Emotionally Resilient Choirs: An Addendum

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My post a couple of weeks back on On Building an Emotionally Resilient Choir received a response on Facebook that I thought may be of interest to other readers, so I’m following it up here. It’s one of those wonderful questions that choral directing is so full of – simultaneously philosophical and intensely practical:

Interested in finding the balance between "don't be grumpy" and saying "we can work on this" whilst also maintaining an expectation that certain things will be done at home by individuals as preparation for or follow-up to rehearsals.

See what I mean? At the heart of it is the worry that by choosing to be kind to our singers we will have therefore to sacrifice our standards. What if we don’t want to choose between these?

Well, you know me by now. Give me a dichotomy and I’ll pretty reliably want to take a Both/And rather than Either/Or approach. (Though, if I have to choose between Both/And and Either/Or, what then? I fear there may be limits to this generalisation…)

My first instinct on being asked this question was to point over to the ideas of [easyink=lemov1 | text=Doug Lemov]. He is very good on the nitty-gritty of how to craft a learning environment that is both uncompromising and safe, so I do recommend you browse back over those posts for more in-depth discussion (and indeed read his book!).

But it’s worth pointing out here that the practical techniques he espouses are predicated on a fundamental belief in people’s capacity to learn. In his world, to not insist on your standards is to let your learners down, to behave like you no longer believe in them. ‘We can work on this’ is a statement that both forgives current skill deficit and expects it to be remedied through application.

My reader expressed her question in terms of the specific issue of how do you get people to continue to work between rehearsals if they feel safe that you won’t be grumpy when they don’t. Or put another way: how do you control people when you’re not together?

Well, Choice Theory reminds us that we can’t control people – even when they’re in the same room as us – we can only control our own behaviour in ways that aim to elicit a cooperative response. And of course that is easier in the real time of rehearsal, because everyone has chosen to be there for that purpose, and the combination of social norms for the occasion and continuous interaction allows you to work together to your shared goals.

Once people step out of the social space they reserve for choral life, it is up to them how much they decide to revisit their choral self in the interim. The director’s job is to give them experiences in rehearsal that encourage them to. Here are some approaches that can help:

  • Setting defined tasks works better than just generally expecting people to do something. Even if the tasks you set are consolidating music learned this rehearsal, or preparing music for the next (i.e. the kind of work you always want), people are more likely to bother if you prioritise and specify.
  • Make sure the next rehearsal includes activity that benefits from this effort in between. In particular, if you ask people to consolidate/prepare music and then don’t schedule that music for high-quality attention, you guarantee future non-compliance.
  • Tell people in advance that you will be doing rehearsal activities that raise the stakes just a bit. E.g. the first time we sing this next it, it will be from memory, or next week we’ll split into octets to sing this. You don’t then have to tell people to put in extra effort, since they will self-diagnose how much work they need to do achieve the task.

    Once you embark on these activities in the next rehearsal, however, it’s very important to keep the spirit of adventure, of cooperating together to meet the challenge, of forgiving our own and each other’s mishaps en route. Anyone who hasn’t prepared adequately will feel it without anyone pointing it out, and will be in a state of considerable emotional vulnerability from the experience of struggling. Help them through and trust them to learn their lesson.

  • Use systems and processes to depersonalise your standards. Minimum attendance requirements, or part-testing to check readiness to perform a particular song, are objective measures you can enforce without placing emotional or moral pressure on anyone. You can still be kind when you tell someone they’re not adequately prepared to participate in a particular performance. Again, this is a situation in which they will likely have a negative emotional response, so supporting them through the disappointment is vital if they are to bounce back and learn from the localised failure.
  • When someone appears to be falling behind, offer help. It could be that they’re just being idle, in which case the offer of help will pique their pride into getting their act together. Or it could be that there are things they can’t do and don’t really know how to fix, and a couple of sessions with a more confident fellow choir-member will really help with. Get this one right and you’ll rarely need to use your objective sanctions.

In all of this, setting the task-level is key. You want your singers to live in a state where they know they can achieve the goals you set, but that they’ll need to make the effort to do so. If they feel they can coast, they will. If they feel it’s impossible, they won’t even try. If you set them challenges that require a bit of a stretch, they’ll go for it, and you’ll all be rewarded by a genuine sense of achievement.

And then nobody feels the need to get grumpy.

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