Transactional Analysis in the Conductor-Choir Relationship

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TAA number of recent conversations with choral directors and singers have had me thinking back to Eric Berne's classic book on Transactional Analysis Games People Play. This is the one that introduces the idea that people interact using a variety of ego states - acting as adults, parents or children - and that by understanding how people are adopting and reacting to these roles, we can break out of cycles of dysfunctional relationships into healthier patterns.

The conversations that have got me thinking about it have been those where people express frustration with each other's attitudes and behaviours. Directors feel that they are working their socks off while their singers are just along for the ride, or singers feel that their directors put a lot of pressure on them. Or, directors feels that their choirs are resistant to change, while their singers feel the directors lack respect for the choir's traditions.

So, I'm starting out by thinking through the kinds of relationships you find between conductors and their ensembles according to this model. What to do about it is the next question, which may have to wait for a follow-up post.

Director as Adult/Choir as Adult

This is the kind of relationship that Berne considers the most mature and productive.

Benefits: Equality and balance of relationship, rationality, capacity to deal with the world in the here-and-now.

Choir as Child/Director as Parent

This is probably the commoner of the less healthy forms of relationship, given the power structure.

Benefits: It builds trust, as the choir feels safe in the director's hands; there is a willingness to accept guidance.

Problems: The choir becomes dependent, and takes less responsibility for their own learning and behaviours; the director becomes controlling.

Choir as Parent/Director as Child

This is less common, but appears most often when a new director takes on a well-established choir - especially if they are significantly younger than the previous director and/or most of the singers and/or the choir committee members.

Benefits: The director feels well supported by the team; having the space to be playful facilitates artistic joie de vivre.

Problems: The director has little leverage to make changes as the choir appropriates authority over processes.

In both of these scenarios, it is the pairing of nurturing parent and natural child states that elicits positive results and the controlling parent/adaptive child pairing that starts to become dysfunctional. A nurturing parent creates an environment of safety for the child to explore, play and learn in. An adaptive child's habits develop in response to the rewards and/or criticism meted out by the controlling behaviour - either in compliance or rebellion.

Having said that, the controlling parent's motives are not necessarily malign. Their concern is with inculcating the child into values and norms that, as rational adults, we may thoroughly approve of. When a choral director finds themselves becoming controlling, the problem is very rarely with their aims - they are just trying to make good music after all - the problem is that their choir responds with increasing passivity.

So, the ideal relationship between conductor and choir would appear to be much like the ideal relationship between grown human beings. A default state of adult-adult gives a productive and rational foundation to the relationship that allows you to sort out differences and interpersonal conflicts at an early stage and without winding each other up into increasingly unhelpful responses. Within this, flitting between parent and child ego states gives you the chance for greater emotional range (trust, playfulness) and the establishment of shared values (guidance, obedience).

This is why Transactional Analysis sees the adult state as integrating both inner parent and child. It mediates between the positive aspects of each, but updates the sense of self without letting past experiences unduly distort present perceptions.

Of course, if you are already in this kind of relationship, you didn't need to read this post - except perhaps for that little glow of self-satisfaction that can help retain good habits. The bigger question is how to get back to that state if you find you have collectively fallen into habits of unhelpful responses. I hope to have some potentially useful suggestions in the next post.

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