On Building an Emotionally Resilient Choir

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This is a theme I mentioned in relation to the session at the LABBS Directors Day in July, but there wasn’t space to expand on it that post. It was a session I included in the programme after having had several conversations during the spring that included reports of singers feeling anxious about the LABBS Convention in October.

Now, performance nerves is one thing (and something we can help with!), but worrying about an event several months in advance is just not how the world should be. People join choirs as a way to escape from the stresses of life, not to gain whole new areas of stress. Besides, fretting is terrible for pitch retention.

Of course, chorus directors can’t control how people feel. But they can do a good deal to shape the environment in which people are having those feelings. And probably the most important thing that session did was to put the matter on everyone’s radar: look, people are putting undue pressure on themselves and being less happy as a result, what can we do to help?

Regular readers of this blog will recognise a good many of the themes that came up. We talked, for instance, about goal-setting, and the important of process and individual goals to balance outcome goals. Also, about setting goals at a useful level of ambition. If they’re too hard they create anxiety, too easy they don’t motivate – what we need are Goldilocks Goals.

Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset came up, unsurprisingly, as did the very useful distinction between rational and experiential objectives. The latter is particularly useful for the director concerned with the emotional state of their singers, as it forces you to plan your rehearsals in terms both of what you want to achieve and how you want people to feel about themselves having achieved it.

At the heart of the session was the question: What are your singers scared of? There are all kinds of specific answers to this, dependent on the challenges a choir is setting itself, and the stage individual singers are at on their particular musical journey. But most if not all fall into one of three categories:

  • What if I make a fool of myself?
  • What if I let down my friends?
  • What if my MD is cross?

Dealing with these three worries comes down to managing a choir’s safety needs. And this is very much in the director’s hands. By definition what we do most of the time is monitoring how everybody is getting on and intervening when it needs to be better. The morning’s session on ‘Listening Skills’ could just as easily have been terms ‘Auditory Surveillance’. How we go about making these interventions is central to whether our singers feel supported by the process or judged by it.

This is to large extent about ethos. A psychologically safe environment is one in which it is accepted that mistakes are part of the process, there to give clues about what will most benefit from extra attention in rehearsal. A director who shames mistakes – or indeed who allows singers to shame each other – inhibits everyone from taking the personal and artistic risks you need to take to improve.

It is also about mood. As Sally McLean put it so concisely on a previous directors’ day: don’t be grumpy. The message that, ‘It’s okay, we can work on this, that’s what rehearsals are for,’ can be very encouraging, but only if expressed with pleasure for the process. The moment a director evinces impatience at the inevitable frailties of the human beings in their care, all the singers’ doubts about their personal adequacy come flooding back in.

People worry because they care: the strength of the responsibility they feel to get things right is a tribute to the strength of the bonds they feel with their choirs. But those bonds can be just as strong without the attendant anxieties. And both singers and audiences alike reap the benefit when people can put down the burden of their worries, stop bracing themselves against the fear of failure, and let their voices ring with confidence and joy.

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