What Choral Singing Does to Us

By Countryman, June | The Canadian Music Educator, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

What Choral Singing Does to Us


Countryman, June, The Canadian Music Educator


In our work as choral educators we constantly strive for an appropriate balance between the technical and the expressive. We develop vocal skills and musical literacy skills in order to enhance our students' capacity to make music. This is challenging work, undertaken in time-pressured institutional spaces where words like joy and beauty seem not to be spoken. It is perhaps inevitable that we tend to focus on problems and deficits related to skill development and program maintenance, and to assume that the experience of communal singing, and all that entails, is self-evident. We worry about in-tune singing, breath support, unified vowels and phrase releases. We obsess over small tenor sections or non-projecting altos. We second-guess our repertoire choices, our rehearsal rhythms and our concert commitments. These concerns can consume us. The New Year seems an appropriate time to ponder a big-picture question: why does any of this matter? Why do people sing in choirs?

While reasons for participating in choral singing are many and varied, for me there are two compelling aspects of choral singing that are both obvious and difficult to articulate:

* it is embodied experience: body/mind/emotions are experienced in an integrated way in real time

* it is communal

Embodied experience

In Music Grooves (2005) Keil calls music "our last and best source of participatory consciousness" (p. 20). This idea that we are aware - deeply aware - of our being, our self when we make music, especially with others, is powerful. And yet we tend not to talk about this central idea with our students. Perhaps it makes us too vulnerable - using language so at odds with what is typical in academic settings. Perhaps we fear coming across as flakey or new-age. Perhaps we risk overstating the importance of what we are sharing musically: articulating the ineffable might mess it up. My teaching experiences and research with adolescents and young adults suggests that occasionally musing aloud about what music does to us as we make it can have a profound effect upon both the singing and the memory of the choral experience. Here are some sample talking points to illustrate what I mean: openings to think about - and celebrate - the embodied nature of musicking.

* Neuroscience research has confirmed that every region of the brain is involved in processing music and that listening to music that we enjoy increases the brain's production of dopamine, a chemical associated with positive mood and affect (Levitin, 2006).

* Entrainment is a phenomenon in which two or more independent rhythmic processes synchronize with each other. Physical entrainment was documented in 1655 by Huygens, who observed that two pendulum clocks quickly achieved perfect synchronicity of their own accord. Could it be that the physiological/cognitive experience of entraining with others helps explain the magic of making music? Borko (2005) notes the "neural synchrony" (p. 138) in performing and listening, as "cognitive, perceptual and motor constructs" engage together, or as he says of group improvising, "everyone changes the state of everyone else" (p. 135).

* Mindfulness involves the capacity to be aware, to be fully present to events and experiences as they unfold. When we achieve complete creative engagement in our singing we experience a concentration or centeredness similar to that achieved in meditation. (Csikszentmihaly's (1990) flow theory provides an explanation of this phenomenon)

* Intuition: where does it come from? What happens that enables us to sense a phrase shape together?

Each of these talking points involves sophisticated, multidisciplinary understandings and debates. I refer to them from a position of wonderment rather than one of expertise, and it is in this spirit that I would think aloud about them in a choral class or rehearsal.

An interesting experiment with mindfulness and musical performance is reported by Langer, Russel and Eisenkraft (2009). …

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