BABS Directors Academy: Thoughts on Identity and Values

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Having outlined some of the practical and philosophical discussions stimulated by all three educators at the recent BABS Directors Academy in my last post, I wanted to stop and mull over some of the thoughts I’ve been having in response in the days since. These have that classic character of a rich learning experience where you feel the value and usefulness of the ideas to your life but also want to argue back at them.

I keep coming back to a wonderful quote, ostensibly from Picasso, which I came across in Abraham Kaplan’s book on choral conducting. I have no idea if it is genuine, but the wisdom is real even if the attribution is spurious:

The goal of an artist is to draw a perfect circle. Since a perfect circle cannot be drawn, the deviations from the perfect circle will express the artist’s own personality. But if the artist tries to express his own personality by concentrating on the deviations, he will miss the whole point.

It strikes me that reflexively interrogating your own identity as an ensemble is potentially an exercise in reification. It encourages self-consciousness, and you risk thereby stereotyping yourself, becoming a caricature of yourself. I am visited by the memory of a student who, when considering the range of general employability skills we used to structure our Professional Development teaching at Birmingham Conservatoire, averred seriously, ‘Oh yes, I am very self-aware,’ and my immediate (and tactfully unverbalised) realisation that ‘self-aware’ and ‘self-obsessed’ are different things.

Self-identity is of course reflexive by nature – as Anthony Giddens has analysed in detail, the ‘Project of the Self’ involves maintaining and continually updating an internal autobiography. (I have written about this as it pertains to both individual and group identities in both my books and in my chapter for the Oxford Handbook of Choral Pedagogy.)

So my niggle isn’t about the concept of chorus identity per se, but the reductiveness of processes that try to boil it down to a motto. And it’s not the value of a strapline I’m quibbling about either, it’s eliding that with the concept of your identity.

Having worried myself round in circles a couple of times on this, the thought that came to the rescue was Linda’s comment that Great Western Chorus had consulted their audiences as part of their process. This reminded me of an exercise that Chris Davidson introduced at a BABS Directors College way back in the early years of the millennium: to ask a variety of people to give you three words that they’d use to describe you to someone who didn’t know you. There’ll be some variety, he predicted (correctly as it turns out), but also a remarkable level of consensus, even between new acquaintances and people who have known you forever.

Now the key point about Chris’s exercise was that it wasn’t about identity, it was about values. Those descriptors from others are the values by which you are currently living your life. Whatever you may think you believe in, what other people agree about you is a more accurate reflection of what is actually driving your actions.

There are two things I like about this. First is the way that by building up your picture from the perceptions of other people, you are less likely to experience the distorting effects of self-delusion, wishful thinking, and simple lack of perspective. And of course, if you don’t like the answer they give you, that’s very useful information that needs addressing before you can move forward happily to produce a motto that genuinely and congruently captures the essence of your group.

The second thing I like is that values seem to me a more productive concept around which to structure your discussion than identity. For a start, it is outward-focused, placing attention on what you can contribute to the universe rather than simply who you are. It is also something over which you have more control: you can choose what, collectively, you hold most dear.

And the tales you hear about difficulties groups encounter about their direction or focus more often boil down to questions about values more than they do about identity. Do we care more about excellence or accessibility? Are we more interested in competitions or local outreach? The results of the negotiations, and whether they result in compromise or splits, fundamentally shape the ensemble’s identity, but that is the result rather than the cause.

So the point I have reached on this is currently: if we look after our values, our identities will look after themselves.

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