I’ve been leading choirs for a while now and I’ve learned a thing or two, often the hard way. When I began conducting, I was already an experienced choral singer, which I hope has helped me to see things from my singers’ perspective. In the day-to-dayness of leading a choir, however, it’s easy to get a bit lost. Here are a few of the detours I’ve taken.
1. Forgetting why people sing in choirs
I’ve been a singer all my life. My little sister and I were singing in harmony into a reel-to-reel tape recorder at about three and five years old respectively (the tapes were sent to our grandparents in New Zealand). I still love singing and I get a huge kick out of it, but because it’s second nature to me, I sometimes forget what motivates others to sing and to join a choir.
A big part of being in a choir is the social interaction we enjoy with other like-minded people. Most choral singers are not professional musicians and don’t aspire to be. While it is, of course, important to have commitment and discipline and to strive towards excellence (whatever that is for you and your choir), it’s vital to remember that your choir members are there to enjoy themselves and to get that fantastic buzz that comes from making music in a group. In rehearsal, this can mean keeping verbal instruction to a minimum and making sure that the choir gets a chance to sing a whole piece, even if it’s still pretty rough. Start the rehearsal with singing, not talking, and finish on a high.
Ultimately, it’s about empathy and communication. If you were a member of your choir, would you be enjoying yourself? Does your choir have a culture where singers would say something if they weren’t having a good time?
2. Forgetting my purpose
I left a long-ish career in the legal profession for a reason. I wanted to spend my time doing something I loved and helping people to find enjoyment, happiness and fulfilment in making music. Maybe that sounds a bit highfalutin, but it’s true. That’s my purpose, whether I’m conducting a performance, leading a rehearsal, running a workshop or even writing an article like this one.
Occasionally, when my choir has an imminent performance and we’re rehearsing hard, or when I’m preparing for a workshop, my purpose can start to feel a long way off. Instead of focusing on the choir’s or the participants’ experience, I start thinking about myself and my performance, about how I’ll be judged. While it’s no bad thing to want to do well, I know that I’m more effective when my focus is on others, not myself.
It’s the same with financial considerations. My partner and I are building our business to incorporate a variety of workshops and team-building sessions in addition to running our choirs. It’s not easy to grow a business in a terrible economy with a marketing budget so small it’s barely visible to the naked eye. It’s all too easy to start fretting about money and focusing too much on the bottom line. That drags me away from my purpose, makes me less effective in my work and ultimately makes it less likely that my business will be successful.
I know that when I work in a way that’s aligned with my purpose, I feel better about myself, more motivated and more likely to achieve what I want.
3. Not letting go of the outcome
I select what I hope is enjoyable and appropriate repertoire for my choir. I try to give my choir members everything they need to produce a confident and polished performance. I work hard to ensure that the logistics of the performance are well-handled so that everyone can see me, read their music, hear each other and be heard by the audience. At some point, though, if I’m to have any enjoyment from the performance myself, I have to let go of the outcome. It will be what it will be. Now, it’s very easy to write those words, but far harder to be so serene in practice. I am not a naturally laid-back person and can worry to Olympic standard, but I’m also old enough to have learned that the sky is unlikely to fall in if a few things don’t pan out as I’d hoped.
Something will almost always go wrong. All of the performances of my year-old chamber choir have had some characteristic cock-up by which they have become known: the one where the piano sounded like it was down a mineshaft, the one where we were shoved in a corner and the audience wouldn’t stop talking, the one with the awful conductor who didn’t look at us (not me, I hasten to add, we were taking part in someone else’s gig), the one with the cheese (long story!). Work hard, prepare well and then let go.
So there you have it. A few ways in which I’ve got it wrong and how I try to get it right. I’m still learning and I hope I always will be. If you have any words of wisdom from your experience, I’d love to hear them.