Healing Us-and-Themness in Choirs 1: Values

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A while back I had an email from a reader who has been drawing on my previous posts about how to prevent us-and-themness in choirs, with all its attendant difficulties. He had been finding the strategies useful in part, but was struggling with a situation in which his chorus had been so riven that it had actually split, with one faction leaving to start a new chorus.

He found himself as long-term interim director of those left behind, grappling with continued us-and-them behaviours, which were making it hard to heal and move on.

My first thought in response to his mail was to think about building an explicit framework of values. When I’ve written about this before I’ve tended to focus on the power of a director’s vocabulary and behaviours to shape a choir’s ethos, but in this case it feels like what is needed is to flush out the singers’ belief systems.

Anecdote: when I started Magenta, I designed an application form for membership that not only collected contact details and info about previous experience, but also asked, ‘Whom do you most admire, and why?’ and, ‘How would your friends describe you?’ The point about this was for me to learn something of the people, and to signal to applicants that as a choir we cared about the whole person, not just the vocal instrument.

As I read through the pile of initial applications, I was so touched and inspired by the descriptions they contained, I copied the key words onto slips of paper and put them in a bag. Every week at the start of rehearsal, three people would pick a slip and the words or phrases they contained would act as our guiding values for the evening. It really helped to form us as a team: we may have been fledgling in terms of our shared skills, but we were going to grapple with this technique or that bit of music kindly, or with dedication, or bravely, or in a well-organised fashion, whatever values we had been bequeathed for the evening.

Eventually, we ran out of slips, and by then the choir had established a sense of identity so could continue without them. But that principle of crowd-sourcing our best characteristics from each other stayed with us for the full 11 years of our operation.

I think my correspondent may need something less random than this in his situation, but a facilitated session with the chorus to establish what in fact their core values are could give him the framework to move forward. Indeed, it may be that there are competing sets of values going on, and they need a process to articulate these implicit drivers of competing behaviours and start to negotiate between them. There is bound to be some shared ground available to use as a starting-point.

(I am getting echoes of Choice Theory’s Solving Circle here, too.)

Once the chorus has a clear set of values that they have negotiated between them, this can then be used both as a planning tool (let’s go about things this way to embody this ethos), and as framework for conflict resolution (we’re agreed that this is what we both care about, so let’s find a way forward that is congruent with that principle).

Another anecdote: at my audition as MD for the Telfordaires, a chorus member asked me a question that got me talking about how, for me, everything is ultimately in service of the audience. Technique is valuable primarily because it permits us to delight more surely the hearts of those we sing to. Contest scores matter not because they mean we’re better or worse than someone else, but because they give useful information about how we’re doing in our quest to make people happy by singing to them.

The next day, in answer to a couple of questions I had, the club Chair sent me their constitution. I hadn’t quite quoted their mission statement back to them verbatim in answering that question, but I had come pretty close. I was reassured that we could be a good fit. And it has given me confidence in building this new relationship that we fundamentally care about the same things.

This is enough for one post, but between receiving that email and having time to write about it, I came across another really useful thought that I think could help. I’ll write about that another day.

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