Growth, Stagnation, and Affection

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When I wrote recently about my theory of affection, I had in the back of my mind a particular application in the relationship between choir and director. I was thinking about how, if a conductor expresses frustration with their choir’s progress (or, rather, the lack thereof), you know that unless they find a way out of that place, their tenure with the choir is likely not to last.

It’s a common enough problem – all choirs go through phases of rapid development and of treading water or even retrenchment as their individual and collective circumstances change over time. And part of a choral director’s resilience is weathering the patches when everything stalls with enough patience to get through to when it all picks up again.

But thinking about the conductor-choir bond in terms of affection shed some new light on it for me. If, as I suggest, affection the results when someone lets you make a difference to them, then there is a particular danger when a director feels they are unable to make a difference: they will start to care less.

Just as it’s not necessarily the best students a teacher likes most, but the students most willing to accept their guidance, so the rehearsals a director comes home from feeling the most loved-up aren’t necessarily those where the choir has made the best music, but those where the choir has made the most progress. (Of course, the most progress might often produce the best music, but sometimes the hard graft when you finally crack something that didn’t come easily can bring as much or more reward.)

Because rehearsals, by their very nature, are about making a difference. People are letting you, as director, mess with their voices and their heads and their hearts in order to produce sonic beauty. It is a great act of trust when they let you into their musical selves, and it is natural that this inspires commensurately great affection in the conductor’s heart.

If a director finds that they are saying the same things every week, that their efforts are having no lasting effect, then not only will the choir start to feel bogged down and got at, but the conductor’s love for their singers will start to fade.

And, thinking about this relationship in terms of affection, you have to ask: why are the conductor’s efforts not being rewarded? It could be that their rehearsal techniques are lacking and they need to find new ways to approach the same problems. But it may also be that the singers don’t collectively trust them enough to let them change that part of who they are.

Stalling progress, that is, may be a symptom as well as a cause of a degenerating relationship. When I have written about this dynamic before, I have focused on the pedagogical problem-solving aspect of this: don’t keep banging on with the same thing, use some imagination to find other approaches that might work better.

This remains good advice, but not just for pedagogical reasons. It’s also about interpersonal relationships. Persisting with the same approach when it’s not working suggests the director is not really attending to the singers. So much of rehearsing a choir is about diagnostic listening: what does the music need?, what do the singers need? Just as a conversational bore is someone who goes ahead and says what they were going to say whatever their interlocutor might say, a conductor saying the same thing every week amounts to choral boorishness.

If a director wants their singers to let them in enough to change how they’re singing, the director also needs to open themselves, to genuinely respond to their singers. Intimacy is a two-way process. Once the conductor lets their singers actually affect them, this will reignite the glow of fondness for them in the singers’ hearts. And this in turn opens the way for the director to make a difference to the singers, and enjoy the consequence of reciprocal fondness.

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