Sunday, October 25, 2009

What the job of choir leader involves

Last week I wrote about who your choir actually 'belongs' to (Whose choir is it any way?). Does it belong to the singers, the committee, the arts centre, or the musical  director?


Of course, there are as many answers to this question as there are choirs. But all choirs have a leader (choral director, conductor, musical director — whatever you want to call her), and that leader has a certain minimum number of roles and responsibilities.

What might these be, and how can you make sure you are doing your job as well as you can?

no, no, no ... I'M the boss!

Many choir leaders think they are the boss. They rule with a rod of iron and are totally in charge. Nobody else gets a look-in. It's their choir and they will do with it what they choose (see Getting the best out of your choir 1: moderate or martinet?).

I don’t think this is the best kind of choir leader!

A choir leader certainly needs to be seen as ‘being in charge’, but they also need to take the needs of the choir into consideration, and not just their own needs (for glory, for ego, for adulation).

the benign dictator

I don't believe in 'art by committee'. Where artistic decisions need to be made, it's best left up to one person. Democracy and art don't go together but usually ends in an awful fudge that no one person really believes in.

It's best to leave all major artistic decisions to your musical director. You need to trust they know what they’re doing and that they have the best interests of the choir at heart. By joining a choir, you are basically buying into the choir leader’s 'vision'. If their approach doesn’t suit you, then you need to find another choir.

As with art gallery curators, maybe it’s a good idea to change choral directors every few years. Letting one person’s vision prevail for too long can give rise to a single, limited view of what a choir does or what they are capable of. Maybe choirs should arrange to swap leaders every now and then!

A good choir leader dictates repertoire, style (visual, vocal, etc.), rehearsal technique, approach to performance, commitment needed, standards, and so on. The singers’ belief in the leader and his approach leads to a sense of community, belonging and hopefully, great achievements.

This sort of dictatorship is benign because it needs to be inclusive, kind, supportive, fun, gentle (but firm!), and human, albeit with a clear over-arching artistic vision and ambition.

where to draw the line

The choral director is responsible for all artistic decisions, but the dividing line between what is artistic and what isn’t is a blurry one. Where do we draw the line?

For example, you can argue that accepting an offer to perform is an artistic decision and should be left to the choir leader. But another argument could be made on financial grounds alone, or simply whether any singers are available on a particular date.

If the choir leader has the benefit of administrative support from within the choir, such as a committee, you need to agree on what responsibilities are purely artistic and should be left to the musical director. As is often the case, there will be some decisions that are neither entirely artistic, nor completely administrative. That’s when discussion and compromise comes into play.

it's lonely at the top

The basic leading of weekly choir sessions (warm up, song teaching, conducting and refining songs, etc.) is entirely up to the leader of the choir. That's quite a lot of responsibility for one person and it can be a lonely place.

You know those dreams where you're standing in front of thousands of eager, expectant people waiting to be told what to do, only you don't have a single idea in your head? Well, that's what it's like sometimes standing out in front of the choir. You're on your own and expected to have all the answers.

The best choral director is someone who owns up to being human. Who makes mistakes and is the first to admit that they don't know everything. You still need to be in charge though, and can't open the decision-making process open to the floor!

Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it, especially with the ‘boring’ side of things such as money, room hire, photocopying, etc. You can get a glimpse of what it’s like to be a one-man band here: The job of being a choir leader. After reading that, you may want to ask yourself: Can I do it alone, or will I need help? (section 4 of How to start your own community choir 2 — Forward planning).

your M.D. may know the 'how', but not the 'what'

Being a choir leader is a bit like being a theatre director (a previous occupation of mine). I used to say that both jobs are rather like taking a bunch of (willing!) people on an expedition.

The leader knows all about maps, compasses, living off the land, the best places to camp, how to fend off wild animals, where to find water, etc. etc. They have all the skills and expertise to guide people safely on a journey and know what to do when they get lost. BUT they can't say where that journey will end up.

You will definitely have a good time on the journey, you will stumble across the unexpected, you will discover new things, you will get a little lost maybe, you might end up re-tracing your steps for a while. But you will end up safely, in one piece at the place you where meant to end up — it just might not be where you thought it would be!

You place all your trust in your leader and get on board.

you can't please all the people all the time

One problem that many new choir leaders face is when one or two singers just don’t like what you’re doing.

When I was first starting out, I was always a little nervous of running the warm ups: would they enjoy it? was it too long? would they understand the exercises? There were two particular women who sat in the front row and who always gave a big sigh and raised eyebrows when they stood up to do the warm up. It was clear they were doing it on sufferance and thought it was a waste of time.

I used to take this to heart and spent a lot of time trying to change my warm ups so that they would enjoy it. It didn’t work. Eventually I realised that they would complain whatever I did. They just liked complaining!

Ten years later they were still in the choir, came every week and pretty much performed in every concert. They loved it!

I have an allergy against those neat choirs who stand in rows and all wear exactly the same costume. In my opinion, it’s like having a choir of clones with no personality. It’s a way of evening out all the idiosyncrasies of each individual and removing the humanity from the occasion.

One member of my choir would always come up to me at the end of each term and try to persuade me that what the choir needed in order to be even more wonderful in performance was a choir t-shirt that everyone could wear so that we would all look the same. It really offended her that we each wore different clothes for a concert (although we have a clear colour code).

Every time I would say “No” and put on my best benign dictator smile. She stayed in the choir for many, many years and really enjoyed our concerts.

You certainly can’t please everyone all the time. You may not even take everyone with you on the journey and will lose some singers by the wayside. Don’t take it personally. Most people with stick with you if you have a clear vision, and just whinge every now and then because that’s human nature. Also, people don’t like change!

don’t focus on the negative

Fragile, under-confident people that we are, we can easily be shaken by a negative or critical reaction, even if it’s a minority views.

That one person in the back row of a concert who looks bored; the singer who never joins in with the warm ups; the audience member who asks for more upbeat songs; the tenor who rolls their eyes every time we sing that Georgian song.

These reactions play into our own fears and insecurities. We stop noticing all the positive things around us and only see the critical bits.

There will always be people who don’t like what you do, but they are in the minority. Ignore them! Focus on the happy smiling faces of your choir members and the loud applause at the end of each concert. You’re doing OK —keep up the good work!

qualities that make for a good choir leader

Next week I’ll look at the six qualities that I consider any good choir leader needs to be any good at their job.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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