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The Myth of the Power of Singing: Part 3

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The first two instalments of this series introduced the Myth of the Power of Singing, and examined how choral culture routinely undermines its claims by uncritical appeals to pseudoscience. This post turns to the narratives themselves, to note that whilst participants would on the whole confirm their claims, they don’t tell the whole story. The second reason we should think more critically about the narrative of the Power of Singing is that the very existence of this mythology invites one to ask: what is it hiding?

The Skeleton in the Closet

I have turned in a number of contexts over the years to the sociology of new religious movements to analyse various choral cultures – first barbershop, more recently Rock Choir and the Natural Voice Network – but in fact many of the social practices evident in these ‘fringe’ choral movements pervade the mainstream as well.

These include the euphoric experiences and intense bonding touted by our narrative, but they also include, as integral to the package, exclusionary practices and coercive control. I’ve previously blogged about the specific practices that cults use for thought control and their parallels in choral culture. And Bradley’s model of charismatic encounters, which underpins all my work in that area specifically sees control as integral to the state of supercharged connection he calls ‘flux’.

We might decide (well, we routinely do decide) that the emotional rewards make the controlling practices worthwhile, but when we are doing the happy-clappy sales-job for our choirs, we don’t often make this side of the experience clear. Come and make instant friends! Also: stand there, watch the conductor, smile. We worry about cults forcing people into specific forms of behaviour; in choir, they literally tell you when to breathe.

To put this into a wider context with a case-study from a neighbouring musical world, I’d recommend a look at Geoff Baker’s research into El Sistema. Venezuala’s high-profile youth orchestra programme has sold itself as an engine for social change, attracting plaudits, imitators, and, crucially, large quantities of funding from around the world. Baker went to find out what made this work, and discovered behind the headlines a social world very different from the public image. Tightly-controlled hierarchical structures operated a training system built on drill and discipline under a highly autocratic leadership in service of a conservative, even reactionary, status quo.

I am not sure that choral music has a direct equivalent to this, although British cathedral schools might make an instructive case study. But the rehearsal observations that informed my second book revealed a good deal of controlling behaviour on the part of choral conductors, some well over the edge into bullying. I once witnessed a conductor at an open rehearsal ahead of an international competition fix a singer on the second row with his gaze and say, ‘Twelve thousand people just heard that mistake’. Michael Bonshor’s work on choral singers’ confidence has likewise revealed that amongst the pleasures of choir, participants experience regular opportunities to feel bad about themselves.

The thing is, if we only consider the joys of our lives in collective song, we are apt to cast all choral activities as inherently and equally beneficial. If the mere existence of a choir confers health and well-being, we are let off the hook from reflecting on the actual quality of experience we are offering. And people do continue to cling to their choral activities through considerable levels of emotional pain, which if not always inflicted by the director is usually permitted by them. For a culture that is supposed to be about the value of community, you find an awful lot of us-and-themness.

And this is amongst the ones who persist in their choral singing. In my chapter for the Oxford Handbook of Choral Pedagogy (linked above) I investigated the construction of the ‘non-singer’, about whom there is quite a substantial literature. (I have also blogged about it here and here. ) These are some of our culture’s ‘musical walking wounded’, to use John Sloboda’s phrase; people who keep themselves clearly and assiduously separate from the category of singer, and carefully protect themselves from situations that would expose them to a repeat of the experiences that led to them forming the identity of ‘one who does not sing’. They are as much a product of our musical culture as the joyful enthusiasts, and their existence represents the dirty underside of the Myth of the Power of Singing.

When choral folk fulminate against the prejudice they sometimes perceive against their role in the curriculum, we might stop to ask ourselves: why do some people not value what we do? It could be ignorance, for sure, or approaching education with unduly utilitarian ideology. But might it actually be experience? People who have been alienated through their choral experiences are going to regard our narratives of delight in much the same way I tend to regard the promises of Scientology: as somewhere on the spectrum between naïve bunkum and self-interested hype.

Part 4 turns its attention to the specific problems the Myth creates for those involved in choral research.

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