Maslow for Choirs: Introduction

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LABBS delegates representing Maslow's hierarchy*LABBS delegates representing Maslow's hierarchy*

Well, I've been threatening to write about Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and its implication for choral directors, on and off for years, and the time has finally arrived to get my teeth into the subject properly rather than just refer to it in passing. We had a productive session on this at the Directors Day I led in January, and it's as well to follow up on that as a refresher if nothing else.

This will be a longish series of posts, but I will intersperse them with other topics in the meantime, or it will feel like we've done nothing but Maslow for weeks. After this introductory one, you can expect 7 more, each looking at one layer in the hierarchy in detail. There may or may not be further conclusions out the far end - we'll see what we find when we get there...

So, the basic concept is that human beings have all kinds of needs, some more basic, some more sophisticated. These needs are fundamental sources for human motivation, and both our state of mind and our behaviour is largely driven by them. Whilst there are some variations - both by culture and by age - and in any given circumstance people may be driven by more than one at once, understanding the nature of the needs helps us understand both ourselves and others.

The lowest three needs I think of as our animal needs - physical, safety, and belonging. These are the needs that we share with cats. The top three - cognitive, aesthetic, self-actualisation - are the more distinctively human ones. Elephants and dolphins might share these to an extent, but they are the drivers of human culture. Esteem needs represent a pivot point between the basic and higher needs - I tend to think of these as our toddler-state.

For the choral director in particular, there are certain patterns of behaviour that we can use to diagnose how our singers are feeling, and what kind of needs might be dominant at any time. Developing strategies to meet those needs will help our singers engage more effectively in rehearsal and thus both speed up the learning process and give everybody a happier experience.

Before we get into the detail, it is worth pointing out some general principles that derive from the hierarchical relationship between the different types of needs.

First, this means that lower needs tend to queue-jump the higher needs. If you are hungry or tired (physiological needs), it is hard to concentrate (cognitive needs). Quite often, when the rehearsal process is proving sluggish, the problem may be that some basic need it acting as an obstacle to the relatively sophisticated activity of making music. Recognising this saves a lot of flogging of dead horses. If the tonal centre is slipping in a place it doesn't usually, for instance, you might not need a technical solution, you might just need a change of activity.

Conversely, appealing to a higher level than the one you are currently stuck on can bump you out of a rut. Appealing to cognitive needs can fix esteem issues (people like to feel clever!); appealing to the beauty and meaning needs at the aesthetic level can help people resolve what had looked like a technical, cognitive issue.

Either way, the goal of rehearsing is to shunt people up to the highest possible level and keep them there. When people talk about the things they like about singing in a choir, it is the terms of self-actualisation they use: that it's life-affirming, meaningful, that it's making a positive contribution to the universe. That is the quality of experience that keeps people keen, that keeps their attendance up, and gets them recruiting their friends as singers and audience members.


*The detail that's hard to read in this pic will be revealed as the series progresses, fret ye not.

****Update****
Now the series has all been published, it may be useful to have links to them all in one place:
Maslow for Choirs: Physiological Needs
Maslow for Choirs: Safety Needs
Maslow for Choirs: Love and Belonging Needs
Maslow for Choirs: Esteem Needs
Maslow for Choirs: Cognitive Needs
Maslow for Choirs: Cognitive Needs, Part 2
Maslow for Choirs: Aesthetic Needs
Maslow for Choirs: Self-Actualisation

Oh my gosh! I just understood a whole page! This looks set to be a most interesting series. I am sure there will be much more to it than making sure all the chorus has had tea and a wee before rehearsal!

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