Musings on Section Leadership

‹-- PreviousNext --›

This post emerges from having a number of conversations over quite a long period of time, and noticing a pattern that needs interrogating. I don’t know if by the end of it I’ll have any answers, but I hope to have a better handle on the questions, which is arguably the most useful stage.

The conversations have been with choir directors, mostly (though not exclusively) of barbershop choruses, but all groups in which section leaders play a significant role in the groups’ processes for learning music. The choruses have included all-male, all-female and mixed groups, ensembles of a range of achievement levels, and are based in several different countries. What they have in common are reports of a particular dynamic within one of their sections, whereby the section as a whole is perceived as fragile, despite having a very strong singer for their leader.

It’s worth teasing out what constitutes fragility (sometimes framed as ‘weakness’) and strength in these contexts. Both manifest most obviously in terms of volume of sound, though this is understood in terms of both skills and self-confidence.

The ‘problem’ section is quieter than the norm within the group as a whole, and this may also be associated with a breathier vocal quality, and in some (though not all) cases, fragility of pitch integrity. This makes sense of course, since all of these qualities are often symptoms of a sound that needs more support. It is heard in terms of being ‘under-confident’, as it is often accompanied by a degree of rhythmic hesitation, and a tendency to become more tentative when attention is turned to them.

The ‘strong’ section leader is perceived as such for both vocal and musical reasons. Vocally, they display a clean adduction of the vocal folds and efficient use of their resonators, producing a ringing, overtone-rich sound. They also trust their own skills in learning music and are thus ready to sing out proactively.

On the face of it, then, these singers are natural leaders: they display exactly the behaviour a director wants from all their singers. But hearing several directors talk about their experiences made me wonder: is the section as a whole underpowered not despite the strong leader, but because of them?

It varies how much of an insight I have into the different people’s lives, whether I’ve met and worked with the groups, or just heard about them anecdotally, so I’m generalising here from patchy information. But I suspect the dynamic represents at least partly a dysfunctional intimacy equilibrium, with the section as a whole subconsciously reducing their energy levels to counterbalance an experienced excess from their leader.

‘Energy’ here encompasses both vocal sound and other behaviours: how the leader attempts to chivvy their team on, for example. A leader who browbeats their section is pretty much guaranteed to see the singers withdraw rather than flourish, but even a cheery approach, if presented with an excessively Tiggerish bounce could see the section develop compensatory passivity. (My guess is you’d hear more issues with vocal tension and pitch problems with the former, though, and simple mousiness with the latter.)

So, how does one go about rebalancing this equilibrium? One can imagine both MD and Section Leader feeling that asking the best singer in the section to sing with less resonance isn’t a solution they like the sound of. And I think the extent to which the section leader is self-aware about the dynamic they’re involved in will make a difference as to how best to approach this. (Thinking about this was a good moment to revisit the Johari windows.)

I have a few possible answers. This is very much an initial brain dump, so please use it to spark better and more developed ideas:

  • Stacking the ensemble by resonance rather than in sections will put each singer with voices more like their own and thus create a more comfortable environment for them. The strong singer can sing out without those around them feeling they are being overpowered, and the quieter singers can also relax and will probably also sing out more.
  • Consider switching team roles around to reconfigure your resonant singer as your go-to for demos, but not necessarily responsible for leading section rehearsals. A section rehearsal needs someone with a good ear to monitor how people are doing, a good voice to demonstrate how the music should be sung, and good timekeeping and task-management to get things done, but these skills don’t all have to be present in the same person. If you have a good facilitator to lead, they can fill in their skill gaps from within the group, and will get more out of everyone than a star that everyone else is a bit intimidated by.
  • Give some scrutiny to how section rehearsals are run, and develop some protocols for rehearsal vocabulary and procedures. The arts of giving compliments, of making corrections without being judgemental, and of keeping people singing as near constantly as possible are disciplines that can be developed and are good for boosting both skills and morale.
  • Find ways to give individual singers training and support within your rehearsal schedule (aka PVIs, or personal vocal instruction). Targeted help improves both skills and confidence, and also reframes the role of individual singers within the whole. It can be tempting to hide within a choir, to experience yourself as an unimportant fragment of the whole, but individual training signals that everyone is real and present to the director, and moreover, that everyone is worth investing in. Sometimes you have to start believing in people before they feel they have permission to believe in themselves

...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.

Archive by date

Syndicate content