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The Dangers of Us-and-Themness in Choirs

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My recent post on the relationship between choral identities and musical behaviours included a passing comment that has stayed with me as deserving more thought. It was the point about people in one section being blamed by those in other sections for musical difficulties experiences by the whole ensemble. This bothered me; it feels like an unhealthy dynamic, with some members of a choir feeding their esteem needs from others’ vocal difficulties. And it’s a dynamic I have encountered often enough that it warrants some reflection on what’s going on, and why it makes me so worried.

So, in the case I cited, it was the basses who were subject to persistent bashing. It could be any part, though - I know of groups in which sopranos or barbershop leads have been subject to the same kind of treatment. Voice parts give an obvious opportunity to create a sense of us-and-them, but other fault-lines open up according to the circumstances of individual groups.

It could be founder-members versus newcomers; it could be sight-readers versus ear-singers; it could be regular attenders versus intermittent attenders. The ‘problem’ behaviours complained about could be vocal (wobble in older voices, tuning issues), musical (slowness in learning their notes, rhythmic unreliability), performative (clumsiness in choreography, showing off), or extra-musical (arriving too late to help put the chairs out, never having a pencil). Differences in aspiration for the choir can also set up divisions: excellence versus sociability is a common debate in amateur choirs, and one that plays out in all kinds of areas of activity, from performance schedules to custom and practice in rehearsal.

One of the features of a charismatic group is a sense of the elect insiders being pitted against the infidels; part of the emotional energy that binds the groups together and fuels its expansion is a shared sense of being counter to something that’s wrong in the wider world. Charisma involves a critical engagement, righting a perceived wrong, and converting others to its cause in the process. But the division in these cases is between the righteous within the group and the great unwashed outside who need to be either rescued or overcome.

A sense of us-and-themness within a group, on the other hand, is problematic. Raymond Bradley (whose pioneering research into the social structures of charismatic groups has really informed my thinking on this) identifies one of the key requisites for communion - that euphoric merging of egos into the collective characteristic of the charismatic encounter - as a network of relationships whereby all members of the group have an affective bond with all other members. Groups with cliques are much less likely to become charismatic.

There are two layers to the problem, then. At the first level, the existence of allegiances to subsets of the choir can inhibit the free-flow of emotional energy that galvanises the ensemble into that exalted state where the voices ring and the hearts sing as one. This helps explain why divisions even along non-musical lines are experienced as counter-productive to the core mission of the choir. Directors know they can’t ignore choir politics and just make music, because the music isn’t so good when the politics are wonky.

At the second level, the stronger the intra-choir critique is, the more likely the group is to fracture. How this will play out depends on the structure of the fault-lines. If those who configure themselves as ‘us’ represent institutional power within the choir - members of the music team and/or executive - then the problem will be a quiet loss of members of the groups configured as ‘them’. Feeling both organisationally disempowered and under fire, they will lose their emotional attachment to the group through disappointment and disillusion. If the subset who are criticising others are not part of the established power-structure, or if not all those in authority agree, then the scene is set for a break-away group.

So, what can a director do to prevent us-and-themness, with all its dangers, developing in their choir? There are a number of strategies available, but I will deal with them in a follow-up post, this one being quite long enough for now.

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