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On Punching Up

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This is one of those ‘writing it out to see if I can work out what I think’ posts. I have been thinking recently a lot about the dynamic in which a choral director finds themselves being bullied by a member of their choir. Chris Rowbury wrote an insightful post on the kind of dynamic of which this is a particular type some time back, which prompted some painful and heartfelt conversations within various communities of choral directors in which I’m involved.

There’s stuff going on behind the scenes to develop training and support for choir leaders – both musical and administrative – with the aim of both helping reduce its incidence and help people cope with and resolve difficult situations whilst keeping relationships and emotional health intact. It may be appropriate to blog about some of that in due course, though it’s currently at too early a stage to go into any detail.

But I think it’s okay to do some of my preparatory thinking in public, not least because it may flush out useful thoughts from others who may have relevant experience or insight.

So, I was wondering: why is it that choir members can feel it’s okay to bully their conductors? Because it happens quite a lot, certainly enough that there are clearly discernible patterns of behaviours. You know when you start cracking dark jokes about Toxic Choir Situation Bingo that you are dealing with a relatively coherent cultural pattern.

One starting point was a definition of bullying: the Anti-Bullying Alliance website defines it as:

The repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. Bullying can be physical, verbal or psychological. It can happen face-to-face or online.

That raised an immediate question mark about the situation I’m reflecting on, as in the cases I have been hearing about, there is indeed a structural imbalance of power inherent in the relationship, but it is the person being bullied who ostensibly holds the upper hand. The choir director has, as I have analysed before an unusual level of power within the social contract of the choir rehearsal. The structure of the event puts them in control of what everybody does and how they do it; they even tell you when to breathe.

This can of course lead to situations in which the conductors bully their singers, as I have likewise written about before. We need to handle our power carefully and find ways to mitigate its potential for inadvertent harm. (I’m assuming that people whose worldview resonates with this blog aren’t interested in inflicting harm deliberately.) But in general the conductors who have been sharing tales of toxic situations in their choirs have been people I know to be kindly, and have felt distressed and fragile when they found themselves harangued or harassed by those they make music with.

And I got to thinking about the principle of ‘punching up’ in comedy. There is a general etiquette in stand-up that it’s mean and cheap to make fun of those with less social power than you do. You can make fun of your own (only a ginger can call a ginger ‘Ginger’, as Tim Minchin puts it), and you can make fun of those who have more money or influence than you do (politicians and royalty are thus mostly fair game), but racist or sexist jokes are seen as, well, a form of bullying.

So it may be that when choir members lash out at their leaders, they don’t experience what they are doing as bullying because they feel like they are punching up. That they feel the conductor has too much power and needs taking down a peg, or at least has enough power that they won’t be damaged by the receipt of regular messages telling them they’re doing a bad job. I don’t expect they analyse this way themselves – it usually seems like their difficult behaviours come from an emotionally fraught place where there might be rationalisation but not a lot of actual analysis. But it makes some kind of sense of the patterns of behaviour conductors have experienced.

But of course, as many conductors will admit to those they trust, they feel anything but invulnerable. Impostor syndrome is rife amongst amateur MDs; professionals may not find it quite such a persistent part of their musical identity but certainly know how it feels, and can quite readily have a relapse into underconfidence when they undergo a difficult experience.

The structure of the conductor-choir relationship invests the MD with authority and constitutes steeply hierarchical social relations in the context of the rehearsal event, but that itself is a source of doubt for human beings who see themselves as not inherently very different from those they direct. Disgruntled choir members may punch up at the position of the maestro, the blows land on an actual person with normal human needs for safety and belonging.

Ironically, sometimes the source of the disgruntlement seems to be the perception of the feet of clay that the director is all too aware of. As 19th-century women were put up on a pedestal, then punished mercilessly when they failed to live up to the idealised image, so conductors are put up on a podium and punished for failing to live up to the myth.

I think this makes some sense of what’s going on here, but I’m going to be interested to see how other people see it. It’s probably not the whole story, but then in complex human relationships there’s unlikely ever to be a single right answer. Over to you, folks.

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