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Guest author, Dr. Mark Bartel, writes
Reprinted from "Choral Range," The Kansas Choral Directors Association Newsletter, Brad Vogel, Editor

Inaudible actions of singers vital to pulling audience into a musical experience

When I experience another choir (as an audience member or a judge) I am hoping to be pulled inexorably into what they are doing bebartelcause they have the authority—they are the “authors” of the experience about to happen.

While the relative perfection of the sonic elements of music will no doubt be helpful in this process, the authority that the choral organism (choir and conductor) exerts over the situation will first and continuously be sensed through their inaudible actions: how they walk; how they carry themselves; how and to what extent they focus (on themselves, on the audience, on the conductor, or actually on the musical experience). Then, I hope to feel that the authority for the musical experience lies in the hearts, mind and voices of the singers, and not (primarily) the conductor.

This of course means that the conductor has worked her or himself out of a job by facilitating the ensembles’ ownership of every large and small aspect of performance. She or he becomes the animator of the experience but does not do the heavy lifting, kind of like a dog taking its owner for a walk.

This also will be seen as well as heard: is the conductor bound to the score? Does the conductor over-conduct? Are gesture and sound in symbiosis or is conducting gesture needed to simply “get through” the performance?

If we as a musical community (performers and listeners) truly wish to follow author Christopher Small’s idea called “‘musicking”—where music is not a “thing” but an “activity” for all (not just for the performers)—it requires that choirs take the lead from their conductors and own their activity in the very moment it is happening. This inner source of authority is tasted and learned by singers in rehearsal and spills over into performance—it is a rare if not impossible occurrence to experience a choir that is fully invested in all the inaudible components that is not also the master of its sound.

Check out Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening by Christopher Small. Good luck!

Dr. Mark Bartel, Friends University
R&S Chair (Kansas) for College/University Choirs