Monday, December 13, 2021

How to deal with a toxic choir member

Very occasionally a singer may join your choir who seems to affect everyone negatively.

They are somehow ‘toxic’ and affect the whole choir. Here’s how you can deal with such a person.

all choir members are different

Not every choir member (or choir leader) will ever get on with every other choir member. A choir is a community of separate individuals who come together to make something bigger than themselves.

Usually any small differences of opinion or behaviour can be either ignored or tolerated. If it begins to affect rehearsals, then an individual can be spoken to and hopefully the issue goes away.

However, from time to time a person might join your choir who seems to disrupt everything. Although they’re just one individual, their behaviour affects the whole choir adversely. Rehearsals stop being fun. There might be an ‘atmosphere’ each week and tensions in the air. Some choir members might even choose to leave.

How can one person have such an effect and what can be done about it?

all choirs have rules

No matter how informal your choir is, there will be a set of rules that members are bound by.

These rules are often implicit, but sometimes they’re written out and made clear (see Does your choir need ground rules?).

Implicit rules will be something like: choir members should turn up on time; no talking with your mates while learning songs; don’t abuse or disrespect other choir members; phones must be turned off during rehearsals; don’t monopolise your choir leader’s attention; don’t tell other choir members off for being ‘wrong’; and so on.

Although these rules might not be stated explicitly, all choir members will soon become familiar with what is expected of them (see How to be a good choir member). They will either be told of the rules when they join, or will pick them up by osmosis after being a member for a while.

If somebody breaks any of these rules, it’s usually enough to draw their attention to it and it won’t happen again. Sometimes it’s as simple as somebody not realising that the rule existed. Once they’ve been told, they adjust their behaviour.

one bad penny

But sometimes a simple talking to doesn’t have any effect. And sometimes an individual might be breaking many rules at the same time. It’s as if they have no respect for the choir.

Why might someone do this? Here are some possible reasons.

1. personal issues
It could be that the person has some personal issues or psychological make-up that makes it hard for them to be part of a group. They might simply be drawing attention to themselves because they want to be seen and heard (and often feel that they are not).

I once had a choir member who felt that they constantly needed to show off their musical knowledge and choral experience. It was very disruptive. I chose not to engage with the behaviour and made it clear that such knowledge didn’t mean that they were any ‘better’ than any other choir member.

It was clearly about this person’s lack of self-confidence. Once they’d been in the choir for a while, began to feel safe and comfortable, and realised that their showing off wasn’t having any effect, they calmed down and became a very effective choir member.

Not all ‘issues’ are as easily dealt with. Often we will never know where someone is coming from psychologically, nor what is going on in their private life. Singing in a choir may be therapeutic, but we are not therapists.

2. choirs are not for them
Not everybody is suited to a choir. Many singers are really soloists or enjoy making up their own harmonies. Some people find group collaboration tricky and prefer to work by themselves. See 5 good reasons why joining a choir might not be right for you.

3. they’ve joined the wrong choir
There are many different kinds of choir out there: formal and informal; those who use sheet music and those who learn by ear; choirs with matching t-shirts or choir robes and those who dress how they like; those who give concerts and those who don’t perform in public; those who audition and those which are open-access. Not to mention the kind of repertoire your choir chooses.

It may be that your toxic choir member is just railing at the fact that your choir is not the one they want it to be. Instead of just leaving and joining a more suitable choir, they will spend lots of energy trying to change your choir into their ideal choir.

4. they’re a closet choir leader …
… or a control freak. Sometimes people don’t like being told what to do, or think they know best. Your disruptive choir member may find it hard to be on the receiving end of instructions. They may have led choirs in the past or have a dream to do so. They find it hard to be a choir member. Or perhaps they have a high-powered job and are not used to letting go of that power to become just “one of the masses”.

5. your choir leader is too nice
Most choirs, especially community choirs, like to think of themselves as welcoming all kinds of people. When faced with a difficult choir member, it’s tempting for a choir leader to be as nice as possible in order to try to integrate them into the choir.

But if they’re on the completely wrong page, they won’t ever be truly integrated. The only way that a choir member will know what kind of choir they’ve joined, is if the choir leader sets boundaries. That means enforcing your choir rules. It can be done gently and subtly, but if rules are there, they need to be obeyed. If you allow a new choir member to break rule after rule, they will think they have freedom to act as they like. They will also be confused as to what the choir’s rules actually are.

You need to nip any bad behaviour in the bud and set boundaries appropriately. Even if that feels like you’re not being ‘nice’.

how to deal with a toxic choir member

It’s not always possible to work out why a choir member is disruptive. It doesn’t really matter though as there are only two ways to deal with such a person.

1. change their behaviour
Often your choir leader only needs to have a quiet word to point out that someone’s behaviour is not appropriate, then they will change. Or you might need to be more explicit about your choir’s rules. If that doesn’t work, your only option is to …

2. ask them to leave
This will almost certainly not be pleasant. It should be a tactic of last resort. But if one person’s behaviour is having a large effect on the choir as a whole, you must act for the greater good.

In the end, you will be doing the toxic member a favour. Clearly they are having a hard time being in your choir, so you can help them find a more appropriate group.

other strategies

What’s your experience? Have you had toxic choir members in your choir? Are there other ways of dealing with them? We’d love to hear your experiences.


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Chris Rowbury




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Chris Rowbury


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