On Singling People Out

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I recently heard a choral director comment that, ‘I was told, good naturedly, not to single people out in rehearsal this week.’ This made me stop and think, particularly in the context of my recent posts on raising the stakes. The conversation moved on and I didn’t get a chance to follow up the exact situation that elicited this request, so I found myself having an imaginary debate with the person who made it over the rights and wrongs of addressing individuals in a choral situation.

Now, the people who don’t want to be singled out would say, in a general sense, that they don’t like being put on the spot. They choose to sing in a group because they feel safe there.

And the rapacious director who replies that this exactly why people should be singled out has a point. Many choirs suffer from a certain sheep-like tendency for everybody to hide behind each other, vocally and expressively. In these circumstances, having everybody feel a little more individual responsibility for making the music rather than just singing along with it is a Good Thing.

But it’s not simply timidity on the part of the singer who thought they could hide in the crowd. It’s also a matter of giving themselves over to the wider identity of the group, of losing their sense of self to be part of a bigger whole. This is part of the interpersonal pleasure of choral singing, and it is also an essential part of the magic that turns a group of miscellaneous people into the coordinated entity of an ensemble. Bumping people out of this sense of connectedness can be both unkind and counter-productive.

Back on the first hand, though, the individuals that make up the choir still matter, both at a personal level and at a musical/educational one. Not everybody has the same strengths or learning needs, and doing everything at a group, one-size-fits-all level misses the opportunity to address individual needs.

So, at a practical level, how does one negotiate the way through this dialectic? At a philosophical level one can enjoy the conceptual tension, but at rehearsal you have to do one thing or another. The following seem like useful rules of thumb:

  1. Singling out for praise is a useful tactic. This has the game-raising effect of reminding everyone that they are individually visible even when combined together, while reinforcing the behaviour you want repeated. Experience tells me that people can be a bit surprised and flustered to receive a compliment - showing that you are definitely getting the game-raising effect - but that they are also usually happy about it too
  2. Giving people the chance to single themselves out is a way to flush out individual needs without making people feel picked on. During the learning process of a piece, confidence is a good proxy for completeness of learning (we talk about being ‘secure’ on the notes, for example), so asking if there are any passages that people would like help on allows those who need extra support to self-diagnose. Developing a culture of trust in which people feel able to ask for help means the director has much less to do in terms of pointing out their singers’ mistakes.
  3. Working with individuals within the music is less threatening than stopping the music and giving an instruction to an individual. The music binds director and singers together into a single cooperative endeavour, while verbal communication separates them out into leader and followers.
  4. Singling out is pretty much fair game when the issue is one of simple inattention. If someone is struggling to acquire a skill, then the last thing they need is everybody else noticing that they’re floundering. If they can do something perfectly well, but have just drifted off a bit, then an individual reminder which planet the rest of the choir is on, delivered with good humour, can be just what’s needed.
  5. Individual attention needs to be balanced across the choir. If you’re always praising or correcting the same people, it looks like favouritism and bullying. Moreover, the people you’re not singling out start to feel immune, so you lose the game-raising effect for everyone. People need to feel equally on the spot or safe if they are to have the emotional unity you want from a cohesive ensemble.
  6. Where somebody is conspicuously anxious about something, mobilising the whole group to help can make them feel psychologically safer as well as musically supported. So, if one part is struggling with their line, for instance, rather than have everyone else listen while they muddle through it self-consciously, get everyone to join in.

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