Maslow for Choirs: Love and Belonging Needs
Fourth post in a series that starts here
After physical survival and safety, our next most primal needs are social. We need to feel connected to others, to feel like we belong.
Fortunately, choirs are good for this. Indeed, the two main reasons people join choirs are (a) 'I'd like to sing, and I might make some friends, and (b) 'I'd like to make some new friends, and it might be fun to sing'. So, we can feel good about what we offer our members on this one.
Having said that, it is possible to feel isolated in a choir. Sometimes new members feel like everyone already knows each other, and it's hard to find a conversation. Choral seating arrangements that keep everyone in rows inhibit you from interacting with each other. (Logistically there may be good reasons for this - the bigger the choir the more urgent are the issues of crowd control after all - but it still has an impact on belonging needs.) Sometimes the people addressing the choir (primarily the director, but also others making announcements) use cultural references that make you feel excluded.
So, we can't take it for granted that we will be meeting everyone's belonging needs unless we actually pay attention to doing so. Practical things that help include:
- Learn people's names and use them. Director and committee need to lead from the front here - the more you do this, the easier it is for everyone to learn each other's names too
- Have rituals or rehearsal routines that make sure everyone gets their turn to be celebrated. Marking birthdays is a classic example; Magenta's solo rota (which I have previously mentioned here and here) also fulfils this function.
- Include some rehearsal activities that require people to interact directly with each other, not just collectively with the conductor
- Switch people around so they are not rehearsing next to the same people all the time. This is good for all kinds of musical reasons, but it also facilitates social bonds
- Assign new members a mentor to support them during their first few weeks of rehearsals, and define 'settling in' in both musical and social terms
- Consider the choir's non-singing activities (social events, fundraising, travelling to and from events) and how these might serve to integrate the group.
The question of cultural references and the danger of alienation was going to be the last item on that list, but I think it needs a bit more development. I have already enumerated a list of behaviours that can alienate someone here. I think it is also worth noting that the identity markers which can potentially exclude people operate in both social and musical dimensions. You can make someone feel uncomfortable with ill-considered snobbery/inverse snobbery about either their class status or their musical tastes.
So the key thing is to be careful about how you deploy any vocabulary that might define a them-and-us situation. Not saying don't do this at all - since it is a useful part of generating the bonds that galvanise a group into a charismatic encounter - just saying watch how you go about it. You don't want to draw the line so that some of your singers feel like 'them' instead of 'us'. I have sat feeling very out of it when classical choral presenters have been rude about barbershop, and they never knew. I'm as classical as the next musician (well, more than many), but I do this other thing too. Don't make me feel like I don't belong.
A good rule of thumb to keep out of trouble here is the one that stand-up comedians use about whom it is acceptable to lampoon: always punch up. Those who have higher status and greater cultural power are less likely to be damaged by anything you might say about them; the important thing is not to kick those with lower status and less power while they are down.
Executive summary of this post: be nice, be kind, be considerate.