Sunday, April 05, 2009

Getting the best out of your choir 2: not too gentle, not too tough

In this post I’m going to look at two extreme kinds of choir leader, the mouse (unassuming, easily frightened, under-confident, feels small and insignificant) and the martinet who we met last week (loud, strict, stickler for perfection, dictator). I’m going to suggest that neither of these extremes is best for the choir, but there is the middle way of being the moderate.

Why are there different kinds of choir leaders? What turns ordinary people into the extremes of mouse or martinet? Even if we don’t think of ourselves as mice or martinets, we all occasionally drop into such extreme behaviour even if only for a moment. So it’s maybe worth giving some thought to where this behaviour might come from.

Here are a few things which might give an insight into a particular choir leader’s style. Not an exhaustive list by any means, and I’d love to hear from you if you have any other possibilities.

the martinet

control freak
Needs to be in charge of everything. The idea of uncertainty and disorder is a frightening one. People like this can be a little anal and will usually ask for complete accuracy of notes with no room for any variation. Will often use written scores slavishly.

not enough trust
Related to the above, due to their need to be in control, they take it upon themselves to be solely responsible for the music that the choir makes. They don’t see it as a team effort. If everything goes right they take the glory (see ‘look at me!’ below), but if it goes wrong it’s the choir’s fault because they didn’t obey the leader.

fear of failure: needing to get it right
This is more about other people’s perception. For whatever reason, the person is afraid of failing, or appearing to be a failure in any respect. These people don’t take risks, are averse to improvisation, come down like a ton of bricks on any mistakes, and insist on everything being perfect all the time.

look at me!
This is the choir leader as massive ego on legs. They are not really interested in the individual human beings that make up the choir, the singers are simply there to obey their leader and deliver the goods so the leader may be praised. Such leaders tend to over-conduct, like to be seen to be working hard, take the focus off the choir, indulge in pyrotechnic musical displays.

no self-confidence
Some martinets use their behaviour to mask their deep-seated insecurities. They may not have conducted much, or lack musical training, or not have worked with such a large choir, or just generally feel out of their depth. Instead of sharing this with the choir, they cover it up with appearing to be a strict disciplinarian hoping that nobody will notice.

not good with people
Some choir leaders are more interested in the music and can be a little bit ‘geeky’ in that way. They are not socially adept and would much rather be working with instruments who don’t talk back or have bad days. Because they lack social skills, they don’t know how to deal appropriately with choir members’ own insecurities, misunderstandings, and basic humanity. They will insist on over-long rehearsals and ridiculously high standards then not understand why people complain!

over-trained musically
Similar to the previous point, some choir directors are almost totally academic and are just out to realise the dots on the page. They have no understanding of the processes involved in working with human beings and translating dots into real, live music. They use inappropriate jargon when dealing with the choir without realising that most people have no idea what they’re talking about.

the mouse

lack of experience
Some choir leaders simply have little experience of leading a choir. They have no idea how rehearsals work, they don’t know the best way to bring a song to life, they’ve not conducted before, they’re not used to dealing with such large groups of people. Instead of covering this lack of experience with bluster (as a martinet would), they just crumble and are stunned into inactivity, mumbling, unclear instructions, lack of structure, etc.

out of my depth!
Even if a choir leader has a reasonable amount of experience, there will come a time when they feel that something is beyond them, either a particular piece of music, or an exceptionally big concert programme. They can’t bluff, but become even more mouse-like. They also aren’t able to admit that they’re out of their depth and lack the experience and self-confidence to change things to suit their abilities.

discomfort with leadership role/ dislike of responsibility
Some choir leaders just love music and singing, they may even have been a choir member until recently. They see other choirs and think it’s quite easy to lead a choir. But when they find themselves in that position, they realise that an awful lot of responsibility comes with the job. All eyes are on them and they always need to have all the answers. It’s much harder than they thought! But it’s too late to back out now, so they continue, but mice are not good at leading from the front.

just don’t care enough
A choir leader can end up being a mouse because they just don’t care about the resulting music or the choir members. They go through the motions, maybe the job’s been dumped on them, maybe they’ve been doing it too long and they’re bored. Their standards slip, they’re not clear when instructing the choir, they seldom give feedback.

not really musical – don’t know when it’s bad!
It is possible for someone to find themselves as a choir leader due more to enthusiasm than talent! They might love choirs and singing, but have no musical ability or deep understanding of music. They somehow expect it all to come together by magic with no intervention from them. They make a stab at leading and very quickly produce something that seems OK without realising that it’s dreadfully out of tune or the timing is wrong or they’ve taught the wrong part. They just don’t realise!

need to be liked
This is the correlate to the martinet’s “look at me!” desire. It’s not as much an ego thing, but more wanting to be liked and loved by every member of the choir (probably due to deep-seated lack of self-esteem). This means that they want to please everyone all the time. This is impossible in a choir! They will end up sending out mixed messages, and each time you come back to a song, they will approach it differently. They will confuse the choir because they are not giving them clear instructions.

fear of failure: scared of getting it wrong
Like the martinet, the mouse is frightened of failure. Their idea of hell is to be humiliated in front of the choir and an entire audience. If anything goes wrong, they will take it on as their individual responsibility. One way of avoiding this is to never actually finish a song. To have long, waffly rehearsals that don’t really go anywhere. To never commit to a clear idea of how a song should be done. To always avoid making strong choices about how to rehearse or perform a song in case their the wrong choices.

I had a dream

The other night I had a dream. I was trying to rehearse a very large choir made up of members from many choirs and groups that I have worked with over the years. They weren’t paying attention, but were generally milling around and chatting, being very relaxed and informal, not caring about the songs we were trying to rehearse. I was getting very frustrated and ended up shouting and swearing at them. In the end I just stormed outside and left them. I was standing outside leaning on a railing feeling pretty awful, when one of the choir members came out to find out how I was. She said: “That was a big shock! We hadn’t realised how you felt and the you really meant what you said.”

When I woke I had an uncomfortable thought: maybe this is the way I really feel and when I lead a choir I’m suppressing my real feelings. Perhaps I really want to shout and scream at people and all this patience is just a front. But that is definitely not the case. When I’m teaching or leading a choir, I feel calm and clear and enjoy being patient and taking time for a song to evolve. I don’t see any point in shouting, and don’t (well, hardly ever!) feel that I need to get angry or cross. Yes, I’m a dictator (I don’t believe that you can create art by committee, there needs to be one person with a vision in charge), but a totally benign dictator.

What kind of choir leader are you? If you’re a singer in a choir, what kind of leader is your choir leader? And how does it affect the end product?

Next week in Getting the best out of your choir 3 I will look at the characteristics that I believe make for a good, moderate choir leader who can bring the best out of a choir.



Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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