Self-Deprecation and the Conductor

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These thoughts initially arose in response to working with the participants on the Association of British Choral Directors’ Initial Conducting Course at the weekend. But as I mulled on them on my way home I realised that, while there are ways in which that social context amplified the issue, it’s a general one for choral directors in real life. When I describe the form of behaviour I mean, you’ll recognise it.

So, this is what I was seeing: a conductor stands up in front of the singers they are about to direct, and in various verbal and non-verbal ways, they put themselves and their work down. They soften and lower their posture, and drop their gaze. They describe the activity they’re about to lead as a ‘little’ warm-up or ‘a bit of an exercise’. They express hope that it will work, and apologise for tiny stumbles that would otherwise not have been noticed.

(I say ‘they’; it may be ‘we’. I’m going to have to watch myself here.)

As I say, in a group learning situation, this kind of thing becomes more likely. People are feeling relatively novice, and also relatively put on the spot when they have to lead their peers under the eyes of their tutors. And as they get into the substance of what they were doing, they often gain the kind of fluency and confidence you see when people are happily immersed in a musical activity they have prepared for.

The great thing about this kind of group learning scenario is that it gives the opportunity to watch a good number of people in succession, and the comparison is instructive. After a while, I thought: this isn’t just a matter of individual diffidence in challenging circumstances (though it may partly be that), this is a pattern of social interaction based upon wider social life.

Because in real life, when we’re not conducting people, we use self-deprecation all the time as a mechanism for social connection. When I see ‘we’ I particularly mean people in Britain, for whom understatement is a form of rhetorical emphasis. That meme that floats round the internet listing what British people say, what people from other countries think they mean, and what they actually mean, is based on this observation. So in our regular social interactions, belittling ourselves is a means to create rapport. It is no surprise, then, to see conductors doing this, since rapport is central to the job.

And yet...I find myself doubting that self-deprecation is the best way to do this with a choir, particularly on first acquaintance. When a new leader stands up in front of the group for the first time, the singers experience an underlying ripple of anxiety: is it going to be okay? will I be able to do what I’m asked? will the music sound all right? A director who stands up and implicitly apologises for the material they are about to share, and indeed for their own existence, increases rather than allays that anxiety. The director’s instinct is probably to reassure the group that they are human and relatable and not one of those old-fashioned tyrannical despot-conductors, but this means to go about it undermines their credibility at the same time as it offers that comfort.

Of course, I approve of people not being despotic egomaniacs. I don’t think that gets the best music, quite apart from it not being nice. But there is scope to be positive in demeanour and vocabulary without sacrificing rapport.

Here’s a suggestion: start off with a statement of why you like what you’re about to do.

Let’s do an invigorating warm-up
I love this melody
This piece has such a great groove

Doesn’t need a lot of words - in fact best if it doesn’t - but it will be immediately reassuring to tells the ensemble to expect a positive experience. It puts you as a director in a good frame of mind about it too. Instead of all those Impostor Syndromey thoughts (will they like me? what if I mess this up?) it keeps your attention on all good reasons you have for wanting to share this particular musical experience.

Advanced version of the same technique: just say it inside your head, as you look at the singers to gather their attention, and start without further ado. The moment of uncertainty for both director and choir is always just before the music starts, so the sooner you are working together, the sooner you all settle into the positive experience you came there for.

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