Sunday, April 22, 2007

Vive la différence!

I currently run three singing groups: Minor Chords (12 women); WorldSong (around 60 singers, of whom about a dozen are men); and Woven Chords (over 80 singers with only around nine basses!). I therefore have to think quite carefully when choosing which songs to do with which group. It’s great to be able to do big, lush arrangements with the 80-piece choir, but it’s just as wonderful to be able to do more subtle, quieter material with just 12 voices or less.

This is made very difficult however when I run a one-day singing workshop as I usually have no idea how many people will turn up, nor what the male/ female mix will be. I usually assume that we won’t have many blokes, so always adapt the “tenor” line so women can sing it. However, at one workshop a couple of years ago about half the group (20 or so) turned out to be men! I had some quick re-arranging to do.

What I have found really surprising though is the difference in “flavour” of the community choirs I have run. When I used to lead Global Harmony in Melton Mowbray, I then had three mixed community choirs of roughly the same size and composition. They were all founded on the same principles (i.e. that anyone can join regardless of experience), covered the same sort of repertoire, and met for the same amount of time each week. And yet each choir had its own distinct “personality” and dynamics. Some songs would work really well with one choir, but not with another. One choir might be able to cope with a tricky rhythm or harmony, yet another choir (which perhaps had been going for longer) would find it just too difficult. Over time I started to realise which songs would appeal to which choir. So when I am sourcing material, it is usually quite obvious which choir I will teach a particular song to – regardless of mix of voices or size, just because that choir will appreciate it and enjoy it more. Some songs which have just not worked with one choir, will come alive with another.

Why is this? How come two groups of adults formed in exactly the same way can end up having such a different group personality? The only difference being the geographical location! The gender and age mix of each choir is very similar; the tastes of the singers is similar (i.e. they’re all attracted to the kind of repertoire that I offer); everyone enjoys the way that I teach and is now very much used to it; there is the same mix of members who have been with the choir for some time together with people who have joined this term. So why the difference?

Can the demographic of a town account for such a different group dynamic? Or is it that a very small group of individuals can have a big effect on a large group?

I remember once doing a theatre show which was very funny (all audiences so far had laughed a lot each time we’d performed the show), yet one night we got hardly a titter. There must have been about 40 people in the (capacity) audience (it was a very small venue!), yet hardly any audible laughs. When we talked to some friends about it afterwards, they said that although they had found it very funny, they had felt that the atmosphere in the room somehow meant that they couldn’t laugh out loud. Similarly, when we played to around 120 people at our Stamford Christmas concert last year, we walked on stage to complete silence! Not a single person clapped. It was as if they had all discussed it beforehand and come to an agreement.

I find group dynamics endlessly fascinating. It may be that when I tried to blame it on the weather in last week’s post, it was simply the group dynamic having a strong effect on one particular evening. I wonder how many individuals it takes to affect a large group? Can one person influence a whole choir or does it need a small group?

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