Monday, November 15, 2021

Choir leading and power – striking a difficult balance

This week, David Burbidge writes a guest post about leadership in choirs.

photo by Quick fix

Is it possible to be in charge without diminishing those you are trying to lead? David believes you can be empowered as a leader whilst also empowering those you lead.

the magic coat of leadership

The most succinct model of leadership I have heard says that:

Good leadership is the relationship between being in charge and being responsive to the group.

“Being responsive” to the group is fairly straightforward. We all know that singing is as much (if not more) about listening as it is about vocalising, so we are all probably good at that.

But the “being in charge” bit is perhaps a bit more uncertain. Why do some people step easily into the role of leader, while others feel it is like walking on broken glass? What is this mysterious power which some people appear to have, and others don’t?

The way I see it, all the singers in our groups give a bit of their own power — a bit of their responsibility, a bit of their authority — to the leader so that the job can be done. It’s like everyone in the group has woven a rather fine coat. Then we who have chosen to lead groups, step into that coat.

Some people just step right in. But others try it on back to front, or try to put a leg in the arm hole, or are reluctant to wear the whole thing.

When it does fit, naturally it makes us something which we aren’t usually: a bit more shiny (like an electric light plugged into the mains), a bit more in the moment, a bit more charismatic.

My friend Jelena Sitar, who leads a puppet theatre in Slovenia and organises festivals, says:

“When I’m in that zone, I feel like I could solve most of the world’s problems.”

different leadership styles

There are several leadership styles we can choose when leading choirs.

1. the autocrat

The autocrat is the one most of us are familiar with, and probably the style most used for teaching songs and leading choirs:

“Right, you sing this, you come in now, you stop singing now, all of you breathe now, sing together.”

Some people refer to this style of leadership as being a “benign dictator” – you’re not invading Poland or sending out death squads to eliminate your rivals (hopefully!)/ You probably temper your direction with humour, you may feel for the struggles of your singers, show empathy and kindness, you may know how tender and vulnerable they are as they bare their souls - for, as Alfred Wolfsohn said,

"The voice is the muscle of the soul."

But there is no escaping the fact that in these moments you are an autocrat.  

2. the democrat

Some choir leaders call themselves democrats.

Although it’s unlikely they are having a vote on which note comes next in the song you are teaching, there are many moments in a choir’s experience when a democratic leader helps to keep everyone on board.

How do the singers feel about performing a certain song in a concert? Does the choir want to break for half term? The recognition in the democrat leader is that they are there to serve the people, not control them. They lean heavily on the “responding to the group” part, as well as being in charge.

3. the facilitator

Some leaders describe themselves as facilitators.

The idea of facilitating groups came from thinkers like Viktor Frankl, Carl Rogers and Irvin D. Yalom who all believed in responding to the inner wisdom of the people in the groups they led. The central idea in this kind of leadership style, is that the leader doesn’t direct or control the group, but responds to where the group wants to go. They work with what people bring and are looking to step alongside the group, as well as in front of it, as its life unfolds.

However, if a choir leader knows a song and the harmonies that go with it and the choir doesn’t, then they are not facilitating the singing in this sense, they are teaching it and leading it.

I recently went to visit the English folk singer Hannah James in Slovenia, after I had seen a video of her leading a group singing the Ukrainian folk song Dolina, while standing in a Slovenian river. I was curious about how she might have taught this song.

She told me that it came with a Slovakian singer in her group who was attending an international festival in Slovenia where Hannah was the voice mentor. Other singers in the group knew it, and some suggested how it might be performed, others asked if they could sing it standing in the river. Hannah said, “It was a natural and organic process.”

I live on the banks of the river Clough and watch the water pass by everyday. For me, good facilitation is about helping the group to find its own river banks, rather than imposing the leader’s idea of what is a good structure onto the group.

4. laissez faire

The ultimate in this scale of leadership styles ranging from autocrat to anarchist is sometimes referred to as laissez faire. The leader may teach the group some skills, but then leaves them to manage things on their own, doesn’t interfere.

a combined approach

Many leaders use a combination of all four styles and could be called subsidiaritists (I wish there was a simpler word for this). The leader takes an authoritative role when needed, but is always looking for the opportunity to devolve power to the singers.

Whatever style we use, our singers want us to be in that position, to lead them. They would complain if we dithered around, or ummed and aahed about not feeling worthy, or not skilled enough, or too young, or too inexperienced. They want us to inhabit the power. That’s why they’ve given us some of their own, that’s why they’re there.

It’s not ours, so of course we are going to be different once we are out of that role. But the singers don’t always recognise that.

choir leading is not therapy

Personally, I think it’s why it’s not a good idea to do psychotherapy with the singers, unless they’ve signed up to that, unless there is a clear contract - and all the necessary training, supervision and personal therapy that goes with it.

There we are as the leader, a bit puffed up with power and capability, and someone with unresolved childhood issues (which is probably most of us) could easily see us as the parent who can help them complete their unfinished business as they regress to the emotions and neediness of a toddler.

And this transference doesn’t always only flow in one direction. A leader who has a need to be needed can be deluded into thinking,

“Ah, I can help this person, I have the power to nurture their growth into being an adult.”

Which is possibly fine while it’s the toddler phase, but then eventually they’ll want their independence from the parent substitute, and fight them for it with all the zeal of a stroppy teenager.

groups as communities

Irvin D. Yalom, who wrote a very good book on Existential Group Work (among many other excellent books), says that when you work one to one, you are the main agent of change. But when you lead a group, the other people in the group will have the most influence.

He sees our role as a leader is to encourage the connections with the group - which as leaders of harmony singing groups we do naturally!

It’s why they are often called community choirs. Not necessarily because there will be representatives from all aspects of the wider wider society where we live, but because the singing group becomes a community where singers feel they belong as people as well as singers. Personally, I find that helping to create nurturing communities is a healthier attitude than thinking I am responsible for saving the individual.

empowering your singers

All the singers in our groups give a little of their power to make you their leader - but some singers will give you a massive amount, as they sit there staring at you while you lead one part of the choir through some difficult harmony, as they fantasise about your seemingly endless potency and capability.

My personal preference is to be always looking for ways to empower my singers, so as to avoid this transference.

If I am teaching a German song and some of them speak German better than me (which is just about everyone) I ask them to speak the words for the rest of the group so we can get the pronunciation. Or if they’ve had experience of singing a song I am teaching, to get them to talk about what they liked about it and tell any stories about its origins. Or if they come from the area where the song is from to say something about that.

I see my role, in part, like a chat show host, only instead of famous film stars my guests are ordinary people like myself. As some singers say, leading singing groups is all about performance, and everyone in the group stars in the show.

giving power away does not diminish you

I recently read The Power of Giving Away Power, by Matthew Barzun, in which he says that most leaders adopt the structure in their groups of a pyramid, with them at the top, where they guard their position ferociously.

While if power is given away, the structure would resemble a constellation, where everyone is a star. Lao Tzu said something along these lines in his famous quote:

“When the great leaders have finished their work, the people say, we have done the work ourselves.”

I mentioned this to another singing leader the other day and she said that she hated this idea, that she often felt that people in her groups were taking power away from her, leaving her with none to do the work. She felt undermined by the expertise of others, she felt her authority draining out of her.

My nephews and nieces spoke English as small children and at home with my brother and sister in law, but went to school in France where they all lived. In the same way as my teenage daughter, currently at school in Germany. In their schools they had to go to English lessons with the rest of their class and said the same thing. Some teachers saw them as a threat, even to the point of punishing them - while others saw them as a resource, and would say things like: “So Anika, how might you saw this in English?”

I think power is like love. Small children think that if they have a baby sister or brother then there’ll be less love for them. They think love is like a cake and there’ll be less of it if any of it is given away. Whereas all parents know that love is infinitely expandable - it isn’t diminished by giving it to one child as well as another.

I think it’s the same with power. I am not diminished as a leader if I allow others in my groups to be empowered - quite the opposite in fact.

I am not empowered by dominance but by an equal sharing of power, where I become part of a model society, and equally benefit from being part of it. It’s also a lot less exhausting working like this - because pretending to be the source of all wisdom and strength as a leader is exhausting. Being in my 70s I want to continue leading singing groups for at least another 20 years so am very pleased that working like this seems to inspire and energise me rather than burn me out.

stepping outside your role as leader

So then comes the interesting issue of what happens when you step out of the role of being the leader, and meet your singers in another situation.

I think it helps to keep some awareness of the power dynamics. Some singers support you as a leader in the choir, while at the same time resent that you appear to have power over them. Some choir leaders say they have known their singers outside of the choir setting to put them down, as if to say, “Don’t think you can lord it over me here.”

It’s not acceptable - nobody needs to diminish others in order to be empowered - but that’s what sexism and racism are, where some people will put others down so that they can rise up. It’s why those who are dominant in a society often fear equality - if they’ve always held all the power, they feel that others having it diminishes them. To those who are used to having all the power, any move towards equality feels like oppression.

But we who lead choirs know differently. The central lesson of harmony singing is this:

When others are empowered in their difference, there is a richer whole than when one part dominates another.

As choir leaders we are used to making this happen in the music - many of us also try to make sure it happens with other people too.


David Burbidge
Lakeland Voice:

further posts

Having read David’s take on choir leadership, you might find these other posts of interest:

Getting the best out of your choir 1: moderate or martinet?

Why a choir can never be truly democratic

Your job as a choir leader is to disappear

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

The 7 types of choir leader – which one are you?




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