February 2014

Repurposing Parking

I recently learned the word 'repurpose' on one of those lists of mildly useful household tips that circulate round the internet. (They always make of me think of the Viz example: 'A cigar case full of angry wasps makes an inexpensive vibrator'.) It has a more thoughtful and less jerry-rigged feel to it than 'hack' (as in 'life-hack' or the more specific IKEA-hack*), and so I'm happy to use it to describe the manner in which I have appropriated an idea.

The concept is one shared by Karen O'Connor in her Performing on Your Mind workshop back in November, called 'parking'. It is a technique for sequestering anxieties, especially those outside your circle of influence. If something bothers you, but is completely beyond your control, then once you have figured out there is nothing you can do that will make a difference there is nothing to be gained by giving it any further attention.

The Problem of the Post-Charismatic Choir, Part 3

In the first two posts in this series, we looked at the problem of ageing choirs (or indeed voluntary organisations in general) and how their difficulties recruiting the next generation of members can be analysed in terms of the routinisation of charisma. We've got to the point of addressing what we can actually do about this.

I should possibly add at this point (maybe I should have done earlier!) that whilst I'm writing these posts in largely theoretical terms, I am mentally testing them out on a whole bunch of real-life case-studies as I go. But I'm not citing these very much, except the odd anonymised anecdote, because I don't think it is the kind of thing where commenting publicly would be kind to the groups involved. We all know groups to whom these comments could apply to a greater or lesser extent - it's not going to help them overcome their challenges to point the finger at them.

More helpful, I hope, are the following points.

The Problem of the Post-Charismatic Choir, Part 2

Bradley & Pibram's diagram: the dynamics of a charismatic groupBradley & Pibram's diagram: the dynamics of a charismatic group

In my last post I started the process analysing the problems faced by ageing choirs in terms of the routinization of charisma. If you missed it, the back-story is only a click away; I'll wait here for you to see where we'd got to so far.

All caught up? Right, we were about to look at the group dynamic of a once-charismatic organisation that had settled into a happy and successful mode of operation. For this we are going to revisit Bradley and Pibram's diagram of the relationship between two key elements of a charismatic group: control and flux.

Flux (originally theorised as 'communion') is that sense of euphoric inter-connection where individuals merge their identities into the group. It is generated by certain specific forms of relationship within the group, characterised by each member having access to every other member without exclusionary sub-groups or cliques. Control (originally described as 'power') is the top-down authority that keeps the emotional energy thus generated in check.

The Problem of the Post-Charismatic Choir

This started off as an exploration of the problem of ageing choirs (and indeed choral organisations). There are so many choirs in the UK (and I imagine beyond) that are populated almost entirely by retired folk who are desperate to recruit some young blood to replace those that gradually fall prey to illness or infirmity. But it has developed into a wider analysis that could potentially help choirs that have not yet got to that stage head the problems off at the pass.

It may also get divided into more than one post. I'm not sure at this introductory point how far the ideas will grow.

So, a couple of observations about the ageing choir.

Clarity of Intention, Clarity of Sound

In my recent post about the nature of conductor-choir attention, I was focusing primarily on the flow of information between director and singers. How if the conductor is thinking about ‘depicting’ the music to the choir more than they are noticing how the choir is (how they sound, how they look), then that limits their opportunity to adapt in real time to the needs of the emerging music.

It occurred to me as I was finishing that post that there’s also a technical factor at play here. I noted that you can tell when a director is really listening hard, from their body language - the whole posture and gesture space becomes more integrated, more connected, visually ‘quieter’. A director looks at their best, that is, when they are not thinking about how they look, but instead about how their choir sounds.

Daring to Delegate, Part 2

Circles of involvement: increasing levels of engagement as you head inwardsCircles of involvement: increasing levels of engagement as you head inwardsIn my last post on this subject, we had got as far as feeling sympathy for people who don't volunteer for jobs to keep the choir running, as part of an understandable desire to husband one's energies and attention. Now we need to figure out how inveigle them into making the effort.

I should add that one of the reasons I am finding this a valuable subject to write about is because it is one that doesn't come naturally to me. I have phrased it as 'daring' to delegate, because my first instinct has tended to be to hope people won't mind my asking. I am much better at this than I used to be, but I still feel like this is a work in progress in my own life. So I am writing to consolidate and develop what I have learned as much as to help those who find themselves in similar situations. But then, you knew already that's why I keep a blog, right? It's not just for you...

Our goal, then, is to create a culture of volunteering, that encourages people to move inwards on our diagram of involvement. It is worth revisiting Kotter's model of organisational change here, as this is a classic case where you need something to build urgency to motivate the change before the transformation can happen.

Daring to Delegate

I was in an online conversation recently with a director who is very new in post. She was asking advice about a particular administrative task, and my contribution to the debate (since other people had already helped out with useful advice on the specific question) was to suggest it was something she could usefully delegate. She wasn't going to be short of things to do without this task, after all.

Her reply was one of those that I knew choral directors across the globe would empathise with:

I do appear to have taken on a great deal of other jobs as a job lot, but on the other hand haven't asked if anyone else would volunteer, so will bring this up at this week's rehearsal or at the first committee meeting (or music team meeting). Is it your experience that smaller choruses find it more difficult to field jobs out or is it the usual scenario of 'ask a busy person' regardless of the size of membership? A good proportion of members are in the 'elderly' section and I know, are not too keen to take on any responsibility. Committee and music team meetings appear to have been very few and far between so am working on making these more regular, at least until I get more of a 'feel' for the position and its commitments/what I feel comfortable delegating!

Eye Contact, Ear Contact, Mind Contact

InhabitanceOne of the truisms in choral conducting is the importance of eye contact. When being coached myself, I have been given exercises such making sure I look round at every individual, with the chorus instruction to raise their hands if they feel lacking in director attention. And as a coach, I have spent time with other directors intervening in habits such as dropping the gaze just before bringing the singers in.

At the same time, though, I have to note that some of the best sounds I have heard directors elicit from their singers - the most unified, in tune, resonant - have come when the director was not making eye contact, but was instead listening intently.

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