Creative Process Part 3 supplement — Teaching Song Leaders

Jazz vocalist and Music That Makes Community presenter Chanda Rule leading paperless singing through voice and gesture.  Image via .

Jazz vocalist and Music That Makes Community presenter Chanda Rule leading paperless singing through voice and gesture.  Image via


Yesterday, we saw a demonstration from one of the giants in the field of modern dance, Bill T. Jones, in which he revealed his process for taking a dance phrase and allowing his feeling to find its way into the performance. 

Phase 1 — Perform the dance phrase

Phase 2 — Perform the phrase as if teaching a class, as clearly as possible with detailed verbal description.

Phase 3 — While keeping the movement as accurate as possible, perform the phrase while saying whatever you are thinking or feeling.

Phase 4 — Perform the phrase while saying whatever you are thinking or feeling, but now what you say and feel affects your movement, and your movement affects what you are thinking and saying.

He gets to his destination in graduated steps.  Each step adds a task, but the leap from step to step never feels too great.  His process is mindful of the cognitive demands necessary at each step.  (If you look at the video, note the distance his imagination has traveled from the beginning to the end of this process.)

In my work with Music That Makes Community I help train people how to lead songs paperlessly.  The singers are not reading the songs off a page but rather following visual and vocal cues given by the song leader.  The work relies on gesture, moving your hands to indicate when to listen, when to repeat what has been sung, the shape of the melody, when to end, and so forth.  What I noticed was that asking people to stand up and learn how to perform the gestures while also leading song was a heavy burden.  Most of the students are not confident singers, so we were asking them to take on too much. 

I then had the idea of breaking this into steps and invented a game that looks a lot like charades.  I’d stand up and model some gestures for listen, sing, continue, stop.  Then I tell everyone that we’re going to see how much we can accomplish using only gesture.  Then I hand a slip of paper to the first workshop participant, which reads . . .

Exercise #1

Dear Song Leader,

Get everyone to drone on a pitch
Get them to continue
Get them to end

After the participant has led the group through this task using gesture (and it always seems to work), I then ask that person to read the instructions aloud so the group can hear what the goal was and review what we all learned.  

We proceed.

Exercise #2

Dear Song Leader, 

Get everyone to sing “la la la” together
Get them to continue
Get them to end

As we progress, we learn other skills, for instance how to teach longer pieces of text by breaking it into chunks and then piecing it back together into one whole. 

Exercise #6

Dear Song Leader,

Teach everyone to say

"I look at you and I would rather look at you
than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally
and anyway it’s in the Frick" 

Then we learn how to divide the group to perform different parts.

Exercise #7

Dear Song Leader,

Get one half of the room to drone on a pitch
Get the other half to moo like cows
Get them to continue
Get them to end

Note the playful content of some of these exercises.  That is deliberate.  We want to remove the self-consciousness of the participants, and giving them silly tasks relieves them of thinking they need to put in a command performance.

Once they have learned these basic gestures, we then ask them to start leading songs that they know.  By this point, the cognitive work of having learned the basic gestures has been accomplished.  They’ve also had a chance to overcome their reticence to lead by way of leading the gesture exercises.  So as they begin to lead real songs, their workload has been vastly lowered. 

And even this early in the process, one can start to see each song leader’s style begin to emerge.  The participants have learned something about getting out of their own way, and their gestures start to channel their innate musical sense and awaken their bodies to it, which is exactly what song leading is all about.

Consider that creating art is a form of learning and therefore that the creative process can benefit from a process which is staged, such as what we saw Bill T. Jones demonstrate yesterday.

Thank you for reading.