Sunday, September 13, 2009

How to tell if your choir leader is rubbish

A while back I attended a singing workshop and hated the way it was run. Was it just me, or was the workshop leader no good?

We all have different learning styles, so perhaps the leader’s teaching style just didn’t suit me. Or maybe there was some kind of personality clash – I simply didn’t like him as a person. How can you tell if it’s you or them? How can you know if your choir or singing workshop leader is any good at their job?

does the end justify the means?

One way of evaluating a teacher or choral director is if they get results. If we end up learning a song or performing an amazing concert, then we might say that a good job has been done. But does the end always justify the means? If you’ve had a really bad time and have been shouted at and belittled, then you might not think the job has been done well. If the group of singers you’re with is quite accomplished, you might end up with a good result despite the person who’s been leading you. So maybe judging the end result is not enough.

a good time was had by all!

Another way to assess a leader is if the whole experience has been pleasurable and rewarding. Surely if you’ve had a great time at a workshop or got a fantastic buzz from a concert, then you must have been lead well? But what if the music you’ve made is not really up to scratch? You might have had a good time, but the audience thought it was a lousy concert (see How was it for you?). You might have had a really fun day at the workshop, but have only learnt one song, and not a very difficult one at that. Was that money well spent? The danger of this approach to assessment, is that one person’s good time is another’s nightmare. This is where personality, taste, sensitivity, venue, personal life story, etc. come into play. “Having a good time” is too subjective an idea to use on its own.

growing and learning

Yet another means of appraising a choir or workshop leader is to reflect on whether you feel that you’ve learnt anything, or have grown in some way through the experience. This needs a certain amount of self-awareness. Some people lack this and simply won’t notice that they’re becoming better singers as time goes by! Others, who have a finely developed awareness, will almost certainly learn something from every experience, even bad ones. These people will learn despite the quality of the teaching. So assessing the learning outcome is not enough either.

there are no absolutes

The conclusion I have come to is that it is impossible to evaluate objectively whether a singing workshop leader or choral director is any good. Teaching styles, personality, choice of repertoire, gender, context, goals, are some of the many variables to take into account. Which implies that out there somewhere is a leader who will suit you perfectly, but not necessarily your friend.

good and bad

Good choir leading and song teaching – as with beauty – is in the eye of the beholder. A good choir leader for one singer might be a nightmare experience for another. A life-changing singing workshop for one singer might be a lame, simplistic waste of time for another more experienced singer. A teacher/ leader has to suit the singers they’re working with. Which is why people choose different choirs and different workshops.

Really bad leading and bad teaching will usually be found out. If someone is that bad at what they do, then nobody will get anything out of it. People will stop going to their workshops and stop joining their choirs.

getting away with it

For me, the worst things are mediocre or abusive leaders. Singers get used to a lacklustre or an angry approach. They start to believe that that is the only way of doing things. They get used to the leader’s style and find it hard to adapt to other approaches.

Some people actually enjoy being shouted at and believe that this somehow represents “hard work” and a “serious, disciplined approach”. Others like the safety and comfort of a lame leader – they don’t like to be stretched, challenged or threatened.

do no harm

As long as a choir or singing workshop leader is doing no obvious damage (to throats, to confidence, to music, to enthusiasm), then let them carry on. Just be sure to choose one that suits you, but don’t get complacent: use a certain amount of self-reflection (am I getting the most out of singing that I can?), and try out different experiences regularly (new workshops, choirs with different repertoire, challenging master classes). There is the right leader out there for you. If you’re not getting what you need or want from your current leader, then go and find a new one!

qualities of a good choir leader

If you’ve had experience of bad choir leadership, you may be interested in what I consider to be the six qualities that any good choral director needs.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


Get more posts like this delivered straight to your inbox!

Click to subscribe by email.


found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may like to ...

... to say thank you.





Monthly Music Round-up: