Sunday, April 12, 2009

Getting the best out of your choir 3: the moderate choir leader

We first came across ‘the martinet’ in the first post in this series (Getting the best out of your choir 1: moderate or martinet?), and met her opposite number ‘the mouse’ in last week’s post. My contention is that there is a middle way between these two extremes, that the kind of leader to get the best out of a choir is one who is moderate in temper and approach.

Here is my definition of the ideal choir leader. Maybe we’re not all there yet, but it’s certainly something to aspire to!

the moderate

You need someone out front who can keep their calm whilst all around them is chaos and confusion (Calm down dear, it’s only a song!).

There will come a point with every choir when

  • the singers seem to lose all their self-confidence;
  • you tackle a song that seems to be just too hard to deal with;
  • the rehearsal is going so bad that everyone wants to go home and bury their heads in the sand;
  • no matter how hard you try the whole thing sounds just awful;
  • the hideously complicated structure of the song you’re working on is just beyond everyone’s comprehension;
  • the song that you’d perfected last week just falls apart in front of everyone’s eyes;
  • everybody is stumbling over the words of the latest foreign song;
  • despite weeks of hard work, the altos still can’t get their part right;
  • hardly anyone turns up to the final rehearsal before a big concert because there’s a vicious bug going around;
  • the lead soloist fails to turn up for the concert …

You get the picture: if something can go wrong, it will! In these situations it doesn’t help anyone if the choir leader gets stressed out, begins to shout, loses the plot, and generally has a melt-down. You need someone who is steady, takes it all in their stride, fills the choir with the confidence that everything is going to be all right, trusts in the process, and realises that in the grand scheme of things, it’s just a bunch of people singing songs.

fun-loving and playful
Bringing humour into the equation is a fantastic way of helping people relax and lose their inhibitions. A few laughs lets people off the hook and helps them to realise that it’s not the end of the world if they get something wrong.

In concerts, if the choir leader has a good rapport with the audience, they are immediately on your side. If you laugh at any mistakes, then the audience visibly relaxes since you’re not setting yourselves up to be perfection itself. Everybody loves it when they realise that you’re all human and therefore vulnerable.

Having fun and laughter isn’t the same as not being serious about what you do. We can make light of situations without compromising our standards. We still want to strive to be the best that we can and take our job of making music seriously, but approach it in a light-hearted way.

Being playful and child-like, using imagery and storytelling, improvising and trying things differently are all great ways of helping singers learn and to bring out the best. The focus is off the person and the music and onto imagination and risk-taking in a safe environment. Having played with a song in as many ‘wrong’ ways as possible liberates people from over-familiarity and set ways of singing, introduces the idea that there is no ‘right’ way of performing a song, and prepares people for any ‘mistakes’ during a concert which otherwise might throw them.

people person
Any half-way decent choir leader needs to actually like people! It’s not enough to just love music or singing, leading a choir is about working with people, not a bunch of instruments. Sure, it’s fun to have all those voices at your disposal, but behind each one is a unique individual. There will be vulnerabilities, rivalries, misunderstandings, frustrations, jealousies, fear, and so on – all those things that make us human beings. A choir leader has to acknowledge and work with this. You are not dealing with a bunch of robots who can deliver at will.

knows their stuff
Whether or not you use technical jargon or display your musical knowledge freely, you need to know what you’re doing! And if you don’t at any point, you need to be humble enough to admit it to the choir. They need to feel that they are in safe hands and that you know your stuff. Once you have built that confidence, you can take the choir into uncharted areas, but never ever bluff as you will soon be found out!

I like to use the analogy of an explorer. As a choir leader I am taking the choir on a journey. I have all the necessary gear: compass, ropes, warm clothing, maps, etc., together with a great deal of knowledge about navigation, finding trails, dealing with hazards, knowing the terrain, etc. etc. So I am totally equipped to lead people on a journey, but I don’t necessarily know where we will end up! I can guarantee though that we will arrive safely and have lots of fun on the way.

non-judgmental, encouraging and accepting
To get the best out of someone you need to encourage them, to praise them when they get things right or achieve something, but also to accept their limitations, acknowledge that they’re trying their hardest and to not judge them (especially in a community choir).

If you shout at someone, chastise them for making a mistake, sneer at them because they might not be as good as their fellow singers, ask them to do something that is beyond their capabilities, never acknowledge their achievements … then that person will go into their shell and not bother trying hard or taking the risk of getting something wrong. They will stop believing in themselves and will act through fear. This does not make for a good choir!

firm but fair
Being non-judgmental doesn’t mean that you can’t expect high standards. When someone gets something wrong, you can point that out and ask them to do it again. You can set standards and have expectations about a range of things: being on time, choir dress, not talking during rehearsals, learning words off by heart, tuning, etc. But you need to make your expectations clear to everyone and be consistent and fair. It’s not good changing the goal posts every time, especially if you don’t let the choir know! People respect a firm hand if it seen to be fair. Apply any rules you have equally to everyone.

one of the team
You are not the big ‘I am’, you are not the sole reason that the choir sounds good, you are replaceable, you are just one of the team: a vital component of the whole, but not special. You happen to occupy a specific role in the group that is acknowledged by everyone. You may have a particular set of skills and experience, but that doesn’t make you better than everyone else.

You are just one of the team and it is your responsibility – along with everyone else – to make the music as wonderful as possible and for everyone to have as good a time as possible.

focus on the people and the process
This is related to the fact that a good choir leader is very much a people person. To get the best out of your choir you can’t simply focus on the end product or the music alone. You need to acknowledge the individuals who make up the choir and focus more on the process of making music rather than sacrificing everything to the music.

I have talked about this before (We are not here to serve the music) and not every choir leader will agree. But I think that if you are a moderate choir leader with all the attributes that I have outlined above, you will end up making wonderful music, plus have the bonus of a committed group of choir members who work out of love and not fear and who have built a strong sense of community and friendship through their love of singing. A group who come together each week to have a laugh and sing together to make something greater than any particular individual involved.

By following this approach, you can produce great music to a high standard. There are other choirs which are run by martinets who also produce great music, but I know which choir I’d rather be associated with! I truly do not believe that the end justifies the means.


Next week I will be looking at preparing for performance. How come everything was great in rehearsal but it all seemed to fall apart in the concert? I don’t claim to have all the answers by any means and, as always, would love to hear from you and your own experiences.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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