I received a new webcam from Santa this year (thanks, Santa!). My previous model worked fine but this one tracks my movements so whether I sit, stand, or go to my yoga mat, I can be seen fully by my students. Pretty cool, and certainly less distracting than constantly adjusting tech during rehearsal.
But one thing a new webcam won’t change is eye contact—unless I look directly into the camera, I will appear distracted, looking down at the monitor or off to the side at my laptop or music. My eyes won’t be where they should be most of the time, looking at the singers when we re-Zoom our reality in a couple weeks.
I have been thinking a lot about The Eyes lately and am reminded of an experience I had after presenting a conference workshop several years ago. After the session one attendee’s feedback really made an impact on me. He was a smiley, positive person who had great things to say, but then (as someone who trains public speakers, it turns out) he graciously observed that when I scanned the room during my talk—which I thought was an inclusive approach to capturing the large crowd—I actually detached myself from people. That instead of feeling included, there was a disconnect between me and the audience that was the opposite of what I had intended.
His suggestion? When speaking, look directly into the eyes of just one person, and that connection will be read and felt by others in the room as though I were speaking to each person individually.
One simple change can make a big impact.
The Eyes are everything when it comes to communication, engagement, and concentration. We know this as teachers managing an active classroom or as singers sharing the message of a song text. On a subtler level, we learn from the yoga tradition how one’s gaze or drishti shapes the entire mind-body experience. By directing our eyes to an external focal point—say, where the wall and the floor meet—we gain better balance in a standing pose. Focusing on a part of our body directs energy, releases tension, or creates length in that area. And when we draw our attention to the space between the eyebrows (the “third eye”), we focus inward on what we’re feeling or thinking, or to our breath. Drishti also includes one’s viewpoint or perspective, how we “see” ideas or how we “view” ourselves at a deeper level.
How we approach The Eyes, particularly in our virtual world, can shape how we teach and lead and how the ensemble experiences “presence.” Some ideas to consider:
Make several stops at the webcam during rehearsal. Look directly into it and trust singers are reading your spirit as they hear your words. Resist the temptation to glance away until you need to. More eye contact and a reassuring smile will be an important move forward in engagement and connection. Take a screen shot of the choir, print it and post it directly behind the webcam to encourage you as you speak to them. Suggest the singers do the same so they remember who they are as an ensemble.
Teach drishti. I like concentration activities because they prepare singers for the needs of the rehearsal and the distractions in performance. Here’s one I developed:
“Extend both arms in front of you at shoulder height. Clasp hands and turn palms to face away from you. (If this is not possible due to joint issues, keep palms facing toward each other). Fix your gaze, without tension, on your knuckles (or in the adaptive version, the thumbs). Keeping arms extended, exhale as you slowly rotate your torso from the navel about 45 degrees to your left without letting your eyes move from your fingers. Inhale as you return to center. Exhale as you slowly rotate to your right, keeping your gaze fixed on your fingers. Inhale as you come back to center. Repeat this continuous, flowing movement several times; resist looking at someone walking into the room or past a window, or at flickers on the screen. Keep your gaze steady, without tension. Once you come to center the final time, gently release your hands and return to normal breathing.”
(In-person rehearsals have the added challenge of moving together as an ensemble based on spatial awareness and the breathing of those around you, not by looking at each other).
Encourage wellness. Find times during rehearsal to release tension from Zoom-weary eyes. Ask singers to soften their gaze (look gently downward) or if they feel safe, to close their eyes, and then practice mindful breathing. Loosen the jaw, unclench the teeth, and soften the skin between the brows to calm the eyes, as well as the mind. “The eyes control the fluctuations of the brain,” according to yoga teaching legend, the late B.K.S. Iyengar.
Give singers a reason to watch you! Conducting is still important in a virtual rehearsal. Instruct singers to respond to your facial expression and gesture (continue to look into the webcam as much as possible). During warm-ups, cue vowel changes with your hand or mouth shape only. Conduct a section of a piece you are preparing; ask singers to conduct, as well, increasing their mind-body experience and giving you more leverage with those who tend to turn off their cameras. Even muted in “their own choir rooms” and with some lag time, singers feel more connected when they can watch and respond to their conductor looking directly at them, knowing everyone in the ensemble is doing this together. (And remember, you can record the session and watch their responses later:)
As we begin this New Year, may our eyes see anew and may we create with courage as we move forward together!
Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium. Dr. Wis is a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher) with training in yoga history, philosophy, meditation, energetics, pranayama (breath work), anatomy, Sanskrit, and the teaching, sequencing, and adaptations of asana (posture-based) practice. Reach her at:
Check out these videos about eye contact in video conferencing (and there are many more):
Or learn more about drishti (also written dristi):