the explanation of singing related concepts (Nafisi, 2008, 2010). This led to the development of a system which categorises movements encountered in the context of vocal teaching according to their pedagogical intent and distinguishes gestures (physiological, sensation-related and musical) and body-movements (Nafisi, 2013a).

In order to investigate the status quo of the use of gesture and body-movement as teaching and learning tools in Western classical singing, the author conducted a survey amongst professional voice teachers using the above terminology. The survey sought to investigate the hypothesis 'gestures and body-movements are widely used tools in the teaching and learning of singing', specified in the following contentions:

1. A significant number of voice teachers use gestures to enhance explanation and/or demonstration;

2. …

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