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Choice Theory for Choral Directors

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GlasserI recently read William Glasser’s book Choice Theory at the suggestion of a friend, and it has been a thought-provoking exercise. There is a good deal in the book that is open to critique - to the extent that if I didn’t trust the judgement of the person who recommended it, I may not have bothered to finish it - but there is also a good deal of humane and sensible advice in it.

So, I’m glad I did persist with it, and I’m prepared likewise to cautiously recommend it in turn, with the caveat that you need to be able to cope with an argument that quite often overstates its case and makes unsubstantiated (indeed, unsubstantiatable) assertions. If you’re not sure you want to cope with that kind of thing, here’s a summary of what I learned from it...

Context: William Glasser is a psychiatrist, so he’s writing from a background in individual therapy. His purpose in this book is to apply the insights from this work into all kinds of other social situations: family life, education, the workplace. He doesn’t mention the choral rehearsal, but his key axioms work there too.

The central ideas are as follows:

  • The only behaviour you can control is your own. This is the fundamental point, from which all the rest of his theory follows. Interestingly, I first heard this point, back in about 1998, in the context of choral rehearsal: Bill Rashleigh used it in his chorus director training to make directors reflect on the limits of the power and thus how they used it.

    Glasser contends that most of us spend much of our lives making ourselves and each other miserable by trying to control each other’s behaviour. What he calls ‘external control psychology’ is at best futile and at worst abusive, and we will all be happier if we give up trying to bend each other to our will. If you love someone, as they say, set them free.

    As Bill Rashleigh pointed out, this has an immediate relevance for a choral director. People choose to come to choir, and they choose to cooperate with out musical agendas. If we want them to do this differently from the ways they currently are (e.g. attending more often, doing more individual practice, retaining pitch better), we have to work out what we can do as a director that will encourage them to make those choices. If they don’t, beating up on them about it is unlikely to be the best way to change the situation

  • The key to human happiness is rewarding relationships. Glasser’s starting-point when someone unhappy turns up for therapy is to look for a relationship in their life that is currently going sour. The difficulty generally stems from one or both parties trying to control the other, and meeting resistance. The controller feels frustrated, the controlee feels bullied.

    His aim is to replace this dynamic with a basic principle for behaviour: will doing this bring us together or push us further apart? This is a very simple but powerful point. You may be right to want whatever it is you have been pushing for, but pushing has only made everyone miserable and not achieved what you wanted. Working on restoring the goodwill and trust in the relationship gets you out of the unhappy impasse and creates an environment in which you have a chance of working together again to make stuff work. You may not get what you originally wanted, but you’ll have a nicer life, as will the people who matter to you.

    This one matters to the choral director both at times of crisis in the choir, and also - more importantly - in the day-to-day business of making music. Flare-ups of unhappiness in choirs are usually articulated as being ‘about’ something the choir is doing: unpopular repertoire, other singers’ poor attendance, objections to some new activity proposed by the director. The instinct is to address the content of the concerns - negotiate over musical choices, develop a new attendance policy - but it often feels hard to do when the dynamic is experienced as choir members trying to control the what the director does.

    This principle tells us to look at the relationships. Whatever we do in response to these kinds of events needs to bring the parties closer if it is to succeed.

    The same goes for our regular interactions, of course. The more we help our singers feel good about themselves and what they are doing, the less likely we are to face a big flare-up, and the easier it will be to deal with when it does occur.

  • You can only affect the present. One of Glasser’s criticisms of traditional psychotherapy is its focus on the past. Yes, things may have happened in the past that made you unhappy, but you can’t change the past, and the time at which you are feeling unhappy is now. So, let’s look at what is going on in your life currently, and figure out what choices you have to improve those relationships.

    This resonated strongly with my recent thoughts on self-talk, that self-doubt is often correlated with a focus inwards and towards the past, whereas people feel more empowered with a focus outwards and towards the future.

    It is also pleasingly pragmatic for the musician. Since our art is one that unfolds over time, we live with the possibility of uncorrectable mistakes. We can’t go back and change that wrong note, we can only decide whether to repeat it when the material comes back. We can’t take back our sharp look when a singer comes in early, we can only apologise for the sharpness and then help them find the right place for their entry.

So, these are the central principles around which Choice Theory is built. There are also two specific concepts Glasser uses in therapy that are useful models for the choral rehearsal, but I’ll leave them for another day as this post is quite long enough already!

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