Monday, January 30, 2017

Should you pander to your choir or just run things your way?

Many choir leaders have a strong style and particular choice of repertoire. They lead large, thriving choirs which have a strong vision.


Other choir leaders involve their members more and ask their opinion on repertoire, warm ups, performances, etc. Is one approach better or more successful than the other?

strong leadership

As many of you know I am a great believer in the “benign dictator” model of choirs. Basically one individual (the choir leader) makes all artistic decisions (see Too many cooks! – benign dictators rule).

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.

The way I look at it is that people sign up to your vision of the choir and that’s what they’re buying into.

It’s rather like representative democracy: we elect a representative who then take decisions on our behalf. If we don’t like those decisions, then we don’t vote for them next time.

If you don’t like what your choir leader is doing then the committee can employ a new one at some point, or you can simply leave and join a choir which suits you better.

referendums don’t work!

If we ask “the people” what they think every time a decision is to be made, it will take forever. Also (as witnessed in the recent Brexit referendum) people often don’t have enough information about complex situations to make informed decisions.

I do occasionally ask choir members their opinion on repertoire, warm ups, concerts, etc. and I get as many different answers as there are choir members (see Why a choir can never be truly democratic).

It is possible to run a smaller ensemble on this basis, I.e. that every member helps make every artistic decision. But with more than, say, 12 singers, this becomes impractical.

I knew of a theatre company once which insisted on unanimous support for every decision. If just one member disagreed, another choice had to be made. Their work was brilliant, but it took ages to make!

choir as a business

There is another view which is that we, as choir leaders, need to bend over backwards to give our choir members what they want. This is the “business model” in which we are trying to keep our “customers” happy and to maximise our revenue (I.e. number of choir members paying subs).

This means that the choir leader devolves responsibility for repertoire, etc. to the members of the choir. it also means that the choir’s identity may shift regularly and the overall vision will change frequently.

In my experience choir members often don’t know what they really want. Many time I’ve been asked to do more songs in English or even pop songs. Then when I’ve introduced them the singers don’t enjoy them as much as the rest of our repertoire (mainly foreign language songs).

There also might be genres of songs that you can introduce to the choir that they weren’t aware of before.

creativity can’t be done by committee

It’s not just that I’m a control freak (see I’m a control freak and that’s exactly how I like it!), it’s that I believe that art and creativity cannot be done by committee or consensus.

You need one or two strong individuals with a vision that the rest of the team sign up to.

The new ideas they bring might feel unfamiliar or challenging at first, but once the work is done there is immense satisfaction and a great sense of achievement.

how is your choir run?

It’s often leaders of smaller, beginner choirs who consult their members regularly. Larger choirs are probably too unwieldy for that approach to work.

I’d be fascinated to know what your approach is. Do regularly consult your members and adapt accordingly, or do you have a strong vision that you work towards regardless?

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Chris Rowbury



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