How to Prevent Your Choir from Singing Well
I recently read Robin Stuart-Kotze’s book Performance: The Secrets of Successful Behaviour. I picked it up wondering if it was going to be one of the business-management genre books that have been feeding into my charisma project. Not directly, it turns out, and where it does, mostly by contrast. Nonetheless, it proved a stimulating read, both in the dimensions in which I found myself persuaded, and in those where I found myself wanting to argue back. (Possibly that is the definition of a stimulating book!)
Anyway, one of the areas I found particularly useful was where he discusses performance-blocking behaviours – i.e. those habits and forms of interaction that actively prevent people from doing well. The problem with these is not just that they are counter-productive, but also that they are highly contagious. So one person’s blocking behaviours very quickly inspire similarly unhelpful habits in others.
Now, one of his central points in the whole book is that how well people do is primarily determined by their behaviour, which is in turn primarily a response to environment and situation. That is, it’s not about personality. If someone behaves in a way that hinders other people’s effectiveness, it’s not because of the kind of person they are, it’s as a response to something in their own world. Thus, blocking behaviours can be at least mitigated if not cured by seeking to understand what stimulates them.
So his is a message of hope – we see these behaviours all around us (and indeed participate in them), often seemingly locked into negative cycle of discouragement – but we are not doomed to stay locked in them. I thought it was useful to make that point before looking at the details, which I found resonating uncomfortably with a host of rehearsal habits that one finds in varying degrees of severity in many conductors and their choirs.
Stuart-Kotze enumerates three basic forms of blocking behaviours:
- Defensive-aggressive behaviours: these are when someone lashes out at others, and they are usually a response to a perceived attack on their self-esteem. This kind of aggression is often motivated by a fear of failure, and projects that frustration onto others.
We see this in rehearsal every time a director gets impatient with their singers. Not many directors shout at their singers very often, but more resort to sarcasm. Cutting singers off after a ragged start can feel like an act of violence on the music if it’s done with a peremptory clap and a frown rather than as offering an opportunity for the performers to do the job they’d like to. When it becomes endemic, rehearsals descend into a weary trudge through the act of note-bashing.
The fear that underlies this style of rehearsing is the very basic one of: what if we don’t get the music learned in time for the concert? Have I bitten off more than the choir can chew in my programming? It is a real and perfectly reasonably fear, and the director is right to feel an underlying responsibility: if the choir fails, it is indeed the director’s failure.
But once you start taking this fear out on the choir, you tend to lose sight that it’s your own failure you’re scared of, and you start blaming the singers. This is counter-productive not only for the effect it has on them, but it also undermines your opportunity to affect the outcome, by removing the problem from your circle of influence into your circle of concern.
- Conflict-avoidance behaviours: This is where people avoid risk or controversy, they don’t challenge other people’s behaviours or opinions, they let things slide. It may arise from a perception that conflict situations are win-lose, and an underlying fear of being on the losing side. On the face of it, it seems less destructive than defensive-aggressive behaviour, as it maintains a much more genial style of social interaction.
But it can become frustrating for those around you, as they find they never know where they stand. What are the expectations? What should I expect if I don’t meet them? Why are some people getting away with things that we have been asked not to do? Over time, conflict avoidance generates uncertainty, then anxiety, then resentment, even anger.
Every choral director has a story (or several) of having to deal with a choir member who persistently engaged in unacceptable behaviours. Endemic lateness, constant talking in rehearsal, a male singer refusing to watch a female director because he didn’t believe that men should be told what to do by women, whatever. Inevitably the story goes through various stages of trying to deal with the issue at a group (i.e. non-confrontational) level, all of which fail, and in the end the director has to bite the bullet and address the perpetrator directly. This results in the perpetrator either flouncing off in a huff, or apologising, genuinely having had no idea of the effect they were having on the group. The atmosphere clears, and all the singers say they wish the director had done it earlier.
- Responsibility-avoidance behaviours: This is the response to a fear of repercussions for making a mistake. It manifests in withdrawal, reduced involvement, apparent disinterest, and a general inclination to avoid notice and to pass the buck whenever possible. This is not a common position among directors (though I can think of a couple I have known who behave like this when the occasion permits), but it is a very common response among choirs to a defensive-aggressive director.
When I was doing the rehearsal observations that fed into my book on choral conducting, I saw a few examples of this: a hectoring director leading a choir that had an astonishingly small sound for the number of people singing. One instance in particular is striking, as his method for improving the blend was to shout, ‘I can hear voices; I can hear individuals in the sound!’. This specific punishment for being audible encouraged people to sing in a very mousy and indistinct way.
And whilst responsibility-avoidance may be a response to defensive-aggressive behaviour, it also spawns more responsibility-avoidance in those around us. This is partly just through the power of social validation, but it’s also because the more people around you are trying to hide, the more visible your normal behaviour becomes by contrast. Failure to retreat becomes tantamount to stepping forward into danger.
So, having thought about the various forms of dysfunctional relationship a director can have with their choir, and seen how easy it is to fall into them, it is worth reminding ourselves of Stuart-Kotze’s premise that the quality of performance is a function of behaviour, not personality, and that behaviours can change. If (when) we catch ourselves in performance-blocking behaviours, it is possible to identify the stimuli that we reacted to, and to devise more helpful responses for future reference. Phew.