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The Importance of Proper Facial Expressions While Singing

How choir conductors and singers can use emotional expression to connect with audiences

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A great vocal performance is a moving, sensory experience, one that elicits joyful cheers, thunderous applause, and standing ovations.  Choral music can be especially stirring.  Just listen to the roar of the crowd as 100 Voices of Gospel concludes its soulful rendition of “This Little Light of Mine”, or watch the rapturous response to the Scala Choir’s haunting take on the Radiohead hit “Creep”.  Sometimes, you don’t even need to hear a choir sing to measure its impact – initiatives like The New York Times’ “5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Choral Music"[1] showcase the power of choir singing in conductors’, singers’, and writers’ vivid recollections of their favorite performances.

But what is it exactly that makes these singing performances resonate so deeply?

It’s a synergy of several elements – exquisite pitch, perfect harmonies, precise timing and rhythm, a mix of innovation and familiarity that both surprises and delights.  There’s also an air of professionalism and polish.  But what really elevates a choral performance is the emotion. 

The singers, both individually and as a collective, must demonstrate a passion for the material.  They should infuse every lyric and note with feeling, and one of the best ways to accomplish this is through facial expressions.

The connection between facial expressions and singing

While it’s certainly the case that a choral arrangement and its accompanying instrumentation can indicate the overarching mood of a song, the facial expressions of the choir really drive home the message.

Facial expressions communicate a song’s intentions to the audience.  For example, if a song is rageful and dark, angry facial expressions can alert onlookers to the undercurrent of fury in the music.  And vice versa, if a piece is light and airy, singers can indicate this through smiles and softer expressions.

Singing with expression also improves the sound of a performance, resulting in better pitch, more nuanced vocal color, greater range, and a unified sound [2].

Without the right facial expressions, audiences are often left in the dark about a song’s meaning.

A 2014 study published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology [3] found that as vocalists sang, the content of the music influenced how they emoted. Their eyebrows, the corners of their mouths, and their jaws all changed to reflect what they were singing, and these facial expressions were sustained throughout the performance.  Viewers who watched silent videos of these vocalists were able to accurately identify what emotions were being communicated.  But when they listened to just the audio, they were far less likely to correctly identify those same emotions.

This study suggests two important findings. First, it’s critical that singers connect with and understand the music they’re singing, because this understanding will naturally produce an emotional response.  And second, these emotional responses play an integral part in the audience’s interpretation of the performance. 

In short, facial expression is just as essential as any other part of a choral performance.

How to improve personal expression while singing

Understanding the vital role that facial expression plays in music, it’s important for both individual singers and the choir conductor to focus intently on this aspect of the performance.  For singers, it’s all about improving personal expressions; for conductors, the objective is ensuring all singers show the same emotion throughout a song.

Some key ways that singers can communicate emotion more effectively while singing include:

  • Connecting with the meaning of a song: Singers should do more than learn lyrics or harmonies.  They should dissect those lyrics, parse their meaning, and ensure they understand both the narrative and intent of the song.  If the emotions aren’t immediately clear, they should work with their conductor to clarify expectations.  One way to dig into a song’s meaning is to monologue the lyrics [4].  Instead of singing, simply speak the lyrics aloud and try to assign the appropriate emotion to each phrase.  Through this line-by-line approach, you can ensure you’re taking the time to fully embrace the material.
  • Experimenting with emphasis: Communicating the right emotion requires emphasizing the right words in each line.  This direction will likely come from your conductor, but working through this on your own can be beneficial, too.  Take a single line from a song, and repeat it several times, emphasizing a different word each time.  For example, you could sing, “This little light of mine.”  Then: “This little light of mine.”  And so on and so forth until you’ve tried emphasizing every word in the sentence.  By going through this process, you’ll land on what sounds most natural and packs the most emotional punch.
  • Practicing in front of a mirror: Without question, choir practice is a required part of preparing a choral performance.  But it’s also beneficial for singers to rehearse songs alone in front of a mirror.  This way, you can view your natural expressions, make adjustments, and ensure your expressions appear genuine.

Choir conductors can help all singers show the same emotions by:

  • Mimicking the music: As a conductor, one of the most effective ways to communicate the emotion of a piece is through your body motions [5].  Use your eyes, your hands, and your full-body movements to show the choir how you want them to feel.  For example, you can close your eyes to show a song’s peacefulness or to indicate a dreamy, calming quality.
  • Encouraging conversation: Ask the choir directly about their understanding of the music [6].  Even if a song’s lyrics seem fairly straightforward, there’s always room for interpretation.  Take the time to answer the choir’s questions and fill in any gaps.  You may need to clarify the historical context, the point of view, or the subtext.
  • Incorporating emotion into warm-ups: During warm-ups, focus on the basics that singers will need to appropriately display emotions.  Practice bright and warm singing [7], strong diction, and breath support.  If singers have strong foundations, they’ll have the confidence to lean into their facial expressions while performing.
  • Tracing emotional shape: Most songs express a mixture of emotions, and you can help singers identify these peaks and valleys by tracing a song’s emotional shape [8].  This means calling out pivotal moments and identifying relevant vocal techniques to communicate them.  For example, during softer moments of a song, singers can use a “cry” or “sob” vocal style to indicate fragility.

Facial expression is one of the most impactful tools choirs can use to deliver performances that resonate in the moment and hold space in the audience’s memories afterward.  Through individual work and group collaboration, conductors can ensure that emotion – and not just technique – takes centerstage.
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Sources:

[1] The New York Times. (May 5, 2021). 5 Minutes That Will make You Love Choral Music. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/05/arts/music/five-minutes-classical-music-choral.html

[2] Choral Charisma. (2021). Choral Coaching: Your Choir Can Be Expressive. Retrieved from: https://caricole.com/6-techniques-tricks-sing-emotion-confidence/

[3] Livingstone, Steven R., et al. (April 2, 2014). Common cues to emotion in the dynamic facial expressions of speech and song. Retrieved from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17470218.2014.971034

[4] Cole, Cari. (December 5, 2017). 6 Techniques & Tricks to Sing With More Emotion and Confidence. Retrieved from: https://caricole.com/6-techniques-tricks-sing-emotion-confidence/

[5] Garofalo, Robert. J. ad Battisti, Frank L. (June 2009). Rehearsing Music: Nonverbal Cues, Body Language, and Facial Expression. Retrieved from: https://www.musicum.net/conducting.pdf

[6] Total Choir Resources. (2021). Top tips to help your choir connect with the meaning of a song. Retrieved from: https://www.totalchoirresources.com/top-tips-help-choir-connect-meaning-song/

[7] Schmidt, Katrina. (April 28, 2019). What Is Bright and Warm Singing? Retrieved from: https://www.liveabout.com/bright-and-warm-singing-2994193

[8] Helping You Harmonise. (September 12, 20219). Tracing Emotional Shape with Affinity Show Choir. Retrieved from: http://www.helpingyouharmonise.com/affinitysep19

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