The National Youth Choir’s Young Leaders

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I spent last weekend in North London at the National Youth Choir’s training event for Young Leaders. In anticipation of the courses they will be running around the country this Easter, the weekend’s purpose was to support those making the transition from choir members to staff. There was a real sense of continuum between the more senior staff members providing the training (most of whom had themselves come through the choir to their current responsibilities), through staff members with some experience and those just starting out, to current choir members exploring the possibility of joining the staff in the future.

It was a wonderful group of people to spend time with – intelligent, energetic and humane. Their common experience in the choir showed not only through a shared repertoire of warm-up and rehearsal activities and choral conventions, but also through a common ethos. They had clearly invited me as keynote presenter because my work resonated with the musical and community values embedded in the organisation’s culture, and this showed most strongly in the questions the participants were asking – the shared goals were taken as axiomatic, and the responses probed deeply into how to bring them to life in practice.

The discussions these questions provoked will feature in several future posts – not least because they were asking the kind of exploratory questions that had me continuing to think about them all the way home, and I’d like to deal with them more fully and more cogently than you do when you’re working out your thoughts in real time.

But for today I’d like to share some observations about the sessions that Joy Brereton and James Smyth ran on pastoral care, and their relationship with the sessions that Esther Jones ran on section leadership. The session on pastoral care had all kinds of useful advice about procedures and conduct and how these related to child protection policy and the change in role from peer to position of responsibility. But it started with the point that the first responsibility of all staff at the beginning of every course is to watch out for the newcomers and make sure they’re okay. People feel vulnerable stepping into a new environment, especially if they’ve not stayed away without their families before, and how to identify and support anyone who may be lonely, homesick or shy came to the top as the primary goal of the session.

By starting the session with this key point, Joy and James established an ethos of kindness that infused all the other points they made, and it bubbled up again in Esther’s session on section leadership. This session started out with a discussion of the skills and qualities that an ideal section leader would possess, and blossomed out into practical strategies for both the musical and interpersonal dimensions of the role.

The section rehearsal emerged as the place where not only did the nuts-and-bolts work of getting to know the music happen, but a place where singers can be inducted into the ways of the choir. These ways include the house style of vowel shapes and rehearsal tactics, but also the conventions of discipline and type of humour to expect from the full rehearsal. Participants were very ready to exchange thoughts on things that could be daunting the first time you experience them – and therefore what section members might need to be warned about in advance or reassured about afterwards.

Towards the end of the session, Esther articulated this general resonance between the pastoral and musical leadership approaches by pointing out that people can feel very vulnerable when they sing. It’s not just that you are your own instrument, so you’re putting yourself on the line vocally, it’s that in order to sing expressively, you’re also putting your heart on the line. The general fear of rejection may, moreover, be exacerbated by the experience of being seen as uncool or even bullied back home for involvement in music (a theme that emerged in the pastoral session too). As it is the whole human being that sings, the section leader’s role is to help their members to do so by making them feel safe. This safety involves confidence about how the music goes, but it is also involves letting them know they belong and are valued.

Results of discussions in Esther Jones's sessionResults of discussions in Esther Jones's session

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