Do you have to be an 'expert' to be a good choir leader?

We get lots of emails and comments from choir leaders asking us questions about all sorts of issues. One theme that seems to run through these messages is that many choir leaders feel that they just aren't qualified to lead a choir. They feel inadequate, unprepared and lacking expertise. I'm going to take a leap here and hazard a guess that you've experienced exactly the same feelings. I know I have.

So the question I want to consider in this article is whether it's possible, and even desirable, to feel like an expert and whether we can be good, effective choir leaders even if we're not experts.

Who are these 'experts', anyway?

It's easy to look at others in our industry and pronounce them to be 'experts'. We associate expertise with authority and comprehensive knowledge. It's equally easy to dismiss our own talents and qualifications as being meagre in comparison.

I've done it myself any number of times. I didn't go to music college and my piano playing is terrible. I've often looked at musicians with armfuls of qualifications and the ability to play anything they like at sight and thought 'how can I call myself a choral conductor'?

But let's look at expertise in a slightly different way. From another angle, what is an expert? Just someone who specialises in something and is trusted by others to impart information. Couldn't that be you? It's certainly me - I specialise in leading choirs and my singers trust me to lead them.

Some jobs require an objective standard of expertise, like medicine and engineering. If you're operating on someone and you make the wrong call, or you're building a bridge and you get something fundamentally wrong with the structure, lives could be lost. But in something like choral conducting, expertise is entirely relative.

A person could have all the musical qualifications in the world, but if they can't stand up in front of a group of singers and confidently direct them, they'll make a terrible choir leader.

Fear of not being good enough stifles our creativity

If we convince ourselves (and some of us don't need much convincing!) that we have to be an 'expert' to stand up and lead a choir, the fear of being exposed as 'not an expert' can really hold us back.

This fear is often termed "impostor syndrome" and it afflicts many people in leadership roles. When impostor syndrome strikes, we feel that whatever we achieve and however well we perform our role, we might be found out at any minute and exposed as the rank amateur we actually are.

It hardly needs saying that working from a mindset of fear is not going to be conducive to creativity and effective leadership.

You don't need to be the best to be good enough

You'll never be the best choir leader in the world. You might not even be the best choir leader in your city. Does that matter? Not at all. Firstly, the whole concept of 'best' is flawed. What you offer is unique because you are unique. No one else in the world can be you, and you can't be anyone else, so why not get on with the project of being the best choir leader you can be, with all the unique talents, strengths, quirks and flaws that you possess?

If you approach your role with empathy, curiosity and a willingness to be wrong, you'll enjoy being a choir leader so much more than if you constantly worry that you don't meet external standards that probably don't exist anyway. And you'll give your choir the very best of you.
Where to breathe in a piece of choral music
Choir warm-ups to get the room buzzing!

2 comments

Victoria Hopkins Staff

Your wish is my command! I didn't even know I could edit comments. There's so much in your comment, but I'd pick out a couple of things that I find particularly interesting. Firstly, the idea of "CPD" (continuing professional development, for those who haven't been troubled by the business world) and the importance of continuing to learn and develop as a musician and as a leader. There are so many resources, both on and offline, these days that you can do a huge amount of learning without even leaving home. Secondly, you raised the issue of not being accepted by the musical "establishment" in your area. I think it's a tremendous shame that some sections of your local music scene couldn't appreciate what you were doing. With music, possibly more than any other endeavour, more is definitely better! To put it brutally, I've heard some terrible choirs in my time, but I still think it's great that they're out there making music together.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Yes, yes, yes! How wonderful Violet. This is just the kind of thing we love to hear. We absolutely believe that you can be an excellent choir leader with the skills you listed. You will create a unique choir that is based on your personality and your strengths. This is what Total Choir Resources is all about. If you're not already in our free Facebook group, send a request by searching for Total Choir Resources on Facebook. And, of course, we hope you'll consider becoming a member of Total Choir Resources so that we can give you lots of support and help you find your unique voice. Hooray! Another choir is born!
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