Social and Musical Ethos

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One of the ways for a director to learn about their choir is to go out for eats/drinks with them after a performance and listen intently. Other occasions can offer some insight, but something about the post-performance social brings out a reflective and celebratory spirit in an ensemble. It’s partly because you get a bigger turn-out, of course – though this in turn is a symptom of the bond that is forged in through the culmination of group endeavour.

I’m thinking about this particularly right now as a working majority of the singers in Magenta had a visit to the pub after our last evening gig before Christmas, and I learned something interesting about the choir. One of our members said it was the first single-sex organisation she had been involved with that had no bitching.

At one level this was no surprise – I spend a lot of time with these women, and I know how mutually supportive they are. But I was struck that it was a feature that was worthy of remark.

Is it a feature of singing organisations, I wondered? Maybe the simple fact that the music gets everybody lined up together for significant chunks of the time we spend together builds a sense of teamwork and solidarity. Then I took off my rose-tinted glasses and remembered that there is plenty of politicking in musical organisations (oh my goodness, isn’t there!). Having said that, the hunch that the social ethos both influences and feeds off the musical activities seems valid.

I think there are three specific musical habits we have that might contribute to this social ethos:

  • We keep the group small enough that we can rehearse and perform in a single line. In the terms of nonverbal comunication studies, this means that we form a single f-formation – there is just one interactional space as we sing, to which we all have access.
  • We don’t have either set parts we always sing or set places we always stand. Whilst we sometimes rehearse in parts (especially in the early stages of learning music), the personnel for each part changes with every song. This means that everybody finds themselves singing next to everyone else at some point, and you also don’t get standardised sub-groups of the ensemble. There are no opportunities with the rehearsal to set up musical cliques.
  • We have a rota for every singer to perform a solo to the rest of the group, and a feedback protocol that focuses exclusively on articulating what we loved and what we learned about the performance. This promotes an ethic of equality of value (as another of our singers puts it) in that everybody takes a turn at making themselves vulnerable – but possibly more importantly, we all experience the benefit from the way the group performance becomes more expressive and mutually sensitive after listening to each other.

All of these rehearsal practices were introduced for primarily musical reasons, so any social benefits are an example of The Law of Benign Unintended Consequences. But consequences are experienced whether they are intended or not, and people’s human experience plays a significant part in the success of a choir at all kinds of levels. If nothing else, happy people sing better.

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