Maslow for Choirs: Aesthetic Needs

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aestheticsEighth post in a series that starts here

In many ways, considering a choir's aesthetic needs is a continuation of the issues that arise from their cognitive needs. Just as there is a hierarchy whereby data is processed into information, which in turn is aggregated into wisdom, there is a hierarchy of musical surface details, which get aggregated into musical structures (both of which we considered in my last post), and in turn can give rise to meaning.

Making sense of music is both about the kind of syntactical structures that are essentially cognitive and the emotional and narrative resonances that allow us to perceive beauty and meaning. It is the latter that motivates our commitment and attachment to music, but it arises from the former. It is hard to care deeply about music we don't 'get'.

Aesthetic needs are the primary motivation for people to join choirs. Yes, they may say they wanted to make new friends, but the fact is they chose to make new friends in a group that makes music. They could easily have signed up for a badminton club or a cookery course, but instead they came to choir. Belonging needs are important, but they are not the main story.

Meeting people's aesthetic needs are also how choirs can best serve their audiences. This is stating the obvious, I know, but it sometimes seems that people get so tangled up in the imperatives of getting things right that they forget that all that technical detail is in service of sharing musical beauty and meaning. The technical stuff matters, for sure, but only because it enhances the shared experience; it has no particular value in its own right.

You can tell when people's aesthetic needs are been met, as they start to look very happy and very expressive. If you're not getting enough eye contact, they are more likely to be gazing upwards into their own imaginations or even closing their eyes rather than looking down. (As a conductor, you still need to collect their gaze of course, but it is better to do this by smiling at them than hectoring them - bring them back into the room gently to preserve their musically-connected state of being.)

So, at a practical level, what can we do to facilitate our singers' entry into this aesthetically-engaged and pleasurable state?

The key thing is to give our singers plenty of opportunities to use their own imaginations. We can do this through the activities we use with them - having choir members listen and respond to each other through rehearsal techniques like duetting or having individuals come out to the front to give feedback can be very powerful for this.

At a more fundamental level, though, we need to think about our rehearsal vocabulary. The more we can couch our instructions in terms that are expressively meaningful in the context of the music at hand, the more we can invite our singers to engage with the aesthetic ends and not just the technical means to them. Use metaphors: especially metaphors derived from the music you are working on, and metaphors that are meaningful to the demographic you are working with.

As a general principle, aim to give instructions in terms of the expressive effect the music calls for rather than the means to that end. 'Loud' and 'soft' are aesthetically unmotivated instructions, 'triumphantly' or 'intimately' give the same information as to the 'how', but add the dimension of 'why'. Even better is to have a culture in which your singers supply a good many of the adjectives: 'How would you described this passage? Right, let's sing it like that.'

And at a more fundamental level still, remember that as director, you have inordinate power to set the agenda. What you remark upon is what choir members will notice. So, when you hear beauty, let them know. Let it show in your smile when the singing delights your heart. Give yourself permission to enjoy it when the music's good.

Lead from the front: if you care about the music, your singers will find themselves in a good place too.

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