More on Choral Values...
It’s probably not a surprise to hear that I’m still thinking about this question of a choir’s values. If you’ve hung out with me at all in this blog over the years, you’ll recognise that it has that pleasing combination of being something wide-ranging and abstract to theorise about, but which is also intensely practical. Exactly the kind of thing that gets me all lit up and interested.
Anyway, having noticed how a clear sense of your choir’s values is most urgently needed at the moments of crisis, I have been thinking about things we can do during the ebb-and-flow of choral life to build a secure and shared set of values so we have it ready and in good order when we really need it. Moments of crisis draw bring the values to the surface, but they’re really not the best time to start working out what we believe in.
The three main areas I have been thinking about are:
What kind of language do we and our singers use to talk about what we do? Do we favour technical or fanciful words? What kind of metaphors do we use? Do we focus on musical content or vocal craft? Do we focus on what’s wrong with what we’re doing, or what we aspire to achieve?
A director’s choice of vocabulary is an incredibly powerful tool for setting a choir’s agenda and moral order. Likewise, we can learn a lot about our singers’ values by listening to the language they use.
A choir’s ethos can be read in from what they do in rehearsal. Are the rehearsal methods collaborative or top-down? Are they methodical or playful? Who gets to make decisions or give feedback?
Approaches to rehearsal are of course strongly correlated with different repertories and performing traditions. A 200-voice choral society performing big classical works will necessarily need a somewhat different set of methods from a drop-in community choir or a church choir with weekly worship commitments. Which reminds us that we don’t just conjure up our choral values in a vacuum, but inherit broad pre-existent frameworks from the genres and communities we align ourselves with.
Vocabularies and activities are processed through repetition into a choir’s mythologies. These can be either informal (favourite anecdotes and in-jokes) or formal (mission statements and policies). These are the kinds of narratives through which a choir negotiates their sense of collective identity.
These are all areas in which the director has scope both to define and direct the values they wish to instil, and to flush out the values held by the choir members. And I think you need both. It’s not unlike the role of the director in shaping the choral sound, indeed.
On one hand, you need to know the voices you have to work with - that basic material defines the range of possibilities of that ensemble. On the other, your job is develop, coax and mould those voices into a coherent corporate musical instrument. Simultaneously guiding and responding to our singers is the task in extra-musical as well as musical arenas.