Sunday, January 18, 2009

Taking care of ourselves as choir and workshop leaders

It’s a dark January evening. It’s cold and raining and we’re snuggled up in the warm eating our supper. But choir starts in half an hour and we have a drive or a walk which will take us to a dark, draughty hall which takes an age to heat up. It’s that time of year when everyone is feeling under the weather and there are lots of colds and sniffles about. We’d much, much rather stay at home and watch telly, but work beckons.

Of course, we are some of the lucky few who actually enjoy our jobs, don’t have to work in an office and are often free to organise our time as we want. It’s one of the best jobs in the world, and when the choir rev up and you are awash with glorious harmonies, your spirits lift, and you’re glad you managed to get out of your comfy chair to brave the cold.

Yet sometimes it can feel like: give, give, give! We might have a few workshops and/ or gigs in a row which all need a lot of preparation. We are beginning to feel like a song factory, churning stuff out at a prodigious rate. We’re trapped in an endless cycle of arrange, plan and deliver. We are tired, run ragged, bereft of new ideas, not sleeping and fighting off innumerable germs picked up in all the different venues that we work in. Although we are not irreplacable, we do have an important role. If we don’t turn up to a session, there’s often nobody else to lead it. If we aren’t there to conduct the concert, it may not go ahead. We sometimes soldier on even when we should be in bed nursing a cold.

Our job is demanding and we need to look after ourselves. Here are some tips to help you keep sane and well.

make time for you

You can make time for your work and prioritise things like cooking and doing the laundry, so why can’t you carve out some time just for you (see also Why we avoid things that make us feel good)? Make a deal with yourself to find some regular time on your own. During this time find pleasurable things to do, just for you:

  • relaxation (this does not include watching TV which is stimulus!);
  • meditation (mindfulness can help with physical and emotional tensions which may arise when working);
  • reading;
  • listening to music (how often do we do that outside work?);
  • taking a long hot bath;
  • treating yourself to a regular massage (go on, it’s worth it!);
  • going for a walk;
  • socialising after choir;

value yourself

Make sure you are adequately rewarded for the work that you do. The time and energy you put in adds up to far more than just that used during a session. A one-day workshop might use up three to four days of your time and physical energy. Factor that in when setting prices and allowing for recovery days.

feed yourself

Instead of giving all the time, make sure you do some receiving. You need to feed your mind and body (see make time for you above). Go on a course or learn a new skill. This doesn’t have to be music, although professional development can feed you also.

Instead of viewing the choir as something that needs feeding all the time, walk in and expect support from the group instead.

you’re not alone

You don’t have to do everything yourself! Don’t accept sole responsibility for everything that happens in a session. Allocate jobs to section leaders. Send parts off to rehearse separately. Set up a committee. Find a friend or buddy who can point out to you when you’re getting a bit too intense or manic in a session. It’s all too easy to get swept up in the moment, but you will feel drained at the end! Find a deputy and take a week off.

Cultivate a peer group network or set of professional buddies who you can meet with or phone on a regular basis to have a good moan, swap war stories, get ideas from.

don’t take it personally!

There is always that one person who gives us a funny look during the warm up, or tuts when we get a note wrong. Suddenly our confidence collapses and we become unduly affected by a single person’s negativity. Think of them as a mirror to an area of weakness that needs development. How can you learn from them? How can you reflect it back to them?

take care of your voice

You don’t have to sing at full volume all the time, even if you’re working with a large group. If you sing quietly, people will be more attentive (see Little voice).

If your voice is tired, try making a croaking noise like an old door opening. It will relax your vocal cords. Be mindful when teaching (see meditation in make time for you above). We often have the tendency to jut our chin forward when teaching!

you are only there to teach songs

Have a buffer between you and the choir, a kind of psychic barrier. You are not responsible for their welfare, their relationships, their problems – you are just there to teach songs!


We do a warm-up at the beginning of a session, but sometimes forget to do a warm-down at the end. This can help the transition back into everyday life. It can bring you down from the high that often comes in a session and help to stop you buzzing so much that you won’t sleep later!



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