Managing Yourself, Managing Your Choir

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I had an email last week from a director who is grappling with two interrelated issues that I am sure will resonate with a lot of my readers:

  • Singers who have signed up to perform at an event dropping out as the event gets closer
  • Singers texting him before rehearsals with apologies during the time he is trying to get 'into the zone'

In both cases, the problem he identified - rather perceptively I thought - was the effect on his mood. He feels frustrated by these actions, and demotivated. He recognises that this response doesn't help his chorus, and so is looking for ways to manage his own emotions.

Notwithstanding his self-aware framing of the question in terms of director psychology, however, I'm going to start by answering it at the level of choir management. This particular ensemble has had a significant increase in membership in quite a short time, and this is introducing two distinct problems that need handling differently in a large choir from in a small one:

  1. The more people there are, the less any one individual feels essential. Hence, all other things being equal, a larger choir will suffer a proportionally higher absence rate than a smaller one
  2. Director overwhelm: in a small group, complex command structures generate inefficiency and unnecessary overhead. In a big group, the lack of them leaves the director bombarded with lots of detail that could perfectly well be dealt with by other people.

The first needs dealing with at both a cultural and an organisational level. Culturally, people need to be made aware that their absence makes a difference. It demotivates their colleagues (and their director!); not being there is an implicit message to your fellows that you don't value them. Moreover, every experience you miss, you are falling behind - and therefore holding the group as a whole back. So if people are thinking, 'Oh nobody will miss lil ol' me,' they need to understand that their absence does indeed affect everyone else.

Organisationally, these values need to be backed up by sanctions. There needs to be an explicitly quantified level of participation below which intervention is indicated. It needs to include expectations about both rehearsal attendance and performance participation, and the sanctions need to fit the context of the choir (e.g. requirement to re-audition, exclusion from performances if rehearsal attendance inadequate, being asked to leave).

These are best decided in dialogue with the membership - indeed, there is a clear role for the management committee to mediate here. It may emerge that the level of commitment the director desires is just unrealistic for some of the membership, and a negotiation needs to ensue about how to balance that out.

But when you have a policy, everyone knows where they stand. And you *will* find that you have to invoke the sanctions at some point. It will be painful to do, but once it has happened once or twice, people just sort themselves into those who are prepared to step up and those who choose to ship out. It clears the air, and everyone is happier.

The second issue is about delegation. The director needs to know who they've got for performances, but they really don't need to be the person who collects apologies. Delegate that, and then turn your phone off during your mental preparation for rehearsal. There is nothing more important at that point, so just remove the means by which people could interrupt you.

And the whole process of monitoring attendance that the organisational questions bring up needs delegating. The chorus needs to build a system that delivers the results to the director, but does not need him for its day-to-day operation.

Useful things for the system to include would be:

  • A means to flag up known absences in advance, so the only emails/texts flying about before rehearsal are about genuinely unforeseen circumstances
  • A system to follow-up on unscheduled absences:
    • Apologies received deserve a phone call the next day to check up if the singer is okay
    • Absences where no apologies have been received need a phone call during the rehearsal itself

Thus, absentees will feel very directly that they have been missed. They are less likely to miss rehearsal for avoidable reasons, and if they are missing because of real problems in their life, then the chorus has a means to be a more effective support system for them.

So, it may look like I've not answered the question: having been asked how to manage one's emotions, I have written about how to manage one's choir. But the thing is, once you have clearer expectations and procedures in places, it lifts a weight from your mind. You stop resenting absences so much. You still miss the absentees, but you don't veer into that state of catastrophising - what if nobody turns up? what if they miss week after week after week? - as you have a stable structure to deal with things before they get to a state of catastrophe.

You have moved the issue back from your circle of concern to your circle of influence. Which is possibly the answer to the psychological question as originally framed.

Thanks for this great post Liz... for me especially, the timing is perfect as I'm trying to get responsibilities set up and agreed within the chorus, so that I'm no longer the ONLY point of contact. This is one blog I'll be sharing with my music team and Exec!

Well Liz you've done it again. Absolutely hit the nail on the head! Thank you :-) x

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