Should your choir always have eye contact? How do we use eye contact in choir? Where do my singers look when they are performing? Should they look at the conductor? And if I’m rehearsing a piece, should I look at them?
Eye contact is a term that was coined in the 1960’s. It’s when two people simultaneously look into each other’s eyes. As a form of non verbal communication it can be a powerful tool for social connection. It can be seen as a sign of personal confidence as well as respect for the other person.
It’s worth noting though that in some cultures, eye contact holds a different value. When I worked as a music teacher in outback Australian schools, I learnt that Aboriginal pupils in the music room might not use eye contact when being spoken to by a teacher, as looking down was more respectful.
So when is it good to use eye contact and are there times when you might not use it?
At a Military Wives Choirs training day, conductor Dominic Ellis Peckham led a physical warm up, designed to command attention and engage the group. Afterwards, he asked if we noticed how he lead the warm up? He shared that he intentionally didn’t give us much eye contact. Why? As he had never led this group of people before, he intentionally removed the impression that he would be watching and judging us. I’d never thought about this before – it was a great light bulb moment! As the session progressed, and trust was built, the eye contact, and connection, was established and strengthened.
How about your choir? Where do you want them to look when they’re singing? Do you always want them to have eye contact with you?
I had it drilled into me to look at the conductor. Always.
Of course, at times this is important. Perhaps if you have a choir in a competition, you want them to be fully focused on the task at hand and your musical change cues.. Maybe you have an exceptionally difficult piece you are going to perform. Maybe the presentational uniformity of the choir is important. After all, there is nothing more distracting to watch than a focused performance with one person looking around the room.
Personally now though, I don’t want this kind of discipline for my adult community choirs. They are about community, having fun, and spreading the love of singing with the audience.
The only exception might be a beautiful intimate piece.
I’m conducting Daniel Elder’s Lullaby with Bristol Military Wives Choir right now. As it is so intimate, I want us to create an atmospheric musical aura around our ensemble space, with the audience darkened out. And there are a lot of subtle cues. So yes, I do want them looking at me, with the focus on the music.
Deke Sharon, suggests that at times though, the conductor can just get in the way of the choir’s connection with the audience. At our recent workshop, we saw, and tangibly felt, the energy lift the room, when the conductors of the two masterclass choirs, Bristol Fashion and Fascinating Rhythm, stepped out of the performance. This does not reflect the skill of the conductors – which was exceptional by the way! But it did allow the singers to take ownership to perform their fun upbeat songs, and sing the story directly to us. So directly, as Deke had suggested to look people right in the eye – make a connection!
I want to leave you with one final eye contact moment I love to create with my choirs…
Before a piece starts, especially a slow piece, I like to get eye contact with everyone in my choir. I take my time to scan the group. I am inviting them to make music together with me. I am reminding them that a choir is ‘us’ not just them and that I love that they are here with me. I am thanking them.
Can you become aware of your own eye contact with your choir members? Do you need to use more, or perhaps less? Are there creative opportunities to mix up the eye contact your performers use in performance? Most importantly, be intentional.