Maslow for Choirs: Physiological Needs

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Keeping warm: ironically, the room was too hot, so this prop was completely counter-productive...Keeping warm: ironically, the room was too hot, so this prop was completely counter-productive...Second post in a series that started here

The most basic human needs are physical/physiological. We need air to breathe, we need to be warm enough but not too hot, we need food and drink to sustain us. One of the points of civilisation, I like to think, is to build an environment in which people don't have to expend all their attention on this basic maintenance and can give time and effort to more creative and interesting things: achievements rather than survival.

In one sense, then, the most urgent of physical needs are unlikely to show up in a choral rehearsal. But first-world people are still human organisms and will bring their physiological needs to rehearsal with their physical bodies. And the quality of their attention for music is directly correlated to how well these needs are met.

We can divide these into two different categories:

Environmental Factors

These relate to the physical space in which you rehearse: heat/cold, light levels, air quality. It is theoretically possible to control this and get it right. People have different preferences for temperature, for example, but they also have a reasonable tolerance such that you will be able to find a level that suits both those that run hot and those with poor circulation.

Of course, that's in a perfect world. Most of us rehearse in venues that are imperfect - poorly insulated, or with windows painted shut, or with no blinds to control solar gain on a hot day. Or we have imperfect control over them - no access to heating controls or keys to window locks.

So we just have to do as best we can: recognise the difficulties, design our set-up to minimise them, and then try to mitigate them by adapting rehearsal processes. If it gets very hot up on the top riser, rotate the stacking so the back row gets some relief. If the room is too cold, use vigorous physical warm-ups both at the start and periodically throughout to keep the blood pumping.

But if this is taking up a lot of your attention in rehearsal planning, you do need to start investigating a change of venue. Notwithstanding the cultural narrative of asceticism - that we should rise above the needs of the flesh and focus on higher things - the quality of the rehearsal space really does make a material difference. Few venues are perfect, but a truly poor one can usually be improved upon.

Personal Factors

These relate to the state of individuals in your choir, and is thus much less directly within your control. It is also more complex to manage, as everyone has different life circumstances that affect how they feel. One person may arrive exhausted after work, while another is full of beans after a long holiday. Your rehearsal needs to work for both of them.

Having said that, all choir members come at the same time of day and time of year, so there may well be shared patterns, particularly of tiredness or energy, that are caused by everyday life but manifest in rehearsal. If you rehearse in the evening, you can expect everyone to need energising after a full day; you can expect anyone whose life is shaped by the school year to be at their lowest shortly before the end of term. So you can plan for and respond to the choir's physical needs as a group to an extent.

Where there are specific individual needs - particularly health issues - your best bet is to negotiate with singers how best to manage them, given that they will have the greatest insight into their moment-to-moment state. If someone can't stand up for as long as you'd normally ask the choir to, just give them a chair and tell them to use it as much or as little as they need. If someone is convalescing and not sure if they can manage a whole rehearsal, tell them which part would be most useful for them to attend.

Diagnostic Clues

Physical needs are relatively easy to deal with once diagnosed. Someone too hot? Open a window! Singers feeling tired? Give them energising activities to wake them up, and avoid trying to make them do anything too brainy until they feel perkier! The solutions are pleasantly obvious.

The trick is to spot that they're the problem. Extreme problems, you'll know about because people will tell you - whether that's complaining that they're too cold, or saying they need to sit down with their bad back. When the physical needs are mild is when they are more dangerous, as people are likely to soldier on through the obstacle, making heavy weather of the work, but not noticing what the problem is.

It is then the director's job to work out what's going on. Here are some classic clues to get you started:

  • Tiredness manifests in droopy body language, slowness in following instructions (e.g. finding where to start), lack of ring in the voice, forgetting stuff previously learned, dropping tonal centre.
  • Physical discomfort manifests in shifting body language (shuffling feet, stretching a shoulder), and shortness of attention-span/missing instructions
  • Lack of oxygen looks very like tiredness (indeed, may be experienced as tiredness, especially if people start yawning), but will tend to affect a lot of people at once as it's an environmental rather than personal factor. Also can be diagnosed if it manifests later on in a rehearsal, as opposed to tiredness as something people bring with them and will show up at the start
  • Too cold shows in body language that huddles inwards, often with extraneous tension (which can also be heard as an edge in the voice)
  • Problems with light-level will show around the eyes - squinting if it's too bright, frowning if it's too dark. Whilst people having their heads deep into the copies is often a sign of cognitive needs, a little more light can certainly make a difference

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