No Dark Sarcasm in the Rehearsal Room

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There is a style of British (or maybe only English?) humour that takes the hapless idiocy of a struggling learner as the butt of its jokes. It is an old-fashioned mode of interaction in the classroom - I encountered vestiges of it in my own education, though mostly grew up in a more modern, child-centred world.

It is a masculine style of humour. You see it in fictional accounts of boys' schools of yesteryear, and, while a male teacher may apply it in a mixed classroom, the specific recipients of derision are more likely to be boys than girls. You don't hear it much from female teachers. John Cleese gives a good cameo of the style in The Meaning of Life

As an observer who both shares this culture (i.e. I'm English) and is separate from it (i.e. I'm female, and not privately educated), I have quite mixed feelings about it. It can be a vehicle of considerable emotional cruelty, inculcating young boys into a hierarchical worldview in which the strong prey upon the weak, who then redress their experiential balance by growing up to pick on their own juniors. English fiction by female authors abounds with mothers who yearn over what their sons are going through at the expensive schools their fathers insist upon sending them to.

It can also be a vehicle for the delight of wit and wordplay, and by consequence for social bonding. Sarcasm does not have to be delivered with malice, and its objects can experience the ribbing as expressions of genuine affection. Banter is a game based on mock insults, and can be engaged in with a charm that invites playful complicity.

The reason I mention this is because a goodly number of choral conductors in the UK are products of the schools associated with British cathedrals. Until recently, the choirs themselves were exclusively male (indeed, many still are), and the schools were (are) culturally continuous with the rest of the private education sector. So, many of our country's musical leaders grew up with this style of humour as an integral part of their rehearsal experience, and carry it into their own work with choirs.

This too gives me mixed feelings. It's partly about rehearsal technique - I have long been of the 'say what you want, not what's wrong' school of thought. So a rehearsal approach that is based on the humorous highlighting of error risks making the problems the most vivid part of the process.

It's also about identity. If you are working with a choir in which all the singers share this style of humour in their own background, using it in rehearsal could be a strong means for inclusion. But if they don't, it can leave people feeling distinctly alienated. In a world where traditional choral societies can struggle to recruit new members, directors need to reflect on the messages their rehearsal style is sending out about who will belong.

(And of course, some do handle this well. In my choral conducting book I remark about the cultural flexibility of a director I observed who adjusted his approach according to whether he was working with a men and boys choir or a community choral society.)

Most importantly, though, it is about affect - the emotional tone of a rehearsal. Sarcasm as banter can lighten the spirits as well as bumping people out of cognitive ruts. Sarcasm as controlling device shuts down delight and replaces it with fear.

A cautionary tale, though:

I used to wonder why those choral leaders whose comments seemed cruelly barbed continued in that vein when - I assumed - they'd get better results by kindness. Then one day I gave an instruction to a choir in a tone of impatience of which I was immediately ashamed. But I actually got a better sound in response - the voices had that extra ping that a small shot of adrenaline releases, and the brains were clearly also more focused and on the ball.

I suddenly understood how this culture of sarcastic humour perpetuates itself - the uplift to performance produced by the adrenal response effectively rewards the director for their small acts of unkindness. It's not just reproducing the behaviour modelled by their own teachers, this behaviour is reinforced by operant conditioning.

But I still think you make better music with joy than with fear.

Since what we are actually talking about here is the "fight or flight" mechanism and it's subsequent adrenal response, why not let us sing along with a dvd of say... Westminster Chorus with some cleverly interjected subliminal images of Hannibal Lector or some other equally frightening person? Might that not achieve the same result? ;-)

Ha! Give it a try and let us know how you get on, Thom :-)

What an interesting observation Liz.
I am the product of private education and I am also guilty of allowing my sarcasm to occasionally overstep the mark but I have never considered that the two may be linked. Nor have I considered that the response to my sarcastic remarks may be related to the educational background of the victim. I shall watch, listen and learn.
I do agree with your comment that joy is likely to produce the best music though.

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