On the Locus of Control, Part 2: The Conductor-Choir Relationship

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So, my generalised musings on this concept brought me, as such musings so often seem to do, to wonder about the dynamic between a director and their choir. Given that the conductor’s job is to bring a collection of individuals together so that they operate musically as a single, coordinated, entity, how do they leave those individuals with a sense of their own agency?

This is not a new question, either to this blog or my wider writings - it is in many ways the question that Mike Brewer and I addressed in the Cambridge Companion to Choral Music through the metaphor of the social contract. But it is always worth a fresh view, especially when you have a useful conceptual lens like locus of control to examine it through.

I am going to look through this lens at two different levels of magnification - first at the big picture of a director’s overall approach to decision making, then in finer detail at the specifics of what we do during the flow of rehearsal.

How you run your choir

The buck stops with the director for many decisions. Ultimately it the conductor’s responsibility to determine programming (both in terms of repertoire chosen and the choice of occasions at which it is performed), which in turn cascades into decisions about rehearsal planning and learning methods. Within the framework of the choir’s policies, the director will also have ultimate say on membership - most clearly visible in those groups that audition.

The constitutional set-up may include various checks and balances in the form of a board/executive committee that manages the choir and/or a music team to whom some of the director’s tasks are devolved, but as the person accountable for delivering the performances, these fundamental decisions that underlie them also remain the conductor’s responsibility.

But whilst the buck stops with the director for many things, there is no reason for them to act alone. One of the benefits of working with a choir is that there are a lot of other brains available to help with the thinking. (Almost as many as there are mouths to help with the singing, and the ones that are the most useful for one aren’t always the most useful for the other.)

A director who regularly seeks the opinions of the people they work with not only gathers useful information about what kind of decisions are most likely to enthuse their ensemble, but will actively generate enthusiasm, since people who feel they have an influence over events feel a greater sense of purpose.

To phrase it as ‘seeking opinions’ though implies that the possibilities are pre-determined and the director merely wants guidance in choosing between them. The director is still basically in control of the interaction in this scenario.

Even more useful is to listen to and act on suggestions. Not all of them, obviously. If you build a culture in which the having of ideas is encouraged, you’ll end up with far more thoughts than you can possibly use, some of them directly contradicting each other. But if you welcome people’s thoughts (even the ones that sound dumb on first hearing) with the attitude of, ‘thanks for your suggestion, I’ll have a think about that’, then the ideas will keep coming, and some of them will be very useful indeed. Actually, sometimes the ones that sound dumb on first hearing end up sparking other ideas that you are really pleased with, so having that think you promised nearly always pays off one way or another.

Harvesting the fruits your singers’ creative intelligence is worth doing for its own sake. Which is why doing so nurtures their possession of their own locus of control. It only works if they can genuinely make a difference.

How you run your rehearsals

So I’ve already talked in previous musings about the nature of instructions a conductor gives, and whether you are giving your singers the opportunity to use their own hearts and minds. ‘Volume level 3’ treats the ensemble as a machine to be operated by the conductor; ‘Sing this secretively’ treats them as communicators with the power to behave expressively.

How we use gestures is also key to the singers’ experience of control over the musical flow. The more a conductor leans in to their choir, and the bigger/more energised their gestures, the more they are occupying the shared expressive space between conductor and choir where the music is made. As I have written before, when invited to give feedback, singers experience a director who mouths the words as taking away their own sense of personal involvement in a song.

This relates back to the dynamic of the ‘intimacy equilibrium’ model I borrowed from social psychology to consider the conductor-choir bond and how over-directing distorts it. In conversation, when someone stands too close, or speaks too loudly, we feel imposed upon, it feels like we’re not being allowed the space to participate properly. In order to maintain our own sense of personal control, we will withdraw - physically, vocally and/or emotionally - until we intuit we have counter-balanced the excessive behaviour of our interlocutor.

In choirs, people also do this, and it is worth noting that it is a strategy which people engage to protect their internal locus of control. So, when we say that a choir-member’s sense of autonomy is related to their opportunity to sing with personal expressiveness, we’re not going to make this happen by conducting from the shoulder and shouting, ‘More emotion!’ over the top of the voices. Ahem.

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