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.

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    Victoria Hopkins

    Victoria is a founder and director of Total Choir Resources. She leads Total Voice Chamber Choir in the UK.

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    Victoria Hopkins - 4 years ago Reply

    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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    Maddie Cordes - 4 years ago Reply

    Sorry the order went a bit wrong in my post above – not sure if you can edit Victoria? the paragraph “I have made it my priority” is supposed to be the final paragraph with my sign off!

    Another thing I’d add is that when I started out, those who had been to music college and run established more classically based choirs and church choirs blocked me out not seeing me as a “proper” musician (although I’d been in those choirs before and have lots of friends in them). Some still do although others have warmed to me since they have seen I’ve established myself, and I’m not a flash in a pan but near to stay, have made connections and even been given work by some of their own network and created a following – can’t say I recommend that approach as I would always welcome a newcomer to the music teaching scene locally and then get to know them and decide whether I feel that person was someone I’d like to work with after understanding their approach to their work, how they treat people, whether they are reliable and can be trusted and the standards they look to achieve and work to.

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    Maddie Cordes - 4 years ago Reply

    Hi Victoria, I have had those feelings yes – less so now I am two years down the line. Before starting the choir I did a year long acccess to music diploma which gave me the opportunity to refresh skills I’d learned and which were rusty and also to play with other musicians and to lead them in activities. This all helped build my confidence but was very diffrerent from doing it for real a few months later when I launched my choir! I bring many skills from my business career to leading a choir such as the ability to manage a team effectively, motivating and keeping in line in equal measure! – marketing and developing my business, finding opportunities in the community for the choir to take advantage of, and collaborating with other organisations.

    I am careful to aim to be very good and get even better at the particular experience I am offering and be clear about what that is which for the Landmark Choir is giving singers who haven’t sung since school the opportunity to sing, to learn by ear and learn a little basic theory if they want, learn the basics of vocal technique and how to sing together in a choir, develop confidence, perform in public for the first time and sing in the community, do outreach work eg in care homes and promote the benefits of singing for health, get to know lots of popular songs, learn simple harmonies, get used to different arrangements, learn to memorise songs and add a few simple moves and mainly sing pop.

    I set high standards but create a happy environment and my whole approach I’ve found discourages any negativity or back biting – they know I wouldn’t stand for it just by not doing it myself and always being positive (even if I don’t feel like it after a long day!)- in that way I put my brand on the choir. ISo that, as you say, people are buying in to me as a person, what I have to offer and for my particular strengths.

    I acccompany to intermediate level but not beyond so I am quite open and transparent about where I feel my strengths lie eg in part singing and creating a good balance/blend in the choir, having sung in London choirs for many years prior to setting up the business.

    I also challenge myself by accepting roles which I feel may be a bit beyond me but that I can grow into like being appointed the MD for a female chorus for a touring production to two of our local theatres in July. I also have developed a great network of musicians with more experience than me and I am honest in saying I want to learn from them and using their particiular skills for different projects or opportunites as a better fit than me. If something doesn’t go as well as I’d like I tend to be honest with the choir and my fellow helpers and work with them to put it right or take a different approach to teaching a particular song etc.

    I think it helps that I’m 50 (although sometimes it’s a hindrance as people think I’ve been doing this for 25 years!) – generally I can take the knocks better than if I was starting out at a younger age. I encourage my young students to gain experience eg in conducting and accompanying the choir and emphasise that this is their learning ground and it is ok to make mistakes. The choir are always really supportive of helping people who want to learn whether adult or children and encourage them with lots of smiles and kind words. I feel this is part of my role in running my music business – to help others develop both musically and in building their conficence – another skill I use on a daily basis learned in the business world and in bringing up children too!

    I have also made it a priority to attend courses and take CPD very seriously. CPD is a chance to learn new skills or build on existing ones and you also get to meet many new contacts who could help you or vice versa. Whether it’s a new warm up or you being able to share a song with someone who needs it. I am based in East Kent but regularly attend London events to get a wider perspective. The Schools Music Association (recently merged with the ISM) was a great help to me starting out and I attended a conducting course at the beginning where I was able to try out my conducting with a real supportive choir! II seek out opportunities to develop all the time as I have so much to learn – which is what is exciting – and the choir enjoy seeing me grow in my role and they also grow in experience and confidence. Couldn’t be a more rewarding job!

    Best wishes
    Maddie Cordes

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