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The Conductor’s Circle of Influence

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circlesI have a lot of conversations with choir directors, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that there is a strong correlation between how happy or unhappy the director is with progress and how much they refer to the choir as ‘we’ or ‘they’. Choral leaders face myriad potential difficulties: do the singers turn up regularly and on time?; do they retain what they’ve learned one week to the next?; do they pay attention during rehearsal?; do they watch the conductor?

Every choir faces variants of these challenges at their own particular level. But directors seem to feel more frustrated about them if they are framing them as problems with the behaviour of the (implicitly errant) singers rather than problems with the culture of the choir as a whole, including the director.

Stephen Covey makes a useful distinction between a person’s circle of influence and their circle of concern. The former includes all the stuff that they can affect, where they can make a difference. The latter includes all the stuff that lies outside their capacity to change, but about which they still care. Covey’s point is that our sense of empowerment/disempowerment in the world – and thus our levels of motivation or apathy – are governed by the relative size of these two circles.

If our mindset is that the circle of things over which we have influence is small compared to the circle of things we care about, we will tend to spend more time bemoaning the state of the world. If we believe that we can find ways to make a difference about things we care about, we will push the edge of the inner circle right out until our circle of influence fills more and more of our circle of concern. We will tend to spend less time complaining and more time doing. We will become active rather than passive.

This idea is similar to psychology’s distinction between having an internal or external locus of control, that is, between an attitude that you make things happen versus an attitude that things happen to you. The difference with Covey’s formulation is that it is less either/or; it sees the relationship as a matter of tendency, and one that may vary over time. You often see it when people change jobs – the very act of going out to find a new role wipes out a lot of the defeatism they may have been experiencing previously.

So the pronoun ‘we’ or ‘they’ becomes a clue as to which circle the director is placing a particular problem they face in. ‘We need to do more music-learning outside rehearsal’ states the same issue as ‘They never do anything between rehearsals’, but it suggests that the desired state is possible and that the singers are susceptible to the director’s influence on the matter.

Of course, this is a hard message for the director. If you believe you can make a difference, then you actually have to do something. It requires thought and action, and sometimes the thought is quite uncomfortable as you have to face the ways in which you have been allowing or even enabling the problem behaviour. It is easier to moan, and you can understand why busy people may choose the mild misery of whinging rather than the rigours of self-examination.

But when you do make the effort to think about the problem and to devise plans to solve it, you get a great pay-off. You feel so much more energy and enthusiasm, and indeed fondness for your choir. And you don’t have to do it alone. Sometimes the decision you need to make is to put together a team to help you solve it.

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