facial expression

I get the choralnet Daily update in my e-mail every morning.  This morning there was a link to an old Choral Journal article–they call it CJ Replay–about adjudication, called “Adjudication: Some Thing to Think About.”  Despite the title’s dangling participle, it’s a a good article, full of things that are true–in particular, their insistence that adjudicators default to positivity.  If there’s anything we love more than reinforcing stuff a choir is already doing right, it’s celebrating how wonderful that choir is!  Seriously, choirs walk on, all ready to be “judged,” but all the while, we’re sitting behind the table praying that they’re fabulous, rooting for them to sing their pants off.  And once they start singing, we look for everything they’re doing right.

I, like the article’s authors, can’t speak for every adjudicator in the world; but their experience sounds a lot like mine.

But there is one thing that compelled me to write a blog post about it; and that is on the first page, in the third column, third paragraph, ninth line:

We look for positive facial expression from the students…

and also on the second page, first column, third paragraph, seventh line:

We look for facial expression, appropriate movement, and again, stylistic awareness.

I suspect they keep returning to the idea of “facial expression” because it’s an easier attribute to quantify than, for example, “stylistic awareness.”  But I don’t think “facial expression” is the right thing to say, because it’s not the thing we’re actually looking for.

I’ve referred to Ross Buck’s Communication of Emotion a million times; it’s a basically an undergraduate communications class text book.  But anyway, in it, Dr. Buck describes spontaneous communication as “an external manifestation of the referent in the same way dark clouds are a sign of rain.”  So, when we look at a singer’s facial expression, exactly like watching an actor, we aren’t looking for what their face looks like: we’re looking for their internal state.  Are they thinking about the meaning of the text, and feeling the expressive intention of the composer?  Or are they just reproducing pitches and rhythms?  Are they in the music?  Do they get it?  Is it a performance?  Or is it just correct?

Small vocabulary tangent: When anyone is simply reproducing pitches and rhythms, I called it “typing,” because it’s the different between entering text into a keyboard and performing expressively on the piano.  One can you can do without your mind, the other requires full engagement of your entire self.


Yes, adjudicators look at facial expression.  But what’s on your face isn’t what matters.  What matters is why that expression is there.  We’ve all seen plastic choirs with meaningless smiles plastered on their faces while they sing happy music.  These are choirs that have missed the point.  What’s better than a smile is an indescribable glow that comes from embodying the joy the composer wants to express.

p.s. “Smile with your eyes” is a pet peeve of mine because it’s an attempt to manipulate the surface to mimic what should be coming from inside.  Instead of teaching them to fake it, you could teach them to access their feelings and express them honestly!

Will it take more time?  Yes.

Will it be worth it?  YES.

Does it mean that conductors have to learn to do it, too?  Y.E.S.

This entry was posted in embodiment, what the job is not. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to facial expression

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Oh, I like this. Thanks. I’ll be sharing this with my choirs this week… we’re up for adjudication at the end of the month. 🙂

  2. Tom Carter says:

    Hi Amelia. I agree completely. In fact, I wrote Choral Charisma: Singing with Expression to empower singers/directors to connect authentically and honestly to text (and music).

    All my best,


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