The Challenges of Being ‘Young and Talented’

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There’s a scenario that happens frequently enough that it is possible to generalise about: a well-established choir acquiring a ‘young and talented’, but relatively inexperienced director. I put the ‘young and talented’ in scare quotes, as that’s how the director is usually described by the choir, but may not be how I would put it.

The dimension of youth is generally quite clear (though possibly not quite as purely objective as you might think - the perception of juniority can be magnified or diminished by other factors such as gender and class). But the concept of ‘talent’, as regular readers will know, is open to critique - it is a concept that mythologises the products of dedication as innate rather than hard-won.

When a choir adopts a new director that they describe in this way, this is usually code for someone who is a well-developed musician as an instrumentalist or singer but who is new to directing. So they have the ear, the theoretical-technical skills, and that intuitive grasp of musical shape that comes from deep and protracted immersion, without necessarily knowing what to do with their hands. Although I would cavil with the way these directors get labelled, I do applaud those choirs who recognise that this profile adds up to someone with the potential to be a very effective director in the future.

What is interesting, therefore, is how these choirs can then behave in ways that put significant obstacles in the way of the director’s effectiveness. Again, this happens often enough that you can see certain patterns in the interactions, and it is useful to analyse them so that all parties can recognise what’s going on and negotiate their way through the process to happy outcome.

The main issue these new directors find is that they are prevented from making changes to the choir’s activities, repertoire or rehearsal methods, being told in response to proposals that, ‘We don’t do it that way’. Underlying this general pattern are more specific dynamics, occurring in varying degrees in different situations:

  • The new director may have started off by accepting things exactly as they are in the first instance while they find their feet and see how the land lies. This is a sensible approach for someone who lacks experience, but it does mean that the relationship with the choir starts from a position of preserving the status quo. With those expectations formed initially, it is commensurately harder to start changing things at a later date.
  • The choir may feel (quite reasonably) that they are taking something of a risk by bringing in somebody as yet unformed as a director. The rewards of getting someone with exciting potential make this risk worth taking, but clinging to previous working methods can be a way of mitigating it. Retaining existing structures becomes a way of containing the dangers presented by youthful energy that has yet to develop a clearly-focused sense of direction.
  • There may be an implicit (or occasionally explicit) assumption that age (and potentially other social categories such as gender) give the choir members an inherent authority over the new director. If someone the same age as your children turns up to conduct your rehearsal, it is all too easy to fall into patterns of behaviour that you are used to using with your offspring. Likewise, it is easy for the director to feel their juniority, especially when they are all too aware of their relative lack of experience in the role. But when it results in the director not being taken entirely seriously, it makes things tricky.

    (This is a particular instance of that rather vampiric relationship ageing choirs sometimes display to the recruitment of younger singers.)

So, the challenge arises when the director is starting to feel established, starting to feel like they are able to make a difference, and is developing ideas for how they want their tenure to continue. How can they shift the relationship from being regarded as a rather adorable and precocious pet to being recognised as a genuine leader?

Three bits of advice:

  1. Introduce changes one at a time. Recognise that resistance to change is because it takes people out of their comfort zone. And if you push them too far out all at once, they will panic and fight back. They are already quite a way out of their comfort zone merely from having a new director, and if you are significantly younger than they are, you are probably more accustomed to handling change in your daily life already. Give them time to feel the benefit of each change before making the next and they will be more willing to come with you.
  2. Frame the changes in terms of their existing values. With the habits and procedures the choir clings to, you need to find out what they mean to the choir, why they care about them. It is nearly always the case that if you can satisfy that underlying need in a different way, and be clear that your recognise and care about that need, they will let go of the old way in time.
  3. Get buy-in from key individuals before proposing the idea to the choir as a whole. You will soon figure out who are the movers and shakers in the choir. Sometimes it’s the post-holders, sometimes it’s particular personalities. These are the people whose esteem needs you need to address by asking for, assimilating, and acknowledging their input on your ideas. And they can be a great resource, too, if you can get them to relax and stop trying to control you.

Also see my posts on Kotter (starting here) for more on how to effect change effectively.

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