The Quandary of the Abandoned Assistant

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I was recently in one of those conversations in which somebody is worried about an experience, and wonders if it’s entirely their fault, or whether other people have the same problem, and I realised it is an incredibly common issue that I’d not really seen discussed anywhere before. So I hope the other people in that conversation don’t mind me sharing with a wider audience, because it is common across all kinds of choirs, and having the conversation on a wider scale could well be useful to others who are going through the same thing.

The issue is this: on the rehearsal when the director is away and their assistant standing in, attendance drops significantly.

Now, the assistant obviously feels this keenly. It does feel like people are voting with their feet and are telling you that you aren’t worth getting off the sofa for. But it’s not just the assistant who feels it. It is irksome for the director, who not unreasonably hoped to be able to carry on from where everyone had got to in their absence, but instead has to go back and support people who are catching up from missing a week. It also dampens the spirits of the people who do make the effort to turn up.

So the first thing to say is: when it happens, please don’t spend the rehearsal worrying about it. Acknowledge how you feel about it, then put that aside and get on with the music. Those of you who have all made the effort can actually end up with a greater sense of achievement at the end of the session from the feeling that you had a harder furrow to plough than you might otherwise. Don’t let it spoil the rehearsal for you.

The question is of course why it happens. The assumption that is very easy to make is that people judge the assistant to be not as good a director as the main one. And there is a certain superficial logic to this: in situations where the assistant is manifestly more skilled and experienced in the role than the front-line director, they do tend to end up switching places. As a career trajectory (whether in the professional sense, or within the terms of dedicated amateur), assistantship often functions as apprenticeship.

But I don’t think it is just this. For one thing, I don’t think the decisions to stay away are necessarily taken at a conscious level. If people explicitly thought, ‘Well, we’ve got our second-best on tonight, I may as well stay on a bit too late at work and fail to make it across town,’ I think they’d catch themselves and remember that they generally think of themselves as a dedicated choir-member rather than the flakey and disrespectful one that such a thought suggests. I suspect people are acting on balance of feeling rather than on overt judgement.

The other thing to note is that where you get a director who is routinely absent, this effect tends to diminish. I’ve seen this most often where the director either lives at some distance from the choir making it logistically unfeasible to be there every week, or has a lot of professional obligations that takes them away from rehearsals. In these cases, the assistant (and sometimes a wider team) take on the role basically keeping everything going, with the director’s input becomes more about setting the agenda, both artistic and developmental, for others to enact. The relationship becomes more like that of chorus-master to maestro.

I have been reflecting on these dynamics in terms of the routinization of charisma. The structural relationships between conductor and ensemble strongly mitigate towards the generation of charismatic encounters. The nature of the role, the mythologies built into our cultural conception of it, and the dramaturgy of the interactions involved have all developed such that the director can function as that galvanising focal-point that allows a group of motley individuals to fuse into that euphoric blend that makes choral singing so addictive.

Part of this process is the belief in the specialness of the leader. The power that the group experiences as communion is attributed to the person who potentiates it, rather than to the structure of the occasion. I’m not saying that directors aren’t special people (of course they - we - are!), but I am saying that the specialness that is experienced as charismatic by their singers emerges as a result of their taking on the role, rather than being some kind of latent, mystic force they were born with.

The people who act as their assistants, you see, are just as special. They may have a somewhat different skillset from the people they assist, and probably less experience. But when they graduate from deputising into taking on a front-line role, they too will be experienced as charismatic. They are only experienced as less special while they are assisting, that is, because of the emotional investment the social world of choirs attach to the director, not because of any inherent lack in themselves.

This post is getting rather long, and I haven’t yet got onto the bit about routinization of charisma. I think it will make sense to split that off into a separate post, because I can feel more thoughts brewing about it than will fit in a final paragraph here.

To be continued...

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