Changing Choral Expectations in the Covid Era

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In my recent post about a set of wide-ranging questions from a reader, I deferred the question about how expectations of our singers have changed under covid, on the grounds that I needed to do some more thinking about it. This post is where I will do that thinking.

When someone asks you a question about a subject on which you know you have some knowledge, you look into your brain, and usually find, if not a ready-made answer, then some useful examples from which to start to derive one. On this occasion, that process revealed… not very much. For all I’ve spent a much larger proportion of my time than usual plugged into various choral community support networks this year, I’ve not seen very much discussion about this.

People are far more concerned about how to keep their choirs connected and engaged than about the standards they are setting for skill level, learning speed or attendance. For all of us who have lived through this process, this observation seems perfectly obvious – survival mode isn’t about setting the bar, you’re just grateful for whatever people can manage. But it sheds some interesting light on the nature of expectation-setting that merits further reflection.

One reason why it’s hard to set expectations when rehearsing remotely is because it’s difficult to know in detail how people are getting on. The old saw about ‘what gets measured gets improved’ can, when applied in a managerial approach to learning, result in assessment processes built around what you can fit into tick-boxes. But if you take a less quantitative and auditable approach to the idea of ‘measurement’, it actually describes the rehearsal process rather well. A choir’s capabilities are intimately tied to their director’s powers of perception.

And if you spend a lot of your evenings with people singing with their mics muted, the director’s powers of perception are cut off at the knee. It’s why I cherish the one-to-one coaching sessions I get with individual singers, and our duetting-coaching protocol; it’s why I avidly await reports from each of my section leaders on their sessions each week. It’s why I can’t wait to get back to our live sessions: not only for the addictive thrill of actually hearing harmonies in real time, but for the chance to listen diagnostically, to hear what the singers need, and what the music needs.

I don’t know that I’d ever previously seen so clearly how intimately the expectations one sets are linked to ones capacity to monitor their fulfilment. You can ask people to do something, but unless you can hear whether they’re meeting them, wildly out-performing them, or failing miserably, you can’t gauge how realistic those expectations are. You’re flying by memory (this is what people could do back in March) and by piecing together fragments of information from multiple sources to make your best guess.

It turns out that the structure of activities can communicate expectations too, by creating situations which draw attention to whether they’re being fulfilled. I keep going on about pair-work: how it creates safe singing spaces, how it increases ratio, how it helps maintain personal relationships within the group. It also reveals very clearly to those involved if they’ve done the preparation needed to do the exercise (as well as providing the means to help them catch up if they haven’t).

And just the fact of doing lots of things in small groups signals the basic expectation of participation: this activity needs people pay attention to what’s going on in rehearsal to work. It turns out that people who are used to spending the whole evening on mute may well divide their attention between rehearsal and other calls (as I discovered when trying to get someone’s attention to come back to the computer and accept the invitation to a breakout room).

Thinking through these examples brings into relief the way that expectations are part of a social contract. What a choir’s leadership can ask of members is directly related to what the choir can offer them. In normal times, it’s things like: if you turn up punctually, we’ll get the evening off to a purposeful start. If you do the note-learning in preparation for rehearsal, we’ll give you a satisfying musical experience with others who have also made the effort.

It can therefore seem that the choir’s right to set expectations is fundamentally undermined by the shift online. So much of what we love has been stripped away, what are we really offering our singers in return for their meeting those expectations?

Let us not be so defeatist. We can’t pretend it’s the same, but we can – and do! – continue to wrest valid musical experiences as well as much-valued social connections out of this technology, and our singers clearly value it as so many of them keep coming back. So, if what we can do is look after each other and be supportive as people sing to each other, that becomes the norm to which we will hold each other. And maybe we had established those expectations without even noticing we were doing it – simply by responding to the needs of the circumstances.

I’d like to finish with an anecdote that reminds us that the social contract of expectations has a value in its own right, even when it is detached from its usual context of performance preparation. Jo Braham, director of Cheshire Chord Company, told of how a couple of months into Zoom rehearsals, people were starting to flag. The first adrenal rush of creativity that propelled us all into the new environment was running dry, and it was starting to become clear we were in for a longer haul than we had imagined to begin with.

Jo dealt with this sagging morale by re-connecting with the expectations the chorus had had of themselves in normal times. She told everyone to stand up properly, and perform like the award-winning chorus they are. And because everyone could see each other, even if they couldn’t hear each other, they could all perceive and thus feel the extra energy and life this brought to their singing.

Moral of the story: the point of setting expectations is to create opportunities for people to feel good about themselves.

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