The Choral Director’s Golden Triangle

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Director's Triangle

There’s a useful concept in project management of the Golden Triangle. It is formed by three aspects of any project: Scope (how much it covers), Time (how long it will take to complete), and Resource (both human and physical – what you need to complete it, and therefore how much it will cost).

The point of the triangle is that your plan will quantify all three, but in practice you will probably only be able to control two of them. So, when real life inevitably starts to depart from what you’d planned (inevitably because projects are by definition things you don’t do regularly so inherently subject to unforeseen circumstances), one or other of these three is going to slip.

The project manager’s task is to decide which aspect should be compromised. If time and resource are fixed, you may need to scale back on how much you attempt. (This describes my PhD. The final section planned turned out to be far more complex than I had anticipated, and I wanted to finish before starting my lecturing job in September. I had enough material without it, so put it to one side for later development.) If you have to get it all done and have no more staff to deploy, you’ll have to extend the deadline. Or you could choose to throw more money at the problem if your budget constraints are more forgiving than your timeframe.

(Although, my father always used to say that adding more programmers to an IT project that was running late only ever made it run later…)

It occurred to me recently that choral conductors can use a similar concept for goal setting with a particular ensemble. The aspects it covers are music-specific, but the structure works in the same way. In this case, the triangle is formed of Accessibility (how open to all-comers you want your choir to be), Repertoire (quantity and difficulty level of the music you attempt), and Standard (how well you want the music to be performed).

Take a choral society with a regular concert calendar. If you want to be able to perform a defined quantity of music to a certain standard in time for your concert, you may need to restrict membership to those with a certain level of skill or prior experience. If you want to be completely open-access in your membership policy, you may find that you have to present a shorter programme to get it all adequately rehearsed. Or you could choose to plough on and take the full programme into performance and accept that it won’t be as well learned or as skilfully performed as you had hoped.

Of the three possibilities, I’m happy in principle with the first two. If you want to perform ambitious programmes, then go ahead and audition to make sure you’re working with singers who are ready for it. If you want to keep your doors open to everyone, then choose a programme you can adapt or trim if it turns out the people who turn up need more help in building the basic skills than you anticipated.

I suspect that nobody would claim to be happy with the third one, compromising your standards. But it happens quite a lot, nonetheless, in particular when performing the big works of the classical choral repertoire. Whilst there’s an established tradition for chopping down the Messiah, it’s not really the done thing to leave out a couple of movements of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis or the Brahms Deutsche Requiem. So it’s all too easy to get trapped into an uncompromisingly challenging programme with singers not quite up to the challenge and produce a performance that you’d call an adequate sing-through rather than a compelling artistic statement. (I am tactfully not enumerating which performances I have experienced like this, but there are enough to generalise a pattern from…)

As with many conceptual tools, the Golden Triangle (in either context) simply articulates judgements and decisions people are making on a day-to-day basis anyway. But when you’re handling multiple variables in a somewhat fluid and uncertain environment (there’s a poncy description for Real Life if ever I’ve seen one), having an analytical tool that can help clarify the nature of the dilemma can be incredibly useful.

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