Choirs and Democracy

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magentawinFurther to my comments earlier this week on power-sharing in a choral context: between scheduling that post and its publication, I had an interesting experience with Magenta that got us all reflecting about these questions in more detail. The occasion was the Adult Choirs class at the Worcester Festival, and the experience was receiving feedback from the adjudicator, David Lawson. (The photo will give you a hint, in case you are interested, as to how we got on.)

The specific comment that David made was (and this is as near verbatim as I can get – I neglected to make a note until later):

I always say to my choir at school that, ‘Choir is not a democracy’. Now, I saw that you had somebody giving the notes and bringing you in, but I wondered whether you are actually getting dangerously near a democracy?

The big joke within Magenta afterwards was that everybody’s immediate instinct was to look at me to see what the correct answer was.

But it was an interesting question, precisely because it doesn’t have a straightforward answer. There are certain things in our performance that would prompt this question, such as:

  • Each singer dressed individually
  • The person who announced the songs was not the same person who started the singing
  • We performed without a conductor
  • We aspire to a performing style in which each singer is individually expressive

So, David immediately and accurately picked up an important part of the choir’s ethos: the importance of each individual’s contribution to the whole. It shows up in our rehearsals too, in ways such as sharing the coaching of the ensemble, in having one member sing a solo to the group each week, and in rotating the responsibility for writing up notes on the rehearsal each week.

But the thing is, I don’t think democracy is quite the right word for this, because the singers in Magenta don’t get a choice about any of these. Well, except at the over-arching level of deciding whether to join a choir that has this kind of ethos and approach. We don’t audition, but we do recognise that the way we do things might not suit everybody, so we set the expectations and let people self-select as to whether our adventure is one they wish to join.

The big question I was interested in exploring when I first hatched the plot to start the choir was to what extent a choir can operate with a chamber music aesthetic. Having the larger numbers than one-per-part gives opportunities for a body of sound and expressive impact that a small group can’t achieve, but it so often comes at the expense of that detail of nuance, inflection and individuality of communication that you can get in smaller groups. I had some ideas of how I wanted the choir to operate as a group and perform as an ensemble, but I also wanted to see what the hearts and brains of the people who came to sing with me would do to that vision.

There are risks involved in this approach, of course. David Lawson hinted at them when he used the word ‘dangerously’. For instance, it has taken us longer to get to the skill level where we are commended for our rhythmic precision and tightness of ensemble than it would have if I had formed the habit of standing out front and conducting.

(To be honest, the reason I started singing within the ensemble rather than standing out front is that in our early days we sometimes struggled to get two people on every part each rehearsal, so my voice was more useful than my hands. As the ensemble grew, it became part of the question as to whether I would need to stand out front to control things more. And for a couple of pieces I do, but mostly we have worked on increasing the bonds within the group so I don’t have to.)

So, I can list all these ways in which I routinely and systematically hand artistic control of both aspects of rehearsal and performance to my singers – and yet it is very clear to all of us that it does not approach democracy. I do actually retain an awful lot of control (ahem), in both macro-level decision making and musical detail.

I think what makes this acceptable to the bunch of independent-minded women who form the choir is the expectation of dialogue, negotiation and consensus. I may retain a lot of power, but they’re not going to let me attempt anything that appears to compromise the shared ethos we have developed between us. I only get to exercise that power because they let me.

Mulling over these relationships through the political metaphor of democracy keeps bringing me back to the Enlightenment ideas of social contract that Mike Brewer and I explore in our chapter in the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Choral Music. Democracy was a later development to emerge from these political theories; their role when first proposed was to develop a rational basis for traditional hereditary power, something more explicable and less arbitrary than the divine right of kings.

And I think the key dimension is balance between retained and delegated powers. My working hunch from the long-term experiment that is Magenta is that the more space there is to express individual ideas (whether musical or organisational), the more clarity, if not control, you need at the level of setting direction. But equally, you only get that degree of control by sharing power.

Or to put it the terms I more usually use to think about Magenta: trust works both ways.

Interesting observation by David!

Many people say that the best teachers are those we don't notice, when the 'teaching' is invisible.

In the same spirit, I'm always trying to make myself redundant as a conductor/ leader. When I have coached/ rehearsed a song enough, I try to not be out in front. This helps to make the choir work as a unit, take responsibility, and listen more carefully. The end result should hopefully be a single organism without any need of my intervention.

But, I also believe that you can't make art democratically. In a similar way to Magenta, people don't have a choice when they join my choir: I choose the songs, I teach them, I rehearse them, etc. I call it a "benign dictatorship"!

From the front of the choir

'Benign dictator' is a very similar idea to 'Enlightened Prince'!

You've reminded me of a quote by John Bertalot: 'The only voluntary factor about joining a voluntary choir is the voluntary act of joining. After that, everything is compulsory.’

Hear, hear!


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