Choral Facial Expressions

I enjoy watching and listening to music groups sing. But, without fail, whenever I watch a music group sing, many of them adopt a facial expression not unlike if they had stomach ulcers. Is this obligatory? I also notice the lesser percentage sing with an expression of joy and exuberance. Can you train for great facial expression?

Verbalizing our faith, whether spoken or sung, is an expression of core belief. That expression is hypocritical if it does not align with heart and life, and it feels unconvincing if it doesn’t reach the face. This is a significant issue for the singer in the pew, the preacher in the pulpit, or the choir on the risers.

The problem may be rooted in a variety of places:

  • Auto-pilot singing. When I am singing without expression in church, that’s usually because I’ve gone into auto-pilot mode. Looking around on the average Sunday, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. Choir singers are often guilty of this, as well.
  • Natural lack of expressiveness. I know preachers who have been accused of not bringing enough emotion to the sermon. I’m convinced it’s not because there’s a lack of conviction. Rather, some people aren’t terribly expressive in public delivery.
  • Inhibition. Singers and speakers who are at ease in normal situations sometimes deal with stage fright when they’re in front of people. This is quite common, and it inhibits facial expressiveness.
  • Inappropriate difficulty level. In my years as a conductor, I’ve had to learn the hard task of choosing music of appropriate difficulty. Conductors are often overly optimistic about what their choir can pull off. There are few things more painful in a concert than a choir that is performing a piece beyond their capacity. The difficulty may be due to complex rhythms or harmonies, or high notes that feel flamboyant and become a turn-off when they’re a strain. When choirs are working too hard to get the notes, it shows. Literally.
  • Inappropriate expectations. I’ve often heard the charge of lack of expression, and I often work facial expression with my choirs. But sometimes the problem is in unrealistic audience expectations.

    Smiles and exuberance are not always appropriate. I want my choirs to sing about all of life, and that includes life’s difficulties. In this case, I want singers to appear engaged. That’s all. Deeply engaged.

    Furthermore, while facial expression is important, it can be overdone. When singers try too hard to be visibly expressive, it can become sentimental, patronizing, and distracting. I’d prefer to have singers deeply engaging with the text, and allowing that to register in body and face—but allowing the music itself to carry the bulk of the emotional load. It’s the disciplined singer who can let the music speak clearly, and not get in the way with too much overt facial and body expression. The job of music is to draw the listener first to the song, but then through it to something deeper that it points to. The same is true of the singer. Too much self-expression, and the attention goes to the singer and stops.

I still intend to work expression with my choirs, but you can’t beat it into them. I’ve not found it to work to say, “Sing with expression!” But I do try to help them have a mind and heart connection with the music, and hope that begins to translate into body and facial expression.

Wendell Nisly

Wendell grew up on the plains of Kansas in a singing family and in a singing church. His first formal musical training was at Wichita State University, where he completed a Bachelor of Music Education degree. After teaching and conducting for a number years, he moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia to complete a Masters in Choral Conducting at James Madison University. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Jeanene. He is administrator of Shenandoah Christian Music Camp, artistic director of Oasis Chorale, and a conductor of the Valley Arts Society in Harrisonburg, VA.
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