Sunday, March 29, 2009

Getting the best out of your choir 1: moderate or martinet?

This is the first in a series of posts about Getting the best out of your choir. The whole series looks like this:

  1. moderate or martinet
  2. not too gentle, not too tough
  3. the moderate choir leader
  4. preparing for performance PART 1
  5. preparing for performance PART 2
  6. self-reflection

Martinet. Interesting word that I’d not come across in ages and had forgotten what it meant. In case you’re in the same boat, a martinet is a strict disciplinarian, someone who demands exact conformity to rules and forms. Whereas a moderate is person who is reasonable, temperate, judicious, just, cool, steady, and calm.

Which of these two types of person gets the best out of their choir?

I was listening to BBC Radio 4 in the car last week and caught the very end of Ken Clarke’s Jazz Greats. He and Pete Long were discussing clarinettist and bandleader Benny Goodman, and that’s where the word martinet popped up. Clarke said that Goodman insisted on:

“absolute perfection … you had a martinet making them work all the time and rehearse in between each gig”.
Pete Long told a story about Goodman in the 1970s making his band rehearse just their bows for three whole hours!

Obviously how you work with a choir depends on the aims of that particular group. A barbershop choir with a competition coming up will rehearse in a very different way from a choir that doesn’t perform and is just for fun. But I wonder, which kind of choir leader will get the best results out of a choir: a moderate or a martinet?

I’ve written before about my belief that a patient and forgiving approach to choir leading gets the best results (Calm down dear, it’s only a song!). But I do know that this doesn’t suit some choir members. They would prefer constant drilling, attention to detail, rigorous accuracy, focus on a small repertoire of songs, being told when they are ‘wrong’, etc. etc.

I’m sure it’s frustrating for some singers when I say “That’ll do” and we move onto the next song when clearly the first song needs more work. But I try to balance the need for quality, variety, fun and rehearsal by not dwelling to long on any particular song.

In some circumstances (e.g. competition, recording a CD, high profile performance) it is important to pay attention to all the details (tuning, dynamics, blend, etc.) and to rehearse the material well. However, there are very different ways of doing this!

There is the choir leader who becomes quickly frustrated when things don’t go right, who has unreasonable expectations of ‘perfect’ singing, who shouts when the choir aren’t improving quickly enough, who drills one section repeatedly whilst the others are standing around getting bored, who puts the fear of god into the singers in case they should make a tiny mistake. Yes, this is one way of going about things, but I really believe that it won’t create the best results. Also, choirs who are led like this tend to always be working on tenterhooks which is quickly detected by an audience who then also find it hard to relax and enjoy the concert.

Surely it would be better to create an environment of team-work, an atmosphere of calm and focused work where people are pulling together and where mistakes aren’t punished but just recognised as a necessary stage along a path towards a better performance. Surely such a calm, forgiving, reasonable, trusting atmosphere will bring out the best in people?

In the Radio 4 jazz programme I mentioned before, Pete Long also said that:

“Goodman was a martinet, but Jimmie Lunceford was a great teacher”.

Great teachers get good results because they bring out the best in people, they demand high standards but encourage people to believe that those high standards are achievable and within themselves already, they leave the music-makers with skills, self-awareness and understanding that they can apply to other situations rather than blindly drilling one particular piece of music. I would like to think that good choir leaders are also good teachers and that the whole choir moves forward as a team of music-makers who are constantly improving.

At the end of the jazz programme, Clarke says of Goodman:

“But when we listen to the music we can forgive some of the severity with which he treated the odd erring sideman.”
This is a case of the ends justifying the means, but personally I completely disagree. There is no need to be severe and abusive when trying to get the best out of people. It is inexcusable and should not be tolerated!

Next week in Getting the best out of your choir 2 I’m going to look at why there are different kinds of choir leaders and suggest that there is a middle way between mouse and martinet.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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