Transactional Analysis, Part II: Fixing the Conductor-Choir Bond

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Identifying the unhealthy dynamics in the relationship between a conductor and their choir is not the tricky bit. Most of the people whose comments sparked this series of posts could do that for themselves (and in fact were doing that when we had those conversations). The bigger challenge is to find ways to break the self-reinforcing patterns.

The bad news is that people can cling very hard to the games they are accustomed to playing - which is why we suck each other into them so readily. The good news is that if people stop getting the payoff their behaviour usually elicits, they will change their behaviour. That is, you can't change what other people do, but by changing what you do yourself, you can motivate them to change in response.

Problem No. 1: 'I always end up doing whatever because they don't'
(aka stuck in the Controlling Parent role)

You can fill in your 'whatever' as you like. It may be that you always end up putting the chairs away while other folk just disappear after rehearsal, or that you always end up yelling for 5 mins to get people back in singing position after a break, or that you always end up having to go through notes at length when you've asked people to learn their parts at home. Or whatever.

The answer that an outsider would give in this situation is just not to do it for them, and they will then do it because they have to. The response the person stuck in a Controlling Parent role will come back with is 'but then it wouldn't happen at all'.

And in a local sense, this is true. The first time you don't do something, it takes a while for the people who should have been doing it in the first place to notice, let alone figure out that they need to do something about it. But this is a case where investing the time in living through the process temporarily decreases production while significantly increasingproduction capacity. Take inspiration from a mother who gave up cleaning up after her children.

Put another way: if you want other people to take more responsibility, you need to let go of it first.

Problem No. 2 'They won't let me change whatever' (aka stuck in the Adaptive Child role)

New directors are often met with the assertion that 'this is what we do', or its more hard-core variant, 'we've always done it this way'. And when you are very new with a group, it can be helpful that the choir has well-established habits that keep it operating while you find your feet.

But a new director also needs to be able to change things, both to allow them to work at their best for the choir, and for the choir as a whole to develop. And if the choir gets into the habit of thinking of their new conductor as 'junior', they are liable to expect their choral experience to continue as business-as-usual, but with a cute new pet out front.

Established directors can also find themselves in this position, especially if they have been engaged in any training or reading that is giving them new ideas. Ostensible compliments such as, 'But we love you just as you are,' are a signal that your choir is not always thinking of you as an adult.

This is a harder situation to solve than Problem No. 1 because it requires action rather than (strategic) inaction. The trick throughout is to remain resolutely in Adult mode. You sometimes find that people who have been in the ego state of Controlling Parent will, if challenged, switch over to Rebellious Child (a move I think of as the 'Don't-Blame-Me-When-it-All¬-Goes-Belly-Up flounce'). If you cooperate with this move and flip into the Controlling Parent role in response, they win their game.

A key to success in these situations is the group that Kotter calls your 'guiding coalition'. You need to build a central collection of relationships within the choir that are based on a strong Adult-Adult basis. These are the people who will keep things stable through the process of change by preventing those who want to cling onto less balanced forms of relationship from turning it into a Director vs. Choir stand-off. Every choir is chock full of perfectly normal human beings who can help in this way, and who will no doubt be relieved to have some Adult-Adult interactions if there has been a history of game-playing within the group.

The other thing to note in these situations is that by the time you realise what's going on, it's too late for the most effective intervention, which would be at the point of appointment. Establishing clearly Adult processes for goal-setting and decision-making with the choir's incumbent leaders right from the get-go saves a lot of grief later. Thus speaks the wisdom of hindsight.


In dealing with either type of problem, a very useful tactic in dealing both with the choir and with your own feelings about them is to be careful of your pronouns. If you habitually refer to the choir as 'they', that is a distancing device that will tend to polarise the dysfunctional Parent-Child roles. If you talk of the ensemble as 'we', you place everyone in a much more equal position which has much more potential for developing genuinely Adult-Adult interactions.

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