Maslow for Choirs: Self-Actualisation

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selfactualisationFinal post in a series that starts here

Self-actualisation is the 'bingo!' of human experience. It's it is when we are feeling most fully ourselves, immersed in meaningful activity that makes a positive contribution to the universe and not only draws on what we are best at, but helps us get even better at it. It's living in that sweet spot where pleasure, challenge and meaning come together.

As such, I confess, it is the type of human need I have been most nervous about writing about. What if I write a fatuous post? I have been wondering; what if I find nothing to say that isn't self-evident and gushing?

Because it is something of a responsibility to feel that other people's peak experiences are in your hands. As choir directors, we mostly deal with this responsibility by not thinking about it too hard and getting on with planning the detail. But every so often, we need to think about this stuff to check that we're fulfilling our obligations to those whose experiences are in our hands.

I think part of what make this hard to think about is that when it works, we lose consciousness of ourselves. So you can't very well bring any kind of reflective self-awareness about your level of actualisation in real time without bumping yourself out of the state you are aiming for. You do your best - and thus most rewarding - work when you are thinking about the work, not about yourself.

But this in turn gives us our clue as to how to help our singers have this wonderful experience, if not every time we make music together, at least often enough that they trust choir to put them in that place. And it turns out to be quite a simple process:

  1. Attend to all their other needs
  2. Add purpose

Step 1 might look on the face of it like an impossible ask: this series has shed a lot of virtual ink on these already, and asking us to juggle them all at once sounds like an insuperable task. But actually, in real life, we only need to pay attention to the needs of here and now, and this just slots in with our regular diagnostic-solution cycle.

You run through a passage; if it's wonderful, you congratulate the singers and move onto something that needs more work. If (as is more usual when working with human beings) it is only moderately wonderful and you can hear that it might be improved, you work out what needs changing, and change it.

The point of including the hierarchy of needs in this process is that it significantly expands your diagnostic palette. Is it losing pitch because of a problem with technique or musicianship, or is it tiredness or lack of confidence you need to solve? Over time, as you untangle the esteem issues in choir politics and get everyone feeling like they belong and get in the habit of stretching your singers cognitively and aesthetically, you find the obstacles to self-actualisation dissolving and it getting easier and easier to sail up to that level where everyone feels they have exceeded what they thought they could do.

And this also draws our attention that the experience of self-actualisation always comes in relation to a choir's current capacities. You don't have to wait until you are world class to experience it; it can come at any and every step on the journey.

The point about adding purpose is that it gives everyone a goal outside themselves to focus on. The aspirations you choose both draw upon and establish the guiding values of your choir, and define, within your particular part of choral culture, what constitutes success. Fidelity to the composer, emotional connection with an audience, celebration of a religious festival are all causes that a choir can dedicate their efforts towards. What matters is that the purpose is one that everyone can commit to in their hearts, as that is what gives that sense of singing the world into a better state than it was before.

Long-term readers of my blog will be feeling all kinds of resonance here with my posts about charisma. The sense of purpose here is clearly playing the same role as the 'cause' in the generation of charismatic encounters (though not necessarily with the urgency that a crisis will add to that experience). And the sense of transcendence of self is akin to the euphoric experience of communion or flux.

My working hypothesis is that these common elements do indeed mean it is possible to experience a charismatic encounter as self-actualisation (and vice versa), but that the two are not automatically coterminous. Self-actualisation does not necessarily involve the handing over independent judgement that typifies charismatic flux, for instance, nor does it necessarily entail that evangelical streak motivated by the sense of crisis. But I am leaving that open for my future self to disagree with once I've thought about it more...

But one thing that I think the two do have in common is the ring and clarity that come to the voices under both sets of experience. You can tell when a choir is sailing along at the apex of Maslow's chart because their voices sound true: free, resonant, rich and well-tuned.

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