Soapbox: The Mute Button and the Abuse of Power

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soapboxOne of the standard bits of etiquette in remote rehearsing, and indeed any other large-group gathering via video-conferencing platforms, is that you spend most of the time with most people’s microphones turned off. This way you can cough without the focus of the conversation highlighting your discomfort, and nobody else is distracted by the dogs barking from your next-door neighbour’s garden.

All good so far. But I have nonetheless felt uncomfortable when choral colleagues joke about how they wish they could have a ‘mute all’ button when they go back to normal rehearsals. Call me humourless, but aren’t you just saying by this that you run inefficient rehearsals that leave dead space for nattering? Or is it that you like to exert your leadership by fiat, rather than by consent? Either way, cutting across people to shut them up feels rude; if you wouldn’t go and stick a piece of masking tape over someone’s mouth mid-sentence in real life, then you wouldn’t want to slam on a 'mute all' button online.

(The trick, by the way, to developing a culture where people don’t natter mid-rehearsal is to keep them singing. Short instructions delivered immediately the music stops and straight in back keeps people on task and stops them distracting each other. Also, people who come to choirs like singing, so they don’t mind not nattering while they do so.)

I’d probably have stayed privately grumpy about this rather than dedicating a blog post to it, had I not seen someone remark in a discussion about the necessity for muting, ‘And make sure they can’t un-mute themselves!’

This struck me as not only incredibly controlling, but expressing a lack of trust in the singers. People who don’t interrupt unnecessarily face-to-face will carry their good manners over into remote rehearsals. I say this both from a general belief in people's goodwill and from direct experience. People enjoy a coherent experience and readily collaborate to make it happen.

And sometimes interruptions are necessary. In the worst-case scenario, if someone is taken ill during a rehearsal, we need to know, and to get help for them if needed. In a Zoom session it’s rather harder than in real life for the director to see how everyone is getting on (especially in bigger groups that go over more than one screen), but conversely the singers have a better view of each other than usual and may spot if someone looks in difficulty. We didn’t collect emergency contact details imagining we’d need to call a family member in from the garden when they’d gone out there to leave Dad to his singing, but we have the wherewithal to do this and if needed it rightly takes priority over whatever the director was doing.

In more normal circumstances, people still may need to ask questions. I have already noted that instructions are more likely to get lost in the wash in this medium because the social cues people use to catch up when they missed something are so much more attenuated. Of course you don’t want people constantly interrupting with distractions, but again if you’ve established an appropriate culture of how to ask questions in your regular rehearsals, this will carry across. In either place, ‘I’m sorry, what song are we doing?’ is a question on the critical path to effective musicking.

For sure, people sometimes unmute themselves by accident and need sorting out, but people get better at managing this with practice, and making a few mistakes in the early stages is the cost of acquiring any new skill. So a bit of patience while people find their way round the technology is in order – in much the same way that the singers are exercising patience while their director adapts to the new format.

It is an occupational hazard for conductors to concentrate power in our hands; to a significant extent we need to in order to be able to lead choirs effectively. But it is all too easy to abuse that power, and exert more control than is necessary to do our jobs. Leaving people access to their own voices seems to me a minimum level of autonomy a director should allow the people in their care.

We would all like to think that our choir’s rehearsal discipline is generated by the mutual respect of the members rather than the brute force of technology, but unless you give people the opportunity to exercise that discipline, you’ll never know.

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