Music and emotion certainly go hand in hand. While technique and music literacy are important, interpretation and expression are the heart of what we do as music makers. Learning about emotions helps in delivering a musical message and telling a story. When our students are rehearsing and performing a song they must communicate with their audience by choosing from a large emotional repertoire.
The ability to name and express emotions should be an essential part of our music curriculum. Our emotions are the lens that we see and interact with the world. Our students are still learning how to articulate how they feel and they are often not very good at it. Musical expression and interpretation should always be connected with emotion. By exploring this in class we are inadvertently guiding them to expand the language they use when they talk about emotions. This emotional vocabulary will also give our students valuable communication skills both in and out of the chorus room.
In addition to naming and understanding their own emotions, it is equally important to be able to read emotions in others. To effectively communicate with someone you have to really understand where they are coming from. After all, communication is not really about what you say; It is about being understood. In order to do this you must be in tune with the person with whom you are interacting with. If our students are well versed in emotions, their connection with the music and their audiences will run deep. As a result, their storytelling through their music will become more compelling.
Here are some things I do to encourage emotional literacy in chorus:
~Emotions in Vocal Warm Ups: Using a simple warm up, experiment with different emotions. Start with the big ones (happy, sad, afraid, angry). Have a student suggest an emotion to the group and then sing the warm up. Ask them to notice the differences in their voice, posture, facial expressions, body tension and gestures. What physical changes take place as they do each emotion? Once they are comfortable with the exercise, take it a step further and invite them to interact with the people around them. What has changed now? As the students get used to this exercise, guide them to notice the subtle differences between the shades of each emotion. For example, what are the changes from sadness to depression and from heartbreak to frustration? I often use the emotion chart below to help.
~Opposite Emotions: Have the students sing a happy phrase in a sad way. Discuss the importance of emotional intention. How does a different emotion change the way the phrase sounds?