Hecklers in Rehearsal

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I recently received a message in response to my posts on Transactional Analysis last winter. (The message was actually sent back in December, but I only discovered the 'Other' inbox in Facebook this week. Fortunately most of the of the other messages I had missed were either advertisements for concerts or spam, so I haven't been rude to too many people in my ignorance.) It was from a choir director who mostly has a good relationship with her singers, but was encountering some difficult behaviour from one of them. In her own words:

My problem is one choir member who constantly breaks the flow of energy by making inappropriate comments, mocking my choice of songs, using the group as a platform for his political beliefs and generally distracting people from enjoying the singing. I have tried to discuss the issue with him a number of times but he claims to have no understanding of what my problem is.

Most people I have spoken to either don't understand my problem or, if they have any experience of running groups themselves they tell me to kick him out. I don't want to ask him to leave as he has been coming for as long as the choir has been going - 10 years - his wife also comes and I realise that the group is a very important part of the lives of everyone who comes along.

Now, mildly disruptive behaviour is something that all choir directors have to deal with at various points, and most would start by dealing with it exactly as this director has - by asking the person in question to modify their behaviour. It can also be useful to combine this with offering them a role within the choir that confers some extra status. Attention-seeking actions tell us that someone is feeling needy in a social dimension, so they will find it easier to moderate that behaviour if their esteem needs are being met elsewhere.

The latter tactic may still be useful in this situation, but the failure of an adult-to-adult exchange to communicate the need for behaviour change makes this a harder question than usual. It is unclear whether the singer doesn't recognise that he is constantly interrupting, or whether he doesn't recognise that these interruptions are detrimental to the pace of the rehearsal. Either way, he is being disingenuous at best, and I can understand why the reaction of other ensemble leaders has been to advise sacking him.

At the same time, I honour my correspondent's desire not to do so. We have to respect the meaning our choirs hold for their members. But two thoughts curl round the edge of my brain on this. First, the fact that he is a founder member may be giving him a sense of entitlement, or ownership over the group that leads him to assume it is his right to behave as he likes. Second, if you as a director are not prepared in your own heart to ultimately impose some kind of drastic sanction, it is hard to make your gentler strategies work effectively. So, decide what your last resort solution will be, and then focus on things you can try that may let you avoid using it.

The big thing to remember is this: you can't change somebody else's behaviour, all you can do is change what they experience in such a way as to motivate them to change their own.

At the moment, Mr Interrupty doesn't have a problem. He has a nice life. He gets to go out and sing with his friends, and he gets to hold forth with his opinion on whatever he feels like talking about whenever he feels like coming out with it. He's having a nice enough time that he has no motivation to grasp that his behaviour impairs the experience for everyone else. He doesn't hear the message when the director says it. He may possibly start to hear it if it comes from other quarters (section leaders? choir management committee? complain to his wife?), but on the limited info we have here, I'm going to mention these tactics, but won't assume they'll work.

I'm guessing that my correspondent has generally responded in rehearsal when the interruptions come along by smoothing them over, by working to restore the flow of energy so as to mitigate the impact on the choir as a whole. Which is the humane thing to do, but it is a bit like picking your spouse's underpants every time he leaves them on the floor. If the director does it well, Mr Interrupty's claim not to see the problem may be less game-playing than a genuine testament to the success of her efforts.

It occurs to me that a disruptive choir member's behaviour is a bit like that of a heckler at a comedy night. Sometimes it's a simple unselfconscious desire to join in (in which case, being asked nicely not to usually works); sometimes it's a way of showing off to their friends (which I rather suspect here); sometimes it's a form of dominance display in response to having someone they consider lower down their personal internalised pecking order than they are in control of the room (which can be an issue for male choristers with female directors).

Now, in my teaching experience, the default strategy was to ignore disruptive behaviour as much as possible so as not to reward it with attention. But in comedy, the expectation is that you deal with hecklers in order not to lose control of the space. And whilst there is a general inhibition in choral culture against dressing down individuals in front of the group, treating Mr Interrupty as a heckler might be a way to disrupt his current comfortably selfish status quo.

So, here is a basic technique we were taught on my comedy course for dealing with hecklers:

When someone calls out an interruption, first stop and ask them to repeat it. It's amazing how something that seemed witty as a throw-away line, sounds less so repeated again cold. Then, repeat it back to them. It will sound even less clever by now. You will also have won some thinking time during this process: does the heckle invite a tailored response (in comedy terms: can I crack a joke at the heckler's expense? Less likely to be an option in a choral situation, but you never know), or will a standard put-down do?

I would imagine in a choral situation that after getting the heckler to repeat their comment, and repeating it back at them, just taking a bit of time to let the comment hang in the air to create an awkward silence would be all that was needed. Then I'd say something like, 'We were just going to do some singing....do you mind? okay for us to get on with that now?' Mr Interrupty would then be the centre of attention for much less comfortable reasons, and I would anticipate some change in behaviour (which may involve sulking and complaining about it, but I'd live through that for a change in the status quo).

And then, just as I was finishing that paragraph, I got a message back from my correspondent, to whom I had apologised for such a late response, saying among other things:

I'm not having so much of a problem with the problem man at this time - things came to a head when he started handing out political leaflets to audience members in the queue at one of our concerts (without asking me) and I had to confront him very strongly and immediately. He went home with his tail between his legs casting a bit of a shadow over the energy of the concert for me but we seemed to get through it without him and frankly his singing role wasn't that crucial!

So we have a resolution! As ever, it came about through the director acting with courage to uphold the choir's values, and discovering thereby that the thing they feared wasn't so bad when it came to the crunch. And even though she's not going to need this post directly right now, I feel that the time thinking about the question has been valuable to me, and I hope you find it so too.

My correspondent also said:

When I went into running choirs I had no idea that I would be dealing with so many issues that have nothing to do with music (or maybe they do have something to do with music) but it's an awesome job and all these challenges only serve to enrich life.

Which I mention so that you too can enjoy doing some nodding.

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