Open-Entrance Excellence

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This post is a follow-up to my last one about the question whether there are choirs that don’t audition but nonetheless achieve a high standard of performance. We have established that such choirs exist, and the question is, what are they doing that other non-audition choirs which don’t achieve such high standards aren’t?

This is something dear to my heart; indeed, I’d almost say it’s part of my primary life-project to work out how not to have to choose between excellence and inclusion. I’m greedy, I want both – and I think it is possible to have both, though I recognise that it takes longer to achieve than picking one or the other.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but a collection of observations about choirs which appear to out-perform the skills their members first turned up with:

  • There is a sense of structure to the rehearsals. They’re not just about ploughing through the music to get it learned in time for the concert, but provide a variety of activities that focus people’s attention onto different areas of choral craft.
  • The atmosphere is safe. Mistakes are picked up, but people aren’t made to feel bad about them. The director frames their role in terms of offering help to get things right rather than either beating up on the choir for getting it wrong or just letting it slide
  • Related to this, the director is patient, attentive and inventive. They focus on diagnosing what people are struggling with and devising solutions to those specific problems rather than just applying a set pool of rehearsal methods. Central to this is a willingness to meet the singers where they are now and work from there rather than assuming they ‘should’ be able to do something and working from where you’d want them to be.
  • The director is also persistent. Once a certain level of attainment has been achieved on one occasion, they do not accept reversion to a lower level. This ‘ratchet’ effect is probably the most important element in building choral achievement. If the choir is performing better at the end of every rehearsal than they are at the start, these gains will add up over time to a noticeably improved performance standard. (They are also important for motivating singers!)
  • The choir has clear goals – but they are framed in artistic or moral rather than concrete or pragmatic terms. Achieving the composer’s intentions, touching the hearts of the audience, underpinning the ministry of the church are all goals that give a framework of meaning to the technical work in rehearsal. The choir needs some sense of purpose or significance beyond itself to motivate aspiration towards higher performance standards.

I think the other thing that non-audition choirs sometimes struggle with is being willing to see people who don’t share the choir’s aspirations, values or desires leave. There can be a feeling that if you welcome all-comers, you also need to be suited to all-comers. But trying to be all things to all people dilutes the experience for everyone. If you don’t audition, it’s fine to let people self-select.

If you have more people leaving than seeking to join, that’s a signal that things aren’t right. But if the membership is stable or increasing, then no-one need worry about individuals who move on to find a different choir that better speaks to their condition.

Hi Liz

Interesting that you've picked this topic as it's something that I'm just about to write about too! My angle is why so many people assume that open-access choirs CAN'T perform to a high standard and DON'T want to improve their skills. They bandy around words like "hobbyist" and "amateur" which makes me mad! So good on you discussing this area.

One important thing that I think is missing from your list is the willingness and desire of the choir as a whole to want to improve and do the best they can. They might just be "singing for fun", but they take what they do very seriously and have a shared vision of excellence.

From the Front of the Choir

Cool - looking forward to seeing your take on this too. Yes, you're absolutely right about the importance of a whole-choir ethos of aspiration. This point was kind of lurking in my mind as I wrote my final paragraphs, but I didn't actually say it did I?

There's a perfectly valid place in the world for a 'hobbyist' approach to choral singing as well as a commitment to excellence, but it's just miserable when you get different people in the same choir with different desires trying to pull it in either direction. They can get each other so frustrated!

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