Avoiding the Dangers of Us-and-Themness in Choirs

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singing group cartoonMy last post was about why it is a problem when a choir starts developing factions. Criticism of one sub-group by another is an early-warning indicator that this might be happening - not least because that articulates the fact that the people doing the criticising are thinking of the others as ‘them’. So, our next question is: what can a director to inhibit such tendencies and to counter them should they appear?

Inclusive language

At the risk of stating the obvious, one way to help us-and-them attitudes developing is to avoid using us-and-them vocabulary. If the director is in the habit of referring to their choir as ‘we’ rather than ‘they’, that not only sets a powerful example, but also makes it much harder for other choir members to start using distancing vocabulary. So, next time someone asks you how your choir is getting on instead of saying, ‘They’re doing very well,’ try saying, ‘We’re doing very well’.

See how it makes you feel? It puts you right in the middle of the action instead of at the edge of it. Of course that is a slightly scary position to be, because if something goes wrong with the music, you have to say things like, ‘We’ve come adrift there; let’s try again from bar 73,’ instead of, ‘You’re all singing at different speeds; try again.’ It makes you take responsibility for what’s going on. (But, then, you knew that, as director, everything is your fault anyway, didn’t you?)

But when you do that, any time anyone else wants to point the finger at other people for things going wrong, they find that you are in the group they are pointing at. A director who consistently uses inclusive language can’t be co-opted to other people’s agendas.

Bonding activities

The structure of rehearsal activities can have a significant impact on the nature of social bonds within the group. If people always interact with the same sub-group of the choir, they are more likely to identify more strongly with that group than the ensemble as a whole. Strategies that sub-divide the choir differently facilitate the forging of a much more integrated network of relationships. Section practices have their uses, but so do the following:

  • Divide the choir into semi-choruses, and draw the lines between the two in different places each time you do it
  • Move the stacking/seating around so that people have to listen afresh and learn to blend with a different set of adjacent voices
  • Use exercises that hand round leadership (such as call-and-response musicianship exercises, or getting different people out to listen and give feedback)
  • Systematically develop musical relationships between all combinations of parts through duetting
  • Make sure that everyone has their turn in the limelight. Some choirs do this by recognition of birthdays; Magenta does it through our rota of solos to the group. These are very different kinds of experiences, but they share the quality of making sure that everyone gets the chance to bond with the group as a whole.
  • When you need to rehearse a single part, have everyone else join in; this not only keeps people from getting bored, but gives them a deeper empathy with what people on other parts are doing

Care of esteem needs

When anyone starts to complain or to criticise others, this is a big clue that they have esteem needs that need feeding. They are coping by using their capacity to identify faults as a way to feel important, and they are justifying their behaviour to themselves on the grounds that the faults do need fixing. And indeed they are often right - so as needy people go, they can be quite useful to have about.

(And all people are needy. It goes with the territory if you work with human beings.)

But, as directors, we need to keep an eye on this. If we feed these esteem needs expressed as musical acuity too much, we risk undermining the safety needs of those singers who feel less confident. Having someone on the risers prepared to say that they think the leads are flat is actually less useful for the development of the ensemble than having someone who feels safe enough to ask for help on the bit where they feel uncertain.

So we need to respond to these esteem needs, but not necessarily by accepting their expression in the form of public criticism of others. Equally, if we try to change this behaviour without adequately addressing the esteem needs, the situation can get awkward quite quickly (don’t ask me how I know this).

Partisanship and politics are likely to appear wherever you get groups of human beings doing things together. None of these tactics will stop that. But they will help build a culture in which the overall relationships are strong and healthy enough not to be threatened by the passing conflicts that ebb and flow through the life of the ensemble.

Absolutely agree, Liz. Our chorus (Lace City) has achieved great things since the musical leadership took a much more appreciative approach in and out of rehearsals. Result : a very happy chorus attaining levels of excellence we could only dream of a couple of years ago. We have found Jan Carley's book Harmony on the Inside, Steve Peters' "Chimp Paradox" and Ben Zander's "The Art of Possibility" extremely life changing together with the input from our regular coach, Britt-Heléne Bonnedahl.

That's a good, humane reading list Alyson! All three very good on how to work with people so as to engage their goodwill and desire to do well. And your experience of a happy chorus as one that achieves more is key to the whole enterprise: to make music, you need joy.

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