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Expecting the Unexpected with abcd

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abcdsquareSaturday morning saw me presenting another in the series of webinars hosted by the Association of British Choral Directors, this time in collaboration with Kate Shipway, who had proposed the idea of exploring how people might respond emotionally to the return to live choral rehearsals.

Kate took our minds back to this time last year, when the discourse within choirs was framed in terms of ‘I can’t wait to get back to this, how happy we will be!’ A year on, and people’s attitudes are more mixed – along with the anticipation (and possibly unrealistic expectations), come the anxiety and trepidation associated with re-entry syndrome. And in the time since we last met regularly in person, we’ve all been through some degree of trauma: nature and extent of it varies a lot depending on our individual circumstances, but nobody remains untouched by the experiences of the last year.

So we have the potential for post-traumatic responses, and of course music-making is an activity designed to stir the emotions – much of the reason we value it is its capacity to organise and articulate our feelings. On the other hand, though, as a culture the British are uncomfortable with displays of strong emotion, so there is the potential for spontaneous responses to be distressing both to those experiencing them and those witnessing them. And of course our usual ways of comforting each other will be largely inhibited by the needs of covid-secure distancing.

After spending some time exploring these potential difficulties, and what participants were particularly worried about, we turned our attention towards coping strategies. We can’t control people’s emotions, but we can shape the environment in which they occur. We can think about how we prepare for the return to minimise uncertainty (and thus anxiety), we can plan our repertoire choices and rehearsal activities to calm rather than agitate. Our goal is to create a safe space so that the fact of experiencing an unexpectedly strong emotional response doesn’t compound the response itself.

And of course, conductors are people too, and are entitled to our own emotional responses. Those of us based in England were particularly feeling this last week in the wake of the sudden, belated changes to the guidelines we had been planning to for months.

One participant spoke about a sense of irrational guilt when having to break the news of these changes to her singers. She didn’t need us to tell her that it’s not her fault – she knew this perfectly well, and also knew that she’d never blame someone else for breaking the news. But that’s the nature of irrational guilt – by definition it isn’t reasonable. Several of us there knew exactly how that felt.

Which is why I mention it – in case anyone else out there has also had this experience. We didn’t find a solution to it, but it helps to know you’re not alone. It is probably a product of being caught between the responsibility we feel towards our choirs on one hand and on the other the sense of powerlessness that results when rules are changed without warning. It’s a contradictory situation to find ourselves in, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised if our emotional responses to it aren’t entirely logical.

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