Healing Us-and-Themness in Choirs 2: Stewardship

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My last post was in response to a reader’s question about helping a chorus that had suffer a split move beyond the us-and-them wrangling that had led to the break and move forward together. My theme that time was Values: finding a way that the chorus could agree about what they collectively hold most dear as a set of principles to drive their behaviours.

Since receiving his query, I read a really powerful post by a barbershop friend John Donehower about the experience of someone he sang with many years ago, but who had left the chapter, never to return. I’ll quote the key passage at some length because I don’t think my paraphrase would really do justice to it:

As we caught up, he was candid about his unhappiness in the Chapter during his last few years of membership. He spoke bitterly about the men who "ran him out". He spoke about how despite having been a productive, dues paying member of the group for half a decade, he felt like he was on the outside. He said the day he decided to leave was the day he realized that the chapter was the "property" of several lifelong members and that he didn't matter. In his opinion, the only people that did matter were the "owners"... and he was just a "renter". And renters come and go. So, he went.
He spoke of how, behind the scenes, the "owners" exerted control over everything in the Chapter from the songs the chorus sang to who stood in front of the chorus as Director. When these "owners" spoke, each sentence began with passive aggressive reminders of their self-importance such as how long they had been members, how many tickets they sold, how many sponsor dollars they brought in. When the "owners" spoke, you better listen. Whereas when the "renters" spoke, no one paid attention.

This struck right to my heart as I recognised the dynamic in a variety of situations I have been involved in or witnessed over the years.

And it strikes me that quite often us-and-themness in choirs is at base a contention over ownership. The desire to control how other people are doing things is the expression of a feeling of entitlement: this is my choir, and therefore I get to decide how it operates.

John’s post went on to develop a different way of conceptualising our deep personal investments in the groups we sing with: that of stewardship. He now wants to see himself as a caretaker, someone who is looking after his hobby in order to pass it on to future singers in good order.

As a director, I love this idea. My job is to nurture the kind of chorus that would make a newcomer think: this is nice, I’d like to be part of it. That encompasses skills of course (it’s always more fun to sing with a group that sounds good), but it also encompasses interpersonal behaviours. Are we kind to each other? Do we help each other feel good about ourselves?

And I think it could be a very useful idea to develop with a chorus recovering from serious division. Everyone ends up feeling damaged after a split, and it is an understandable instinct to try and protect ‘your’ chorus from perceived threats from those you feel may not be as invested in it as you are. But by doing that, you end up driving people further away.

A stewardship model asks everyone to go home from chorus night leaving the chorus in better shape than they found it on arrival. Telling another part that they’re singing flat may be accurate, but it won’t help anyone either sing better or feel better about themselves as singers. Stewardship asks all of us not only to be invested in our choirs, but also to be responsible for them. It asks us to be not just hard-working but also wise.

I’m grateful to John for sharing this insight with his internet friends, and for giving me permission to share it with mine. It feels like a concept I’ll be wanting to work with for a good while to come, and I hope it helps my correspondent lead his struggling chorus to a happier place.

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