3: Interpreting Performance

3: Interpreting Performance

Field Notes

The performance that I chose to interpret is the Gospel Choir practice in preparation for the Williams Campaign Launch. My original idea for this exercise was to compare the Gospel Choir practice with the more formalized performance, but instead I chose to give a detailed description of the practice to provide evidence for why informal practices can even be considered as “good” performances. Here are my field notes from Gospel Choir practice on Tuesday, September 29th, 2015:

The setting is Williams College, more specifically the Bernhard Music Center. The center is sort of hidden behind trees and pathways, appearing to be a sidekick to or an extension of a larger building to it’s left, Chapin Hall. I enter through the glass doors and slowly walk through the carpeted halls, since this is the first time I’ve ever been in the Music Center. Gospel Choir Practice is in Room 30.

I approach the double doors, similar to those that enclose a typical public school gym or cafeteria, with caution to make sure that I am not interrupting anything. I hear distant singing, but peeking in allows me to realize that there is no one but Sharldine, the director, and a man sitting at the piano. The singing is coming from a YouTube video clip of “Oh Happy Day” from the movie Sister Act 2. The scene of the young boy in Whoopi Goldberg’s choir is splayed on the projector screen in the front of the room. The man on the piano (I learned that his name was Abe later on) is carefully listening to the looped video and coordinating a piano piece to the song by ear.

I sat in the right corner of the rectangular Room 30. The double doors made it seem so much larger than it was in actuality. The room is small and cluttered for a classroom setting, but large for holding a choir practice of less than ten people. The front of the room is packed with musical equipment: a huge piano in the center of the room, a smaller piano on the right side right in front of me, four music stands scattered throughout, a podium and electrical equipment posted in the left corner of the room, extremely close to the pianist’s seat from the grand piano. The two blackboards on the walls are filled with music lines. The new aged projector and gigantic speakers seemed quite out of place, juxtaposed with the rickety music stands and dated blackboards. The back of the room, where I am sitting is cluttered. There are rows of disorganized desks the color of concrete. The walls are lined by neutral colors: oatmeals and gloomy grays. The double doors, a dull yellow, give a pop of color to the bone-colored walls. The floors are grainy and carpeted, filled with reds and browns. The room is dimly lit, although the 5 fluorescent lights that tile the ceiling are on.

Sharldine pulls inspiration from movies and choirs. Abe finished piecing together the music for “Oh Happy Day”, so Sharldine puts on a performance of “I Sing Because I’m Happy” by the Georgia Mass Choir. Their bright orange robes and joyous bombastic movements fill the dull, empty room with life as choir members come in one by one. They all sit in the center of the cluttered desks. The desks sort of swallow up the choir members; it is difficult for them to stand in the empty space in the front, yet awkward as they stand in the jumbled rows of chairs with swaying desks attached to them. The moods of the choir members before practice seem to match the overall tone of the room: tired yet neutral. They walk in slowly, bringing the dreariness of the rainy day with them, but keep their eyes fixated on these YouTube video displayed largely in the front of the room. The members begin to dance along with the video. Their natural movements are creepily similar to those who are singing their praises in the video.

There are only male choir members in the room, aside from Sharldine, which I found to be extremely interesting. (Two females walked in and began to sing during the last 5 minutes of my 30-minute observation). They are standing in a semicircle formation amongst the clutter of the seats, maybe out of habit during performance. Sharldine formally begins practice by leading prayer, which I was welcome to join. The members also proceeded to do breathing exercises in which the singers control their breath for as long as 30 seconds and to stretch. Afterward, they begin to practice their first song collectively, entitled “Praise Is What I Do.” Considering the circumstances, there was a lot of roleplaying; male choir members made their voices higher for the sake of harmony. Sharldine tells the choir members to “sing with confidence.” The dull room comes alive with music and movement: snaps, bodies swaying, taps on chairs, taps of the feet, taps of the fingers both gently and enthusiastically, chairs swaying, pacing, head movements, hand movements, legs bouncing. The varying pitches of their voices are dancing with each other; they complement each other so well. The choir members share reaffirming glances with each other, as well as with Sharldine who is leading them. I am playing the role of observer, but as an audience member I am tempted to join along in their melody. Their sounds are captivating, and their passion for the music (in my opinion) is expressed through their accompanying movements, like their clenched eyes and praise dances. They are extremely genuine in their execution of these songs, and immersed in their craft.

The piano player leaves after the first song. Even though there are only four people in the room, closing my eyes easily leads me to believe that there are more. The acapella voices of the choir members as well as the sounds of claps and snaps and bodies moving reverberate throughout the room. Part of gospel songs seems to be enthusiastic repetition. Sharldine sits at the piano and plays notes sparsely to keep the choir in tune, while they soulfully sing the phrase “praise is what I do” over and over again for about five to six minutes. After the moving performance, I decide to end my observation and am greeted goodbye by the choir members.


I believe that the Gospel Choir performance, although just a practice, was a “good” performance. Considering the face that I come from a very religious background, it was difficult for me to distance my culture from that of the choirs, since they are extremely similar. I find that this Gospel Choir performance is a perfect example of dialogical performance, described by Conquergood as a means of “honest intercultural understanding.”[1] The performance was indeed a “way of having intimate conversation with other people and cultures,”[2] as opposed to about other people and their cultures.

Since the choir’s performance was a way in which they expressed religious emotion, it allows the audience, regardless of whether or not they practiced the same faith, to tap into something that they are passionate about in the same regard. In order to allow an outsider to understand the subject matter of the gospel, the choir sings songs that allow an “appreciation for difference.”[3] The songs of the choir expressed their joyous and dedicated emotions; the simplicity and repetition of these songs may even allow an unfamiliar audience to empathize with something or someone that they idolize and praise in a similar manner. The ethnographer can tap into their own culture and question the ways in which they perform praise and how it differs from that of the gospel choir. The performance is also a commendable one, in my opinion, because an ethnographer does not have to do years worth of fieldwork in order to sing their songs. Simply listening to the lyrics and watching how the singers are moved to the words will give the ethnographer a first hand experience of gospel culture.

The Gospel Choir’s performance was also commendable because it went exactly against the Curator’s Exhibitionism stance described by Conquergood. Religious experiences when viewed by an outsider are typically easy to exoticize. The choir could have easily included bombastic choreography in order to make sure that they got their feelings and praise across to the audience. Instead, they brought the audience “into genuine contact with [their] lives” as opposed to bringing “a museum exhibit.”[4] As stated in my field notes, it was easy to see the authenticity of the gospel choir’s feelings by watching their simple, yet harmonious movements and hearing the confidence in their voices.

In the same vein, the Choir also neglected to portray the Skeptic’s Copout. The choir members expected me to join their opening prayer, regardless of knowing my religious background or views. This proved their presumed ease in an outsider respecting and playing into their culture. This does not discourage a skeptic from joining a dialogue that they may have never encountered before. Also, the members of the Williams College Gospel Choir are of different genders and races. This may seem like something that could be overlooked, but it encourages “outsiders” that they are welcome to join. The differences in each and every choir member as well as their welcoming gesture to me as an audience member is a testament to the way that anyone could join the conversation if the “will-to-understand” is present. [5]

[1] Conquergood, Dwight. “Performing as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of the Ethnography of Performance.” CP 148

[2] Conquergood, Dwight. “Performing as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of the Ethnography of Performance.” CP 148

[3] Conquergood, Dwight. “Performing as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of the Ethnography of Performance.” CP 147

[4] Conquergood, Dwight. “Performing as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of the Ethnography of Performance.” CP 145

[5] Conquergood, Dwight. “Performing as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of the Ethnography of Performance.” CP 146