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How to hear your choir more perceptively

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So we all know that the better we are at listening to our choirs in rehearsal, the better our diagnostic and rehearsal strategies can work. And we know all the standard strategies for building this skill: recording the rehearsal to analyse later; asking an assistant to conduct while we listen and coach; breaking the choir down into smaller sections to listen to the detail.

But there’s more to it that this, I think. I’m starting to suspect that the biggest barrier between the sounds the choir produces and the conductor’s brain is nothing to do with either ears or technical knowledge: it is the conductor’s own ego boundaries. The more the director holds themselves separate from their singers, the harder it is for them to get a really intuitive understanding of what’s going on in their hearts and their voices.

You can tell how high a director’s ego boundaries are by whether they refer to their choir as ‘we’ or ‘they’. A director who counts themselves as a part of the choir they work with is both less judgemental and less liable to take issues within the choir personally than one who sees themselves as separate. They will be more open to the idea that their own actions are implicated in the musical and vocal problems they hear, and thus (this is the important bit) more empowered to correct them.

A director who calls their choir ‘them’ is too busy protecting their own feelings to notice that they might be hurting their choir’s. They are using a distancing strategy that puts the blame for all the musical shortcomings on ‘them’ so as to avoid dealing with their own inadequacies.

I’m not saying that technical knowledge isn’t valuable, of course. Indeed, without technical categories, there’s nothing to fuel the analytical process. But analysis only tells you about results, about symptoms. If we want to understand causes, to move from analysis to diagnosis, then technical knowledge isn’t enough – we need to put ourselves on the line and indulge in empathy too.

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