Soapbox: Performance Indicators and Goals

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Goals are important things to have for a choir to develop, and performance indicators are vital for letting us know how we’re getting on with achieving those goals. But it’s awfully easy to get them muddled up. So often you hear people stating as goals things that really ought to be performance indicators.

For example, winning a competition sounds like a goal. It’s a big achievement, and something to celebrate when you manage it, for sure. But at an artistic level, it doesn’t have any content. The reason you won was that you sang and performed well: the artistic achievement was the cause and the first prize was the effect of that cause. Hence, competition results are great performance indicators (they tell you how well you’ve done), but rather empty as goals.

Likewise with increasing choir membership. We all know how good it feels when you have a crowd around you on the risers: you feel affirmed and buoyed up by the company. And we often observe how the bigger choirs are also the better ones. So it is all too tempting to make recruiting x number of singers a goal, thinking well, we’ll have a great time and get really good if only we can recruit a few more bodies.

But this gets the causality the wrong way round. Choirs aren’t good because they’re big, they’re big because they’re good. People are more willing to join and then stay loyal to groups where they feel they’re achieving something. If your membership is growing, that tells you that things are going well artistically; if it is dropping, you need to examine the rehearsal experience you are offering, not simply try to boost the numbers.

Singing in tune is another performance indicator that gets mistaken for a goal. Intonation is a clear and reliable set of signals about your choir’s state of mind, state of health, vocal technique and musical understanding. Dodgy tuning is always the effect of a more fundamental cause, and dealing with that cause is far more profoundly helpful to our singers than harping on about pitch.

This matters, firstly, because if we can recognise performance indicators as just that, then we can use them more effectively to achieve our real goals. We stop taking them personally, and start treating them as useful information: as the NLP people say, there’s no failure, only feedback. Moments where things don’t go entirely to plan stop leaving us feeling helpless, frustrated and at the mercy of circumstance, and start to give us a clearer sense of what we need to do next.

The second reason it matters is that it makes us develop more artistic and idealistic goals for our choirs, which in turn makes their achievement a sweeter and more meaningful experience. Aiming to score x marks in a competition is a fairly meaningless goal: even if you achieve it, there’s not very much to savour. Aiming to give your audience goose-bumps will provide experiences much more worthy to be cherished.

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