Motivating Singers

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Earlier this week I received an email with the above subject line from the director of a small early music vocal ensemble. He has been grappling with the challenge of getting his singers to learn music in their own time to make the most of scarce rehearsal time – and grappling also with the personal tensions that result when not all of his singers cooperate. I’ll quote an extract from his email, as his account of his experience will resonate in the heart of anyone who has found themselves leading a group:

During the time that rehearsals were ongoing, I was never sure what to do about the singers who would not learn their music. I didn't feel I could reprimand them, because we were all students of about equal experience and, while mine was the responsibility to choose the repertoire for the year and to lead the rehearsals, I did not have any authority over them. I could not replace (or threaten to replace) any of the singers, as I did not have any other equally capable singers wanting to join the group. The only motivating tool I had was the music itself, which I cared deeply about and wanted to sing well. Whatever way I had been communicating to the group, my enthusiasm had rubbed off on some singers but not all.

I was just wondering if you have written anything about this, if it's something you have experienced, and if you have any strategies for dealing with it?

The heart of the matter here is the relationship between power and responsibility. My correspondent feels the weight of responsibility on his shoulders, but doesn’t feel empowered to fulfil the tasks he has taken on because of the essential equality of status within the group.

Now it’s easy to think that this is an issue that particularly faces student-led ensembles, but in fact it only seems so because that’s where we generally first encounter it. Thirty years later, you will face the same structural issue as a fifty-year-old directing a choir of middle-aged adults: there is still an essential equality between the human beings involved. Age does not confer any natural authority. (Living longer does give more opportunities to gather experience from which to draw confidence of course, but that’s a function of what you do with those opportunities, not a consequence of ageing per se.)

Rather, the source of one’s authority as a director comes from the consent of the group to be directed. The authority comes with the job title, and you will get to keep the job for as long as the members feel you are taking them in a direction they want to go. So if you have accepted the responsibility to lead the ensemble, you have necessarily also been handed the authority to do so. I think it’s worth articulating that explicitly, since directors can find believing in our own capacity and entitlement to lead much harder than our singers find putting the group in our hands.

Of course, there is still the question about how to wield that power – which comes down to the question about strategies. The instinct to avoid reprimand is a good one, I tend to think – autocracy is rather out of fashion, and in case could prove a musically counter-productive approach in a chamber group where the individual interactions are so important. But we do need to accept in our hearts that – whatever lengths we go to avoid it – the ultimate sanction of deciding who’s in and who’s out is one available to use. If we decide we can never sack someone, however little they are contributing, then the people we want to work with will eventually wander off to start their own group.

So, how to deal with the folk who aren’t learning their music? I think you need to tackle them individually. A general approach is great for setting ethos and values – such as passion for the music, as here – but where it’s not working, you need to investigate to find out why.

Is it that they struggle to make musical sense of things by themselves, and so tend to put off the work because they find it hard and unrewarding? Is it because they’re just not very good at organising themselves and never get round to it? Is it because they’ve taken on too many other commitments, and are putting this one down at the bottom of their priorities? Have they simply not noticed that other people are doing the work and so don’t realise how they’re holding the group back?

Depending on what their individual situation is, there could be quite different ways to solve the problem of how to get them participating fully. But in all cases, you’ll need to spell out the fact that their current way of working is causing a problem. They need to know that other people in the group are finding it frustrating, and they also need to understand how much more rewarding they will find rehearsals if they do their own preparation. (They have possibly never experienced the flow and effectiveness of that kind of rehearsal.)

And then it’s a matter of working with them to help them find ways to solve their individual issues. If they struggle to do this kind of work by themselves, can you enlist the help of other singers? If they have problems with personal organisation, can you help them develop strategies to integrate structured practice into their lives? It may take quite a lot of personal investment of time and attention from the director to get this to happen, but that is a sure-fire way of letting people know that this really is important and you really do care about it – and that you care about them too.

It’s scary to do this of course, because there is the risk that the problem they cite is actually something about the way you’re directing. Ouch. But, if that’s the case, you need to hear it – and accepting criticism gracefully is a good basis to build goodwill. Indeed, if you both emerge from the conversation with personal development programmes that you can support each other in, that’s a great result (and uses the power of persuasion by reciprocity).

Okay, I’ve gone on at some length here, and still feel like I’m scratching the surface of the question – but if it was an easy question, we wouldn’t all be struggling with it in our own ways! Two final thoughts that I learned from wise friends:

  • You have to meet people where they are. Whatever you think they should be able to do, or should feel, or what attitudes and values you think they should hold, is irrelevant. You have to start from what they can currently do/feel/believe and work from there to where you want to get them.
  • You can’t change somebody else’s behaviour. All you can do is create an environment in which they decide to change their own.

Just wanted to let you know that your 'persuasion by reciprocity' link appears to be broken.

Thanks for pointing that out, Laura - all fixed now!

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