Are We Having Fun Yet?

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A reasonably common point of debate within amateur choirs is whether the point is to have fun or to perform well. For the fun-faction, the requirements of choral discipline (watching the conductor, enunciating the text, not chatting all the time) are frustrating because they dampen the spirits and inhibit people’s enjoyment of a social occasion. For the performance posse, all the chattage and talkery and not following instructions very reliably is frustrating because it inhibits their opportunity for a flow experience and the specifically musical pleasures available from a really clean choral sound.

I suspect there are several things going on within this debate. One is a choral version of the difference in orientation between the people-focused and task-focused that you meet in any walk of life. Some people care about singing with other people because it’s singing with other people, while others are interested in singing with other people.

There are also differences in what is valued musically. If your primary interest is in spirit and energy you are likely to cultivate a different rehearsal atmosphere than if your interest is in clarity and precision. (Personally, I like all of these, but I’m just greedy that way….)

But notwithstanding these valid and real dichotomies, I still tend to think that we shouldn’t have to choose between excellence and entertainment. If challenge and skill acquisition weren’t inherently rewarding, there wouldn’t be a market for computer games. It’s fun to get good at something, especially something as intrinsically pleasurable as singing.

If people are experiencing intensive rehearsal as too much like ‘hard work’, that is a signal that we need to re-examine our rehearsal methods. Are we focusing on technical detail to the exclusion of musical meaning? Maybe we need to acknowledge the expressive purpose of the details more explicitly so that people have a reason to care about them. Are we remembering to celebrate when the choir gets things right? Maybe people will enjoy making the effort more if they reliably get their deserved pay-off for success.

I care about this for both human and musical reasons. People who experience fun as fundamentally opposed to excellence are missing out on that amazing feeling you get when you do something so much better than you thought you could. Everybody deserves that ‘I rule the world!’ sensation every so often – actually, every rehearsal if possible. And people who experience excellence as essentially serious are making the achievement of their goal so much harder for themselves. Music needs joy.

I sing in an all-women's community choir and for the most part we are disciplined, but some talking goes on, and the focus dissipates at time.

In contrast, however, I recently attended a choral festival at Westminster Choir School, where we had one week to rehearse and then perform Mozart's Requiem. The singers who composed the choir were conductors and music teachers and all came with the music completely learned.

The level of focus and concentration was extraordinary and the quality of work that was done was so satisfying that it will be hard for me to go back to a lesser level of focus. Strikingly different was how there truly was no talking during the rehearsal and it was the way all the singers preferred it. There is a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction a different nature that can come from this level of work.

Well of course you need both (fun and discipline), but if I were forced to sacrifice one, I would stick with FUN!

If everyone's having fun it creates the perfect atmosphere for excellence. If the focus is entirely on product, then it's oh so easy for fear and lack of confidence to feed in.

From the Front of the Choir

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