Each rehearsal at HBV begins with vocal warm-ups. On that Friday in February, as the kids begin their vocal warm-ups by starting with body stretches and rhythmic breathing, the conductor keeps things moving with a pattern of exercises that the kids are clearly familiar with. They move swiftly from exercise to exercise, working the high and low ends of their voices, and incorporate kinesthetic movements to engage their full bodies. The warm-up is physical, requires focus, invites energy, and feels familiar. Though it seems each exercise to follow the next is a surprise (which I later confirm after observing multiple rehearsals), it’s clear that individual exercises are quickly recognized, and the kids are accustomed to the process.
Across the age groups and different choirs I observed at HBV, the most consistent presence behind the music is movement. Whether it is a motion to accompany an exercise, a gesture to help perfect an interval leap, an adjustment to posture while remaining seated, or simply standing up; the kids never stay in one position for too long.
When I asked Mary about the movements intertwined with singing during rehearsals she told me:
“It’s to engage the brain-body connection, and to appeal to kinesthetic learners. It’s a good way to get them to feel what their voices are doing and to give us a visual and tangible way to discuss sounds.”
When I mused at how the added bonus to kinesthetic movement must be the fact that the kids stay engaged and focused, she corrected me:
“It’s all integrated [the brain-body connection and focus] and hard to separate one aspect from the other, but keeping the kids engaged isn’t a bonus—it’s critical.”
I sat through many full-length 90 minute rehearsals, and took note of the engaging pace not only because it maintained the concentration and attention of the singers, but also because of my own surprise at the end of a rehearsal that the 90 minutes had flown by. As a performer and teacher, I’m a practitioner and evangelizer of kinesthetic movements and keeping the voice connected to the body, so I found this portion of my observation fascinating. (For more reading on this, I suggest Chapter 5 on Body-Brain Connections from Bessel A. Van der Kolk’s book: The Body Keeps the Score.)
A Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard University, Howard Gardner, is best known for his theory of multiple intelligences. He outlines this theory in his book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, originally published in 1983, where he says of kinesthetic intelligence:
“It is hardly an exaggeration to say that most segments of the body (and the nervous system) participate in one or another way in the execution of motor actions. The various agonist and antagonist muscles, joints, and tendons are involved in the most direct ways. Our kinesthetic sense, which monitors the activity of these regions, allows us to judge the timing, force, and extent of our movements and to make necessary adjustments in the wake of this information.” (Gardner, 2011, p222).
Regularly practiced at HBV, led by Mary’s belief of the importance of employing tangible movements to represent the voice, the kids link their voices to physical movements. As I saw on multiple occasions, they can then make adjustments to the outer, physical body, that correspond and result in adjustments to the inner voice.
Back to that Friday in February, while working on “Sing to Me,” the conductor is working with the Concert Choir on a small part of the piece. The section they’re perfecting is 8 measures long, has space for dynamics to highlight two different suspensions, and the conductor is trying to get the kids to feel the dynamics and tension of these suspensions with their bodies. She invites them to lift their music binders as they increase in volume, and lower them back down as they decrease—a collective physical swell that visually matches the dynamics. It works, and the kids respond to the music both visually and vocally—one little boy so intent on representing his “binder crescendo” that he almost drops the entire thing.
On a different visit, during a rehearsal observing the Chamber Choir, Mary worked with the kids on a siren slide (sliding from a low note, quickly to a high note, and returning back down), in order to correct a note in the song that they were hitting below pitch. The first time through, she provided a vocal example for them. The kids didn’t do much of a motion, and rather than a slide from the bottom, they started toward the top and let the pitch semi-fall back down. She pushed them to use their arms as a way to encourage them to start at the bottom, reach up to the top of their ranges, and then come back down. The second time through with the movement attached, produced a more complete and full sound.
Recognizing this connection to the body, and it’s importance as a form of intelligence is a paramount element of HBV’s curriculum. Seeing children as having a range of intelligences rather than just a single form of intelligence is not only supported by research, but in my opinion is also a respectful way to respond to the different needs of different learners in the same room (Cokcaliskan and Sener, 2018). Looking to the voice as part of the body, and looking at the exchange of information that passes between the body and the voice via kinesthetic movements has gotten me thinking about how much information is actually exchanged, and if the information flows both ways. In Dust of the Zulu, Louise Meintjes claims that “the dancing body is the voice in motion” (71). If the moving body not only represents the voice, but is the voice, can the opposite also be true? In addition to representing the body, is the voice the body?