On Recordings, Post-COVID Vulnerability, and Overcoming the Fear of Being Heard

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This is a long title, and it’s going to be a longer than usual post. But I felt it all belonged together rather than being chunked up, as all the different elements are related to each other. It’s partly about coping with human beings, and partly about the nitty-gritty of learning activities, but as we experience the two things simultaneously it seemed best to consider them together.

Conversations with a number of chorus directors at LABBS Harmony College revealed a pattern of common experiences of chorus members having unexpectedly strong negative reactions to things that in the past might have seemed perfectly routine. These often revolved around being asked to record themselves to check on their note-accuracy, and part of this post will be about managing that specific issue.

But the cause of the reactions lies, I suspect, rather deeper. The responses were very visceral, and expressed in strong language (‘triggered’, ‘bullied’), and often involved not just non-compliance with expectations, but personal attacks on the people setting the expectations. It was these musical leaders I heard about it from, and they were feeling both baffled and fragile, being most unaccustomed to dealing with this level of conflict within what is normally a harmonious activity.

The fact that these experiences are new leads me to hypothesise that they are part of what we came over the weekend to call ‘post-COVID scar tissue’. We appear to have recovered from the immediate damage to our choirs caused by the pandemic, but it has left us changed in ways we are still discovering and learning to cope with.

So, the first thing that struck me about these tales is that these responses appear wildly disproportionate to their ostensible cause. This violence of emotion thus looks like a defence response to a perceived threat to a fundamental need. Dealing with them rationally (as is the default mode of negotiating around differences in adult social groups) isn’t working because they are driven by a pre-rational panic rather than a reasoned objection. Something about being asked to record themselves is making these people feel desperately unsafe.

What is different now to make this a line in the sand to fight over, when it has been a standard practice in the barbershop world since cassettes became widely affordable? I can’t help wondering if this is part of the legacy of the Zoom years, when a lot of people’s experience of singing involved singing along with recordings, and never themselves being heard. Back in chorus, you can recreate that sense of anonymity within the bath of the sound around you, so it’s not until people are asked for individual recordings that it becomes apparent that they seem to have developed a deep fear of being heard.

So, part of the solution is to find ways to make being heard feel safe again. I would suggest starting with things that don’t involve recording at all, with activities such as the following:

  • In pairs, each sing a song to each other (from repertoire, or just something you know and like). Enjoy the blessing of being sung to, and tell each other about the things that are lovely in each other’s performances
  • In pairs within the same part, take it in turns to sing through a song you are currently learning to check your memory. Only refer to the sheet music if you find you disagree about how it goes and need to work out who’s right!
  • Have musical leaders do individual voice coaching with chorus members. I like to do this with two people at a time so they can hear the difference it makes when your technique is adjusted, and gives people time to digest ideas as they take turns.
  • In threes, have two people sing together, and the third listen and give feedback. Having a mix of parts is ideal, but you’ll probably also have to double up in some groups

The point about all these is that the activity is essentially private. It doesn’t feel so much like a ‘solo’ when there are only two of you there. And most of them involve reciprocity, each person is exposed to the same extent. The only one that makes a distinction between musical leaders and others is the one that is explicitly about teaching, not testing. Singing as an individual thus becomes a way to create bonds with other singers, not to isolate you from them. Clear feedback protocols that are about giving compliments are also helpful here: mostly people are supportive to each other anyway, but it helps to be clear when you want people to give advice and when you just want them to affirm the beauty that’s already there.

Then, when you start recording, in the first instance treat it as a development tool, not an assessment tool. Most people find it difficult listening to themselves, so you need people to get used to that and get beyond the initial self-consciousness. So you might introduce it in stages such as this:

  • Do a run-through of a song with everyone recording themselves, for their own ears only. You might in the first instance do this without anything beyond a request that everyone listens to it to see how they got on. If people express dislike at listening to themselves, this is a good moment to give the advice that they should pretend it’s someone else and bring the kindness to the task they would for another person.
  • Then introduce a little more accountability, by asking everyone to list three things they did well, and three things they can improve, and to send their comments to their section leaders. And the section leaders send theirs to the MD. The point here is partly to check that people are actually doing the task, but more importantly to find how they are getting on. This give you great information about people’s listening skills and understanding as well as the specifics about the song.
  • When people are used to doing this, ask them to swap with someone else within the section and give the same structure of feedback. Again, send the feedback to section leaders.

Again, this keeps things private and reciprocal, to frame it as mutual support rather than judgement. And you have to do it a bunch of times to work through the various stages, so it becomes part of your regular learning activities, associated with any and all songs in your repertoire, not just those for special occasion performances such as contests.

And a key detail that I have enacted with my own chorus having been thinking about this post is for the conductor also to be videoed and do the same tasks as the singers – in my case I shared my notes with the whole chorus, to complete the circle. If you’re asking people to do something that might make them feel vulnerable, it helps if you also do it yourself. (Also, it was something I know I should do more often, and integrating it with a whole-chorus activity made it easier for me to get round to. I too have to get over the self-consciousness.)

If you then want to go on to use this as an assessment tool, you need to leave all the development elements in place, so people continue to get the value from it that they have from using it as a purely educational tool. I would suggest:

  • Rather than Pass/Fail, make the outcomes Pass/Re-do. You don’t want to exclude people from performances, you want to identify the help they need to bring the performances up to the best standard possible.
  • Give feedback on what’s good and what to improve whether the outcome is Pass or Re-do. A Pass grade does not mean you need to stop improving, a Re-do grade does not mean you’re not already doing a lot of good stuff

So that’s all the nitty-gritty stuff. You may not do it exactly like that, but it’s thinking through the process of what people need to experience to turn what is currently appearing like a horrifying thing that’s making them freak out into a rewarding part of chorus life that embodies the sense of mutual support and commitment to skill development that we want people to get from their singing.

Because often when people have strong anxiety or anger responses, it’s not fundamentally about the thing that is the ostensible cause, that was just the proximate event that sparked the response. The anxiety and/or anger was there already, and something about a particular thing – in this case recording yourself to check note-accuracy – brought it to the surface. To use a metaphor my brother used for this: the lava is there already, but breaks through where there’s a weakness in the earth’s crust.

So the solutions need to address the specific thing, but they will only work if they also address the underlying fear. And it may be that there are also other things you can do to help the latter. Two quotes from Kim Newcomb’s Keynote address at Harmony College come to mind:

People need to know they matter as people, not just for what they can do

It is your actions that show you care.

The latter is why your rehearsal activities need to be vehicles for connection and support, offering the chance for people to bond and look out for each other, and also why anything you can do to reduce the power gradient between your musical leaders and everyone else will help.

But it is the former that is I think the key to this. Assessment is a useful part of a structured learning environment, but if people perceive it as Pass/Fail on their right to belong to their cherished community, perhaps it is not surprising if they react with violent emotion. The underlying fear of not being good enough that so many people live with is compounded by an implicit threat of exclusion.

Now, I know that no musical leaders intend this to be the message. But what you say and what people hear is not always the same thing – as I reflected on right back in the early years of this blog (when I used to write short, pithy posts, ahem). We can’t control what people think or feel, but we can structure experiences so as reassure people and help them feel safe.

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