brain chemistry and choral music… ?

Why are we talking about brain chemistry in a choral music blog?  Good question!

I’ve been experimenting with different ideas for transformative audience engagement for several years and I’m always interested in what other conductors are doing to more deeply engage their audiences. When I approach this subject with colleagues, the younger conductors are usually intrigued and excited about the possibilities, but I receive a mixed reaction from seasoned choral directors.  Many are, in fact, adamantly resistant to even discussing the idea that perhaps there could be additional ways to engage audience members rather than sticking to the 17th century model of stand-up-there-in-black-and-the-music-will-reveal-its-deeper-meaning-and-if-you-don’t-get-it-then-you-are-an-idiot and still maintain choral excellence.

This response was confusing to me, sometimes its handy being married to a therapist so my husband introduced me to some information on….

Brain. Chemistry.

During the Bush—Carrey presidential elections, this researcher, Drew Westen—Emory University, noticed how  nuts people get about their politics…. immovable, inflexible, unwavering, unswerving, uncompromising,  strongly individuals held  to their opinions about political candidates.  So….he decided to do an experiment on how people choose to believe what they believe.

The common understanding was that an individual gathers facts, draws a conclusion, and voila! —a belief system is formed.

To test this, he interviewed highly partisan Democrats and equally fervent Republicans.  He wired them up to watch the brain process during the research interviews.  He asked a series of data questions intended to light up the rational, processing part of the brain.

Then at some point in the interview, he would show them a video clip of their candidate saying something that contradicted the interviewee’s belief system about their candidate. Up to this point during the interviews, the whole upper part of the brain—the part that processes rational thought and data—was functioning,

but as soon as they saw the video, instantaneously the whole upper part of the brain shut down, and the lower part—the primitive brain i.e. fight or flight—lit up.

The interviewee did everything they could to discredit the information—fight or flight, right?—and the indication that they felt successful defending their candidate was when the lower brain faded and the upper brain lit up again.

The conclusion from the study is:

1)  when new information comes into the brain that is in opposition to a strongly held belief system, the brain essentially sees it as a threat and attempts to kill it and

2)  people make decisions not on information and data, but on feeling.

Which brings us back to choral music.  Why the resistance to alternative ideas for audience engagement?

Brain Chemistry?

We are all conductors.  We’ve all been trained in a certain style with a certain belief about right and wrong.  We’ve been taught to have “good judgement”, serve the music above all else etc.

We’ve been taught in choral music—like in so many other areas of life—what to think, rather than how to think.

Notice right now what your brain is doing?  Hmm.

So let’s return to the original question….

What are the possibilities for transformative audience engagement in this 21st century while still maintaining choral excellence???