Some Words of Encouragement

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I’m interrupting the series on the Myth of the Power of Singing for a quick pep talk to my choral colleagues. I’ve had a number of conversations in the last week or so which have featured caring, hard-working choral directors expressing a sense of overwhelm and inadequacy in the face of the technological challenges of remote rehearsing. If several my personal friends and acquaintances are feeling this way, I bet there are other choral leaders out there suffering similar doubts.

I’m going to start by stating the obvious. The situation we find ourselves in is wildly beyond what we thought we were signing up to do when we chose to become directors. We have no training for it, and those of us starting to offer training for it are really no more than a couple of weeks ahead than anyone else. And yet we have stepped up to keep the music going.

Not every choir has continued to operate, and, given the above, that is perfectly understandable. But if you are doing this at all, then you are already engaged in acts of superheroism in extraordinary circumstances, and if nobody else applauds your efforts, I do. I know how much time, imagination, and emotional investment this takes.

Now, there are two things people have often mentioned in the context of feeling inadequate. The first is a general sense of discomfort with technology. In the usual run of things they’d use it just as much as they needed to for administrative and communication purposes, but they wouldn’t usually get their teeth into exploiting its possibilities. So, the need to rehearse online has immediately put them out of their comfort zone and made them operate in an arena where they already feel less than expert.

The second is what they see from other choral leaders who are clearly more comfortable with it. Those who were already using technology for recording or video-editing or educational purposes and have been able readily to apply those skills for virtual rehearsing. And some of our colleagues are doing awesome stuff, to be sure.

But – this is the important bit – we can admire them without beating ourselves up about not emulating them. One of the key tenets of the abcd conductor training is that the goal is to help people become the best possible version of themselves, not to try and turn them into a copy of someone else, and this principle has never been more relevant than here.

What are you good at? How can you bring that to remote rehearsals? Start there, not with worrying about not being good at what someone else is doing. Building community, developing insight into music, teaching vocal technique, making people laugh are all things that choral directors bring to their work and can not only survive the transition to remote rehearsing, but are all the more appreciated there. What do your singers already love you for? Keep giving them that, and you will be meeting their needs.

We all need to keep swapping ideas of course. We’re infinitely more experienced than we were four months ago, but we’re all still really new at this. But not every idea you hear is going to be one that suits your approach. You can tell the ones that do, because you feel a spark of energy and recognition – you can immediately imagine your singers getting their teeth into it, and you can see where else it could lead you. The ones that, by contrast, just make you feel tired and overwhelmed are the ones to pass on by. They’ve not got your name on them, they’re for someone else.

The other thing that came out of some of these conversations is that some directors could really use more help. In some cases, their usual teams are hampered the external pressures of the covid-era – a range of logistical, technical, personal, and health factors getting in the way of being able to support the director as they usually would. In others, it’s simply that the teams are no more confident with the tech than the director and looking to them for leadership that that the director feels under-resourced to offer.

One suggestion to emerge during these discussions was about accessing help from the wider group. Working with amateur singers, you’ll have a lot of professional other things out there, including people who may have absolutely no confidence to participate in musical leadership but could take over, for example, managing video-sharing or breakout rooms.

If you put a list together of things you’d really appreciate some help with and shared it with the whole choir, my bet is you’d have at least a couple of the things that you find time-consuming and burdensome picked up by someone who finds them easier than you do. People like to help when they can, it makes them feel useful and connected.

Usually the conductor’s impostor syndrome is at least partly irrational. Right now, it might actually be quite realistic – we’re none of us expert here yet. But by the same token, there’s not a whole host of more expert people out there who should be doing it instead. There’s just a bunch of us bringing our skills, imagination and love to a difficult situation, and helping keep some joy alive. Keep at it, your contribution to the universe is important and valuable.

My main issue is with the purpose. Yes we join for the music and stay for the friendships, but the bottom line is this isn’t what the singers signed up for either. This is a group singing activity. Sure there are lots of things we can develop now that we have the chance, but when we don’t know when we might have the chance to sing together again, it’s hard to find focus and motivation. For me, contest or performances were the excuse but it was always about the rehearsal night. But those things we all enjoyed about rehearsal night - is there some fundamental aspect that we can still do? I’ve always planned by working backwards from a goal. It’s hard to see that goal.

Hi Stuart,
Yes I know what you mean. My chorus particularly identified missing singouts - they love performing and have a good relationship with lots of local audiences. (I say 'they' rather than 'we' in this context as this characteristic predates my tenure with them - it was a revelation on my first gig to see the difference it made having people to sing to!)

So we've planned to the end of the year around a number of recording projects that we are explicitly targetting to groups/institutions we should have been performing to during 2020. This has given us both a sense of outreach and some concrete deadlines to work to.

We've also defined a number of specific skills-development goals that we are using the projects to focus on. This means that even if the recordings don't work out well (we're new to this, and whilst we have some people much more technically skilled than I am in the chorus, it is putting them under some pressure), we still will gain something for the future from the experience.

It really helped develop a sense of purpose once we had that structure in place. It isn't the same as singing together, of course, but I have been very struck by the sense of connection I have been given by hearing the sounds of my singers' voices in the drafts that are coming out of the editing process. I can only imagine that they feel that too.

We will no doubt cheerfully abandon these arbitrary goals the second we can get back in a room together, but in the meantime we have some medium-term goals to aim for.

But you're not alone in struggling with motivation under these circumstances.

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