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More than music between ensemble singers

Stan Kell, our Voice from The North, a choral director based in Hull, UK, tells us how he spent an afternoon providing research data on World Voice Day.

I wasn't really sure
what to expect when I arrived at the University of York for their World Voice Day event. The White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities* had organised live research to mark the day as part of their research project, 'Expressive non-verbal communication in Ensemble Performance'.

Reading between the lines, I knew we weren't there to learn. Instead, we were to be guinea pigs, providing data for the
researchers - and as I've never been a guinea pig before, just that in itself promised to be a new experience.

I enjoy nothing more than persuading people to sing - and for them to enjoy every minute of it! Mostly, this involves me standing in front of a large group conducting them.
Outside rehearsal, however, I’m always interested in watching small groups of musicians; noticing how they stay together, sometimes with almost-imperceptible non-verbal signals. So this research was just up my street.

It hadn't previously occurred to me that it could be possible to measure the body movements and reactions that musicians use as clues to performing with each other. But state-of-the-art technology - a range of audio and motion capture recording methods - was used to measure changes  in the performers' individual and group sounds, their expressive body movements and their perceptions of their ensemble development through the session.

During the afternoon, we observed as two contrasting choirs were rehearsed. Each choir was challenged to think in different ways about the music they performed to see how a range of approaches stimulated their interpretation. Both groups made noticeable improvements during the experiment. The difference between an established ensemble (one of the choirs taking part) and the observable development in the relationship between singers who had not previously worked together before (the other choir) was fascinating. We were asked a series of questions about our reactions to the performances at various stages, and used 'clickers' to vote on whether the changes made improved the performances or not. Our answers will be linked to the measurements
of performance by the researchers.
Performers wired up and on camera at the recent World Voice Day 2016 event at the University of York, York, UK.
To be at its best, music needs to be precise, and of course precision lends itself to measurement. However music is an art, not a science, and subtle nuances can make or break a performance.

I will be very interested to see the final outcome of this project. I expect that some of the results will merely reinforce what may seem obvious, e.g. rehearsing a passage several times in a row improves the quality of the performance. Other results, however, might finally prove or disprove various commonly held theories. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the results were a blueprint for running a rehearsal, so we could all use our time effectively and make more music together?

* White Rose College of the Arts & Humanities is a doctoral training partnership between the Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York.