Thoughts on Shadowing

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Every so often I get a request to for someone to observe me while I'm working with an ensemble, and I'm writing this post partly so I can point people to it rather than writing very long emails in reply every time! But working through my thoughts about it has also been interesting, and I like to share when I think I've learned something.

So, there are two basic scenarios, and I have found they elicit quite different responses.

Scenario 1: the ensemble I'll be working with contacts me to say they have a visitor who would like to watch, and do I mind? My answer: no problem!

Scenario 2: somebody I know gets in touch with me to ask if they can come and watch when I do some coaching. My response: not comfortable.

Now, it's clearly not being watched that troubles me, as Scenario 1 confirms. Nothing I do is secret after all. (Or at least, nothing I do with ensembles is...) The problem is about introducing an outsider into a workshop or coaching relationship.

I spend a goodly amount of my working life pushing people out of their comfort zones. I therefore also spend a lot of my energies on making the environment a safe one in which to take personal risks. Introducing an outsider, especially one who is observing rather than taking part, does exactly the opposite - it makes people feel under scrutiny, it makes them self-conscious, it makes it harder to take risks.

This, indeed, was one of the primary ethical challenges of my research for my choral conducting book, which involved visiting a lot of choirs, to whom most of which I was an outsider. As I recount in my chapter on methods, I worked hard with the choirs to mitigate the distraction my presence represented - mostly, but not always entirely, successfully. And that was just in normal rehearsal circumstances, not under the pressure of having a visiting educator there to challenge their habits and assumptions.

Of course, shadowing is a standard part of all kinds of training frameworks for community music, and I have been involved in situations where this works fine without the kind of problems I have referred to. On reflection, I think the key factor in these cases is some kind of institutional or organisational framework. The client's relationship is not so much with the individual workshop leader/coach, but with the organisation they represent.

And if the person shadowing them is there as their trainee/mentee, there is a framework of understanding that makes sense of their presence. There is the expectation that the organisation is taking responsibility for their representatives, that there has been some process of assuring their suitability, that there is a sense of accountability.

It's much like when your gynaecologist turns up with a posse of medical students for your examination. You're probably not going to enjoy their presence (though you probably weren't going to enjoy the process anyway), but you accept the value of it in the wider scheme of things. If your consultant turned up with their friend, even if it was a very good friend that they'd trust with their life, you'd not be so happy about them sitting in to watch. The institutional context is key to making this work.

(At the risk of sounding too crassly self-promotional, those people who are disappointed that they won't get the chance to learn from what I do by piggy-backing on my work for other clients do always have the option of booking me themselves.)

I think my bottom line is this: whilst I have no objection to being watched while I coach, it is not my feelings that matter. It is the ensemble's place to invite or exclude observers of the event that they have booked and paid for, not mine. By inviting me to work with them, they have let me in as an insider, and trusted that the ways I will challenge them will help them. It is up to them to decide who else they will define as insider for the event.

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