Monday, May 20, 2019

Choir leaders: how to give yourself a break and not feel guilty

We all need a break from time to time. Even choir leaders.

But some of us find it hard to prioritise downtime. Here are some ideas for how to take a break without feeling guilty.

Choir leaders work very hard. Singers might see you for just a couple of hours each week without realising all the ‘back office’ work that goes on (see The job of being a choir leader).

Taking time out is important for choir leaders. Not just for your own health, but also so you can do your job properly.

We all need time for reflection, time to daydream and time to create. We need to get off the treadmill from time to time (see What I did on my summer holiday – why we all need a break sometime and Busily doing nothing – 5 reasons why downtime is important for singers and choir leaders).

But taking time off is easier said than done. Here are some obstacles that choir leaders can face:
  • believing you’re indispensable – when you’re basically running the whole show, it’s easy to start believing that you can’t be replaced. That your singers can’t do without you and if you take time off the choir would just fold.
  • needing your weekly fix – working with singers can become a fix: even when you’re feeling depleted the harmonies and social aspect can give you a real lift. It’s easy to become dependent on that buzz.
  • self-employment is precarious – many choir leaders are self-employed. As a freelancer it’s incredibly difficult to say “no” when offered work.
  • sole traders have no back-up – and most self-employed choir leaders are sole traders. There is nobody to pick up the slack when you take time off. Everything grinds to a halt.
  • thinking you need to be perfect – taking responsibility for a whole choir can be really scary. Even though you’ve been doing the job for a long time you can begin to feel that you need to be perfect, that anything less will be “letting the singers down.” So just thinking about taking a break can leave you feeling guilty.
  • we’re all a control freaks – certainly not true of all choir leaders, but there is an aspect of control freakery involved when you’re running the whole show: choosing the songs, making the arrangements, leading the singing, organising the rehearsals and concerts, etc. And control freaks don’t like letting go!
  • you can become defined by what you do – this doesn’t just apply to choir leaders, it’s a modern disease whereby people are defined by what they do (their jobs usually) rather than who they are. If the choir is taken away from you (even for a while), then who are you? Do you still have worth?
  • passion can take over – all choir leaders love music and singing or you wouldn’t be doing the job. It’s a passion, a job that you love. So even when you’re streaming with cold or almost falling over from lack of sleep, your passion takes over because you still want to make music.
  • choir leading and music-making is all you do – since it’s such an all-encompassing job, it can end up taking over. You no longer have any other pastimes or other activities that can contrast with your day job.
As you can see, there are plenty of reasons why choir leaders won’t want to take time off!

However, not taking time off can lead to burn out. You can get physically ill, lose your passion for music, become less effective at what you do, start churning out the same old stuff, lose choir members, forget why you love the job, feel like you’re on a treadmill, stop being creative, lose your patience … the list goes on.

How can you overcome these obstacles and actually take a break?

Here are some ideas to consider.
  • share your choir leading – many choirs have more than one leader. If you’re leading on your own, having someone else as co-leader can take a lot of pressure off. You’ll have an automatic replacement if you take time off, you’ve got a colleague to talk to and share the burden, you’ll use less energy leading the choir. The possible downside is that it will affect your income stream.
  • find a trusted locum – doctors do it (and they’re very important people in the community), so why not choir leaders? Find one or more colleagues who are fairly local to you who can take over the reigns at different times. They won’t be replacing you but they can stand in for you sometimes.
  • incorporate a break into your choir schedule – my first choir was fixed to school term dates and I just carried that on. Then I realised that I could have terms as long as I liked so I fixed on three 10-week terms each year. I also used to run 4-week summer schools as I was worried that singers might not come to choir after the long break. It meant I was worn out and had no time to research new repertoire. So I stopped and (of course) the singers all came back after the summer break.
  • take a sabbatical – it may take a while to set up (and has financial implications), but why not take a substantial chunk of time away from leading your choir? It could be just a term or a whole year. You could do something completely different (travel round the world), or develop your own practice (research songs from a particular culture, do more song-writing, take a music course). You’ll come back refreshed with loads of new ideas. Use your locum or co-leader to run the choir while you’re away.
  • do something completely different with your choir – it doesn’t even have to be singing! As they say, a change is a good as a rest. It could be a site-specific performance or a substantial song-cycle or a choir exchange or a foreign tour. There are loads of possibilities. It will shake up and refresh everyone.
  • learn to do nothing – and not feel guilty about it! Many of us are defined by what we do rather than who we are. It’s important to be able to do nothing and feel comfortable about it. Whether it’s sitting in our garden or on a tropical beach. No reading, no mobile phone, no talking, no TV – nothing. A good way into this is meditation. If you’ve not done it before just find a local course. There are loads around these days. It will take time if you’re not used to it, but it’s worth it.
  • swap choirs –this can shake up and reinvigorate your own practice and your singers. Find a colleague who rehearses on the same day at the same time and swap for one session. It’s more effective if you don’t warn the singers!
  • do more non-choir activities with your singers – over time the relationship between you and your singers can become fixed. You’re the boss and they do what you say. You’re the expert and they are learning from you. But every singer in your choir has a whole other life and a whole set of skills and talents. Make sure you do plenty of non-singing activities to create stronger bonds and to take time out from leading occasionally. You might even discover singers who have useful practical skills that can help with your workload.
  • start a choir leader training scheme within your choir – I’ve stepped down from leading community choirs a few times now. A couple of times I was able to hand over to one of the choir members. The advantage of this is that they already knew our way of working, the repertoire and the choir ‘culture’ so the handover was fairly seamless. It can be worth seeing if anybody in your choir has ambitions to lead one day. You can then use them as an apprentice who can eventually stand in for you from time to time. Maybe even take over from you one day.
  • take stock of your income sources – one of the worries about taking time out is that we won’t be earning money. It can be just a vague fear when we’re not totally sure of how much we earn, where our earnings come from, and how much we need to live on. Do an audit of your income sources. Work out what a typical year looks like and see how your average income compares with your individual needs. I was surprised to find out that I needed much less to live than I had thought. It meant I was able to relax more and say “no” to more things. Having done your audit, you can then see if there are ways of increasing your income without increasing your workload. An obvious idea is to increase your fees for certain things. You might also consider cheaper venues, shorter rehearsal times, shorter terms and so on. Other cut-backs could be going acappella and not using an accompanist or backing tracks, stopping the free tea breaks, charging more for concerts.
  • use a colleague as a ‘choral therapist’ – sometimes when we’re burnt out we just want to have a good old whinge and get stuff off our chest. It helps to have a colleague who works in a similar way to you. Meet up every now and then and take turns to listen to each other. Only give advice if asked for it. Venting can be very effective.
  • challenge your belief that you’re indispensable – we’re all replaceable. But even if you know that intellectually it’s hard to realise it in reality. Find ways to help you discover that you are not indispensable. Most of my examples happened by accident. I was feeling very ill, but insisted on continuing with a performance. To help with my limited energy, the choir took the warm up on their own and I just did the conducting. I was trying to persuade a small ensemble I led that they didn’t need me out front conducting. They wouldn’t believe me! We had a gig coming up and I felt unwell. I could have forced myself to do it, but instead I left in until the last minute then phoned up to say I couldn’t make it. They did the gig on their own and it was fine.
  • put back up in place – you don’t need to do everything yourself, especially on the admin front. It’s possible to find a way to pay for office help,either with money or in kind. There are lots of virtual assistant services out there now. It could be just one specific, time-limited task like updating your mailing list or filing your sheet music. In that way you can control any costs.
  • create a committee to take some workload – similarly you can get help with the day-to-day running of the choir. If you don’t already have a committee, think about setting one up. It doesn’t need to be called ‘committee’ and you don’t need a formal constitution. Just ask for a group of willing volunteers to help with some clearly-defined tasks. For example, setting out chairs for rehearsal, doing all the concert publicity, collecting subs, organising the Christmas party.
  • explore other passions – having just one passion in the world makes you vulnerable. What would happen if you weren’t able to do that thing any more? It makes sense to have other hobbies, other passions and other outlets for your creativity. It could be connected with your music-making, e.g. sound-editing, designing CD covers, making videos. Or it could be something you loved doing when you were younger and have left dormant since choir leading took over.
  • get some training/ go to workshops – or to use the formal term: “continuing professional development.” Being on the receiving end can be just as good as a break. Being a punter takes a lot of pressure off plus it means we are learning new things.
I’m sure you can think of loads more ideas, these are just a starting point to get you thinking.

You might also find these other posts useful:

How much are you worth?

Taking care of ourselves as choir and workshop leaders

What the job of choir leader involves

I’m a control freak and that’s exactly how I like it!

Don’t stress about things you can’t control

Does your choir really need a conductor (and if so, how many)?

How to move forward when you’re uninspired

How will your choir cope if you don’t turn up?

How to pace yourself in choir rehearsals and singing workshops

Energy conservation for singing leaders: how not to get carried away

Your job as a choir leader is to disappear

How ill do you need to be before you cancel a performance?

Choir and workshop leaders: make sure you’re on the receiving end from time to time

Choir leaders: who’ll replace you when you’ve gone?

“I’m a choir leader and sometimes I hate my job” – but that’s OK

How to lead your choir when you’re just not in the mood

8 reasons why choir leaders should go to more singing workshops

Choir leaders, are you doing too much for your singers?

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Chris Rowbury




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