Maslow for Choirs: Safety Needs

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safetyThird post in a series that starts here

After our basic physical needs, the next most primal need we have is to feel safe. It is hard to get anything of great quality achieved while you are living in a state of fear; even its milder, but chronic cousin, anxiety is pretty obstructive to productivity.

Safety in a choral context is rarely about physical safety - though anyone who has seen the difference that adding a rail at the back of your risers can make to concentration will know it can be very relevant. Psychological safety is the primary concern for the choral director though. And it's a more complex question than it looks at first sight.

Because, as these posts have discussed from various angles over the years, learning and artistry both entail risks. People don't grow unless they leave their comfort zones. And it is in rising to challenges that we earn the rewards of satisfaction and achievements. Indeed, Czikszentmihalyi defined a state of flow as inherently balancing challenge and capacity, hanging in the sweet spot between anxiety and boredom.

So we can't protect our singers from anxiety entirely - we have to inveigle them out of their comfort zones to get anything done. But we can manage the challenge level so as to keep them from overwhelm, and we can create a safe environment in which to undertake these challenges.

This is an obvious thing to say, but it takes constant vigilance to do. The choral director has such power over their singers, to control not only their actions, but also the emotional tone and context of meanings in which they're carried out. I have written before about the discourse of sarcasm that characterises much of England's traditional choral scene, but even outside of this subculture, the director's behaviour is key to the psychological safety of their singers.

There are some key habits it is possible to develop to achieve a safe environment, which I shall list in a moment. But they can all be summarised by the general principle of: never react with impatience or irritation to what is sung. There will be lots of things that need sorting out - that goes with the territory - but when the singers expose their souls in song, they need to be able to trust you to respect their efforts. As Sally McLean put it rather more succinctly: don't be grumpy.

(You may also sometimes be tempted to evince irritation or impatience about non-musical behaviours that are causing problems, such as, to take an example at random, punctuality. My instinct is that whilst a negative emotional response to this kind of issue is probably less inherently damaging than it is to singing, it is usually possible and always preferable to deal with them in a more rational adult-to-adult mode.)

So, some practical thoughts on things we can do to facilitate a psychologically safe environment:

  • Take care with rehearsal vocabulary. Specify what the choir has done well, and phrase instructions in terms of what to do next, rather than what was wrong.
  • Think - and talk - in terms of 'us' rather than 'them'. This helps you feel more like part of the team, and encourages you to take responsibility in your heart for the shortcomings you hear rather than blaming the choir for their imperfections.
  • Encourage a sense of play. Reward daring, even (especially) when it fails. Mistakes are part of the process, and need to be made with delight. (I spend a lot of my life telling people that if they can do everything I ask first time, that means I am pitching the tasks at too low a level for them.)
  • Smile with your singers frequently. Let them know you feel joy to make music with them.

How can you tell if your choir are scared of you? Look at their eyes. Avoidance of eye contact is one clue; they will probably be watching you warily when you're not looking at them, though. Do they fill the rehearsal room from the back? That tells you something is off with the emotional equilibrium. And how do they sound? Singing perpetually slightly behind the beat and with less resonance than you'd expect for a choir of that size is another clue.

But also: how are you feeling? If you are feeling the love, things are probably fine. If you are feeling frustrated with your choir, then some attention to their safety needs will do a lot to help you feel better too.

(Also see: How to Prevent Your Choir from Singing Well.)

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