convenient controversy

Dr. Jordan called me yesterday, wanting to prevent my overreacting.  
“Have you seen your new Choral Journal?” he asked.
“Uh, not yet…” I admitted.
“Well, don’t freak out.  There’s a letter to the editor about your article…”
As if I’ve ever freaked out about anything.  Lately.  Since the last time.

There is a letter to the editors of Choral Journal in the June/July issue (p. 6) regarding my April article “Thoughtful Gestures,” and a response from the editors to the letter.  I don’t think I would have freaked out about it even without Dr. Jordan’s warning, but it does invite clarification.  Luckily, I happen to have this convenient venue for responding to the response and to the response to the response.  So there’s no reason to wait for all that pesky publishing of journals.

The letter says my model of conducting “holds the director responsible for the unified emotional expression of the singers–with the director being the leading spark in the circuit…  Unfortunately, this model disempowers the singers.”  The writer then goes on to offer an alternative, with some methods of empowering singers to “sing with a unified expression of their own.”

That’s not what I meant to say.  What I meant to say was this:

All the stuff conductors learn to do isn’t just artsy fartsy music baloney; it’s a process supported by some very cool science.  

I know the paradigm of conductor-as-monarch exists, both in terms of emotional leadership and musical guidance; so, that makes it my fault for not directly clarifying how my model is different from that.  I took it for granted that conductors all know that the individual members of the ensemble have to be individually empowered to perform the music with their own expressive intent

Here is my clarification.  (Well, if you read the whole blog it’ll become clear, but for those who don’t have time for that, here’s a condensed version.)  Ahem:
A conductor is not responsible for the unified emotional expression of the singers.  The singers are and must be responsible for their own emotional expression.  A conductor is responsible for embodying the expressive intent of the composer though gesture (just as the ensemble members are responsible for expressing the composer’s intention through singing or playing) and, in fact, the point of my model is that the conductor is responsible for consistent embodiment of the expressive intent of the composer so that he may remind the singers to do so, too.  So that he may influence the sound though living intention, fostering the living intention of the ensemble members.
I do not state explicitly in the article, but I think the article supports the idea that it’s counterintuitive for us to ask our singers to have a “compelling purpose for singing” (in the well-chosen words of the letter-writer) unless we display compelling purpose in our gesture.  If we have compelling purpose, it will only benefit the singers, help them to commit more fully to their expression.  
The letter-writer says, “even when the director’s affect is deadpan, such a choir will bring down the house.”  To which I reply, “oh, but what if the conductor lived the music with them?  Wouldn’t that make it easier for them?  Might that not inspire them?”  
Yes.  Yes, it would.  
Because, as I explain so eloquently in the article as well as here and here and here, we are built to communicate.  We are made to feel the feelings of those around us.

If the conductor stands deadpan, which no one is actually advocating, then the singers must first shut the conductor out–make the choice to ignore the feelings that are seeping out of him (because the fact is, we influence them whether we intend to or not; there are feelings seeping out in spontaneous expression of our inner state, even from what may appear to be a “deadpan” expression).  Then they are on their own to express of their own initiative.  

That could work, but the way we actually do it is so much easier!  It eliminates the step of turning off their natural inclination to empathize and instead takes advantage of it.  If the conductor is showing them living humanity, that feeds them and makes it easier for them to do their job.
So you see, there isn’t actually any controversy.  We all know conductors must be expressive–the question of “how” is open to interpretation, and I discuss that elsewhere.  The question of “why” is the one I was addressing in the article.
To the conductors who are reading this, I’ll just also let you know that I’ve got a whole other sciencey controversy saying mirror neurons have never been seen in humans and biomotion is where it’s at.  I’m still wading through all that–it’s much slower, obviously, because it’s a foreign language to me, but I’ll let you know when (?) I have any kind of insight.
And now, my response to the response to the response.
The Editorial Associate who responds to the letter, David Stocker (hello!), says the letter “errs about the same distance as the original author [me!], only on the other side of the continuum.”  
Well, I mean.  I ask you.  Really?!  
Granted, the article is written to conductors about conducting and is, yes, explaining why it’s important for a conductor to embody the emotional intent of the composer.  So, no, I don’t talk much about the singers’ own intentions.  So I can see where he might get the whole “erring the same distance on the other side of the continuum” thing.  But I’m here to tell you that I do, in fact, believe that every singer’s intention is every bit as important as the conductor’s and that the conductor’s expressive displays are only useful insomuch as they inspire and influence the initiative of the performers’ intention.
(Look, the limit for articles at Choral Journal was eighteen pages and I wrote twenty after substantial editing and making the font smaller.  I can’t write about everything all at once!  That’s why I have a blog now.  I can write about everything in little snippets.  James Jordan keeps writing books.  I’m a generation younger, so I have a blog.  We, Dr. Jordan’s students, sometimes tease him about the library of books he keeps writing, but I can relate to the impulse that drives him to it.)
Anyway, Dr. Stocker then goes on, “The issue here is ‘What is an ensemble?'”  
That is a fascinating issue, though it was not the issue I was writing about (because I can’t write about everything all at once): again, I was just trying to demonstrate that all the stuff conductors learn to do isn’t just artsy fartsy music baloney; it’s a process supported by some very cool science.  It works not just because of cultural conventions constructed around it, but because it comes from the deepest nature of our humanity.  
But since he asked…
What is an ensemble? 
That’s going to have to wait for another post, I’m afraid.  This one is already too long.
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4 Responses to convenient controversy

  1. Oo, now I have to go read my latest issue. But I think the "errs about the same distance" thing is more outrageous than the original letter!On the subject at hand, the way I think of it while working (in order to get myself more expressive) is "allowing." Your singers can only be as emotionally expressive as you allow them to be by your own emotional expression. If I am shut down, I am not allowing them to reach their full potential as expressive beings.

  2. Amelia NP says:

    It's not so much outrageous as it is simply mistaken. The article is only about the conductor part of the relationship, but I never imagined anyone would think that meant it was the whole of my perspective.And "allowing" is a good thought. I sort of think of it as a door. The singers can get through no matter what, but it'll make it easier for them if you just open.I think the story in the Bernstein post describes it best.

  3. Tom Carter says:

    I applaud this entire discussion. As the letter writer who responded to Amelia's CJ article in the first place, let me clarify a few things. First, our biggest disagreement (and I think we still have one), is around this question: Where is this nifty science stuff most effective at creating compelling choral experiences for singers and audiences? I suggest (and wrote about it in my book) that we get the most bang for our buck with we empower singers to be their most authentically expressive — when they are, their audiences have the best chance of being powerfully affected. The relationship between singers and director bears much less fruit.I propose the following: Give me a choir with a deadpan director — or even one whose back is turned away from the choir. Let me use the techniques I espouse to empower the choir. Compare that with a traditional choir whose singers are using more traditional notions of expressiveness — while being led by the sort of director Amelia is espousing. I'm willing to bet that the progressively empowered group will be MUCH more expressive, unified, and enaging than the other group.It would be helpful for those of you reading to know more about my work. If you're interested, feel free to visit my website at My book, Choral CHARISMA: Singing with Expression is another avenue of exploration. I've presented clinics and worskshops at the state, regional, and national levels, and have experienced what I'm talking about with hundreds of choirs and directors, and thousands of singers. I look forward to continuing the dialogue. I think we're all after the same thing.All my best,TomTom

  4. Tom Carter says:

    Hi again, Amelia.Listen, I love your blog, and I hereby invite you to have a public discussion about our views on singing, conducting, and expression. I think people would enjoy reading it. Here are a couple of key points that I’d love to explore:1. Your notion that all conductors know “that the individual members of the ensemble have to be individually empowered to perform the music with their own expressive intent” leads me to wonder… a. Are you and I talking about the same thing when we describe expression? b. I don’t think we are, because the vast majority of directors haven’t a clue about how to empower singers to sing “as solo artists.” They simply haven’t been trained to do this, since their training is in matters of Music and conducting, not in matters of authentic expressive performance (that expertise is developed in a good Theatre Arts department). 2. They HAVE been trained to do that which you explained (so well) using modern scientific principles. The paradigm of the director being responsible for the expressiveness of their singers is a long-established one (as you state in your last CJ paragraph, which I encourage you to re-read.) 3. So, our understandings about expression and conductors’ training differ, and it’s my goal to teach directors and singers what they need to know so that singers CAN be empowered as solo artists (I think we both agree on this). 4. When that actual empowering occurs, choral performances look entirely different than the current paradigm reflects.5. Your beliefs that singers would do better if the conductor was emotionally connected and/or expressive is not supported by my paradigm or my experience. Your linked anecdote about the postmortem Bernstein performance DOES support my paradigm – if the musicians are authentically engaged in their own compelling connection to text and music, the conductor’s affect is irrelevant. (In your anecdote, the conductor was totally absent!)BTW, I loved The Musician’s Soul, and I quote James several times in my book. He suggests that expression is the singer’s responsibility – I loved that he wrote that. But just as most directors don't know how to teach singers to be expressive, most singers don't know how to sing with expression(!). Both parties need guidance in this arena. And that's why I wrote Choral Charisma. It's the first and only book to provide a clear method for directors to teach singers — and singers to learn for themselves — just HOW to sing with authentic expression. All my best,Tom

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