Choice Theory for Choral Directors 2: The Quality World

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Having outlined the basic principles of William Glasser’s Choice Theory in my first post on the subject, I’d like to explore, in this one and the next, two key concepts that he uses in his analytical and therapeutic toolkit. Today’s is the notion of a person’s ‘Quality World’. This is the internal picture each person maintains of what they believe to represent the best way to satisfy their basic needs.

Glasser divides the content of this personal world into three categories:

(1) the people we most want to be with, (2) the things we most want to own or experience, and (3) the ideas or systems of belief that govern much of our behavior.

The Quality World thus contains that which is most important to an individual, and we feel good when we can get our experiences in the real world closely matching this idealised picture. Conversely, we are at our most miserable when we are at odds with it: when the relationships that matter most to us are strained, or when we are living at odds with our core values.

Now, it strikes me that pretty much everyone who sings in a choir, except perhaps the most casual attender, has choir within their Quality World. It is something that people clearly care strongly about, and gain a good deal of personal nourishment from. And it’s not hard to see why, since choral singing provides all three types of content Glasser identifies in Quality Worlds: people, experiences, and values.

This in turn helps explain an observation I made in my first book: that it takes a lot for people to leave. They may continue for many months, even years in a state of some unhappiness in the situation they find themselves in before they are willing to let go. If your choir is part of your internal picture of your best life, it is very hard to walk away from.

And when you listen to people’s stories about why they left their choir, you can hear the gap between their memories of the best times and what the choir had become. Sometimes the stories are of changing experiences - either of slipping musical standards that erode the sense of achievement, or of increasing levels of discipline that reduce the sense of fun and sociability. Behind these tales often lie changes of ethos: either an increase or relaxation of emphasis on expertise.

It is interesting how it can work either way. People who found singing an important source of pride feel diminished if those standards aren’t maintained, while people who sang for a sense of belonging can find increased technical expectations alienating.

To an extent this just tells us that any one choir can’t be all things to all people, and so the world needs a good spread of choirs so people can find the one that best fits their personal Quality Worlds. We already knew that. But it also tells us to be careful in how we go about change.

The hazards of change management are usually articulated in terms of the risk of failing to carry everyone with you, as if people are inconvenient sources of inertia requiring management techniques to overcome their drag. But Glasser’s way of framing things puts the focus instead on people’s quality of life. If people come to your choir because the experience makes them feel good in the way it meets their social, aesthetic and self-actualisation needs, it is quite reasonable for them to want to keep it that way. If you want to change things, you either need to provide something that ticks their boxes even better, or persuade them to update the picture in their Quality World.

The other thing you notice in people’s stories of how they left their choirs is that there is so often a narrative of external control psychology, of someone trying to make other people do things. Sometimes it is the director and/or choir management pushing unwelcome change. Other times it is the person who left who has been frustrated by not being able to control those they left behind. Whoever was trying to do the controlling, and whoever was resisting that control, the flavour of unhappiness is remarkably similar.

And it is for that dynamic that Glasser invented the concept I’ll look at in my next post on this subject: the Solving Circle.

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