Maintaining the Equilibrium

‹-- PreviousNext --›

This article first appeared in Mastersinger in Spring 2009, just before the publication of my second book. It resonated with some conversations I’ve had recently, so I thought it could do with a more general airing

The Theory

Argyle and Dean’s ‘Intimacy Equilibrium Model’ describes how people adjust their behaviour in social situations so as to maintain a level of social intimacy that they are comfortable with. The original study focused on personal proximity and gaze, and found that people look at each other for longer and more frequently when they are physically farther apart, and avoid so much eye contact when they are closer together. Later developments have included other ways of creating or inhibiting personal closeness, such as smiling, topic intimacy (that is, how much personal information about ourselves we are willing to share) tone and/or volume of voice.

So, if one person thinks the person they are with is standing inappropriately close to them, they will compensate for this behaviour either in the same mode (so, moving further away) or in a different mode (avoiding eye contact, lowering their voice, or ignoring questions about their love life and talking about the weather instead). If the compensatory behaviour works, and the equilibrium is restored, they will then start engaging in reciprocal behaviour – matching body language, posture, tone of voice – the kind of actions we understand as rapport. If the compensatory behaviour fails, they feel a high level of stress and personal discomfort throughout the rest of the social encounter.

How it applies to choirs

The choral rehearsal is clearly a social encounter; however it is an encounter in which the control of the social space is very unequal. The director has far more control over the pace and the content of the interaction than the choir members, and so undertakes the lion’s share of managing the interpersonal equilibrium of the occasion. However, as we shall see, the choir is far from passive, and uses the means it has at its disposal to maintain their own comfort level. If, as directors, we can learn to spot when our choir is engaging in compensatory behaviour, we can help them adjust the social environment back to a condition in which they will be comfortable to establish rapport.

Let us look, first, at what a rehearsal looks like when the equilibrium works. Many choral writers have described the sense of connection, of creative contact between director and choir that can develop here. John Bertalot writes about conducting ‘as if you hold the choir in the palms of your hands’, while Archibald Davison states that, ‘To say that the conductor and chorus must be in sympathy is not enough. They must be one’. Conductors will often intuitively use the rehearsal space to find this equilibrium point. They move in towards the singers if they need to rehearse an individual section, since the smaller grouping represents a more intimate social contact; or, if they rehearse the section from a podium, they do so with markedly increased eye contact, so as to make up through gaze the intimacy they are losing in distance. The sound of the choir seems to match well the size of the conductor’s gestures, not only in the subtleties of dynamic shaping, but in overall proportion.

The choir does not have so much freedom of movement in the rehearsal to participate in these adjustments. They are typically sitting or standing in a fixed layout, and cannot use the option of moving towards or further away from the conductor if they feel the contact is too tenuous or too intrusive. What they can - and do - use are their eyes, their posture, their facial expressiveness, and their voices. If they want to be closer to their director, they will sit forward, maintain eye contact, smile and sing out; but if they find the conductor overbearing, they will use the same interpersonal techniques they use in daily life to compensate.

Here are some of the danger signals that can tell a conductor that his or her choir is compensating for an intrusive manner:

  • They fill up the rehearsal hall from the back, and have to be instructed to move to seats further forward
  • They have to be instructed to watch the conductor (unless of course they are very inexperienced; this is a convention that is learned quite quickly, though)
  • They sit back in their chairs and hold their copies low
  • They don’t spontaneously smile when they catch the conductor’s eye
  • The sound is quieter than you might expect for a group of that size

We have all had rehearsals like this. We usually respond by chivvying the choir along: ‘Wake me up!’ we cry, infusing our voices and our gestures with the energy we want to hear in the singing.

What the Intimacy Equilibrium Model tells us is that the correlation between our actions and the choir’s response that we normally rely on will stop working when the choir starts compensating for our behaviour. Indeed, the addition of energy becomes counter-productive. The choir will not be especially motivated to change, moreover, since their compensatory actions have restored them to a state of social comfort - they may be quite happy to sit back and watch us wear ourselves out. If we go on to push our behaviours onto them beyond their capacity to compensate they will become unhappy and uncomfortable, and that will have an even worse effect on the sound.

So, what we need to do instead if we catch our choirs retreating is to withdraw our own social presence bit by bit so that the singers feel the need to compensate by engaging more.

Here are some of the things we can do to achieve this:

  • Stand back from the choir, rather than walking in towards them
  • Lower our voices
  • Leave a fraction more silence before we speak, or before we bring them in to sing
  • Make our gestures more contained, and bring them down to sternum or diaphragm level if we have been directing at shoulder level
  • Put less muscular tension into our gestures
  • Stand tall, rather than leaning in to the conducting space

Colin Durrant entitles his chapter on conducting gesture, ‘Less is More’, capturing a truism that every novice conductor is told, and none really believes until they have experienced it for themselves. Argyle & Dean’s Intimacy Equilibrium Model helps us to understand not only why this is true, but also when and how we particularly need to remember it. We cannot conjure up that creative rapport by invading our choir’s space; we have to step back and let them help make the magic happen.

Dr. Garnett--

I am so excited to have found your blog, and this article! I'm exceedingly interested in the whole area of the social and power dynamics of the choral rehearsal; having the "intimacy equilibrium model" phrase with which to attack a new set of Google searches practically makes me salivate.

(Yes, I'm an unapologetic nerd.)

I am starting a choral doctorate in September, having been out of school for too many years; I can't wait to read more of your work when I have access to a big academic library again!

many thanks,

So glad you you're finding it useful Jenn!

If you like this article, I think you will find my choral conducting book of interest. One of my aims indeed was to produce something that doctoral students would find useful.

Good luck with returning to your studies, and any time feel like popping in here again to comment on things as you go along, you'll be most welcome.


Bingo. I can use this. Oh, my.

Liz, this reminds me of a time when I discovered by accident a way of engaging the singers in my choir more. I had had a bad cold and lost my voice for the first time in my life. I could just about whisper and very gently sing single notes.

It was choir night and I felt well enough to lead the session, but I had no voice! Because I was virtually silent for the whole session, people paid far more attention than usual, chit chat amongst singers disappeared, everyone slowed down and there was no tension in the room, singers listened to each other more, and singing was far more nuanced.

I wrote it up on my own blog: Little voice

What I did think afterwards though (and this may well apply to the suggestions you make too), was that if I tried this tactic too often, the novelty would wear off and things would revert to how they had been before.

Which means ... we have to have a variety of strategies up our sleeves which need to be constantly refreshed.

From the front of the choir

...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.

Archive by date

Syndicate content