How to Prevent Your Choir from Singing Well

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silent_mouthI recently read Robin Stuart-Kotze’s book Performance: The Secrets of Successful Behaviour. I picked it up wondering if it was going to be one of the business-management genre books that have been feeding into my charisma project. Not directly, it turns out, and where it does, mostly by contrast. Nonetheless, it proved a stimulating read, both in the dimensions in which I found myself persuaded, and in those where I found myself wanting to argue back. (Possibly that is the definition of a stimulating book!)

Anyway, one of the areas I found particularly useful was where he discusses performance-blocking behaviours – i.e. those habits and forms of interaction that actively prevent people from doing well. The problem with these is not just that they are counter-productive, but also that they are highly contagious. So one person’s blocking behaviours very quickly inspire similarly unhelpful habits in others.

Now, one of his central points in the whole book is that how well people do is primarily determined by their behaviour, which is in turn primarily a response to environment and situation. That is, it’s not about personality. If someone behaves in a way that hinders other people’s effectiveness, it’s not because of the kind of person they are, it’s as a response to something in their own world. Thus, blocking behaviours can be at least mitigated if not cured by seeking to understand what stimulates them.

So his is a message of hope – we see these behaviours all around us (and indeed participate in them), often seemingly locked into negative cycle of discouragement – but we are not doomed to stay locked in them. I thought it was useful to make that point before looking at the details, which I found resonating uncomfortably with a host of rehearsal habits that one finds in varying degrees of severity in many conductors and their choirs.

Stuart-Kotze enumerates three basic forms of blocking behaviours:

  1. Defensive-aggressive behaviours: these are when someone lashes out at others, and they are usually a response to a perceived attack on their self-esteem. This kind of aggression is often motivated by a fear of failure, and projects that frustration onto others.

    We see this in rehearsal every time a director gets impatient with their singers. Not many directors shout at their singers very often, but more resort to sarcasm. Cutting singers off after a ragged start can feel like an act of violence on the music if it’s done with a peremptory clap and a frown rather than as offering an opportunity for the performers to do the job they’d like to. When it becomes endemic, rehearsals descend into a weary trudge through the act of note-bashing.

    The fear that underlies this style of rehearsing is the very basic one of: what if we don’t get the music learned in time for the concert? Have I bitten off more than the choir can chew in my programming? It is a real and perfectly reasonably fear, and the director is right to feel an underlying responsibility: if the choir fails, it is indeed the director’s failure.

    But once you start taking this fear out on the choir, you tend to lose sight that it’s your own failure you’re scared of, and you start blaming the singers. This is counter-productive not only for the effect it has on them, but it also undermines your opportunity to affect the outcome, by removing the problem from your circle of influence into your circle of concern.

  2. Conflict-avoidance behaviours: This is where people avoid risk or controversy, they don’t challenge other people’s behaviours or opinions, they let things slide. It may arise from a perception that conflict situations are win-lose, and an underlying fear of being on the losing side. On the face of it, it seems less destructive than defensive-aggressive behaviour, as it maintains a much more genial style of social interaction.

    But it can become frustrating for those around you, as they find they never know where they stand. What are the expectations? What should I expect if I don’t meet them? Why are some people getting away with things that we have been asked not to do? Over time, conflict avoidance generates uncertainty, then anxiety, then resentment, even anger.

    Every choral director has a story (or several) of having to deal with a choir member who persistently engaged in unacceptable behaviours. Endemic lateness, constant talking in rehearsal, a male singer refusing to watch a female director because he didn’t believe that men should be told what to do by women, whatever. Inevitably the story goes through various stages of trying to deal with the issue at a group (i.e. non-confrontational) level, all of which fail, and in the end the director has to bite the bullet and address the perpetrator directly. This results in the perpetrator either flouncing off in a huff, or apologising, genuinely having had no idea of the effect they were having on the group. The atmosphere clears, and all the singers say they wish the director had done it earlier.

  3. Responsibility-avoidance behaviours: This is the response to a fear of repercussions for making a mistake. It manifests in withdrawal, reduced involvement, apparent disinterest, and a general inclination to avoid notice and to pass the buck whenever possible. This is not a common position among directors (though I can think of a couple I have known who behave like this when the occasion permits), but it is a very common response among choirs to a defensive-aggressive director.

    When I was doing the rehearsal observations that fed into my book on choral conducting, I saw a few examples of this: a hectoring director leading a choir that had an astonishingly small sound for the number of people singing. One instance in particular is striking, as his method for improving the blend was to shout, ‘I can hear voices; I can hear individuals in the sound!’. This specific punishment for being audible encouraged people to sing in a very mousy and indistinct way.

    And whilst responsibility-avoidance may be a response to defensive-aggressive behaviour, it also spawns more responsibility-avoidance in those around us. This is partly just through the power of social validation, but it’s also because the more people around you are trying to hide, the more visible your normal behaviour becomes by contrast. Failure to retreat becomes tantamount to stepping forward into danger.

So, having thought about the various forms of dysfunctional relationship a director can have with their choir, and seen how easy it is to fall into them, it is worth reminding ourselves of Stuart-Kotze’s premise that the quality of performance is a function of behaviour, not personality, and that behaviours can change. If (when) we catch ourselves in performance-blocking behaviours, it is possible to identify the stimuli that we reacted to, and to devise more helpful responses for future reference. Phew.

Excellent post Liz, and very stimulating!

Two things jumped out for me:

Not to let your fear/ insecurity/ doubts as a director affect the choir. You have to behave as if it's really important to get the song right and be prepared for the concert, but at the same time as if it's not really that important in the grand scheme of things. A tricky balance!

Conflict-avoidance behaviour can also emanate from the choir members. It might meant that they never truly give feedback to the director and end up going along with things that aren't quite 'right'.

From the Front of the Choir

Agree with you on both counts, Chris. In fact, all three types of behaviour can occur amongst choir members, and they are still contagious. But you're right that the conflict-avoidance one is the hardest for a director to spot and deal with. Sometimes the only clues are things like hesitancy in the rhythm or a slightly under-powered sound, while the real problem is something entirely different!


Thank you for this one Liz, although it scarily resonates in some areas. The tricky bit is recognising when you're doing it. Do you have any advice on ways to ellicit objective feedback during the rehearsal?

Good question, Kate!

Two immediate thoughts:
1. Listen to the sound of the voices. If you can hear ring and resonance, the choir is probably not suffering from these kinds of behaviours. If you hear tentativeness or under-supported sound, that is quite a reliable indicator of emotional withdrawal and a signal to start asking who's engaging in what kind of performance-blocking behaviour.
2. Reflection between rehearsals gives more space to analyse interactions than in the heat of the moment. Thinking back over the rehearsal, if there were instances of people getting irritated or being obstructive or even just slow to respond, those are the effects whose causes you need to identify.

And a third thought that came as I wrote those two:
3. Ask someone you trust within the choir to have a quiet word with you after rehearsal if they spot you doing any of these.

As you say, these behaivours do resonate scarily with experience, and I have found since thinking about them that just being aware of the types and symptoms helps identify them and suggest alternative courses of action.


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