Choral Values...

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When I was mulling over Digger McDougal’s four pillars of motivation the other day, I said I’d come back and have another think about values at a later date. Of the four pillars, it strikes me as the one that is most fundamental, but by the same token, the one most likely to be implicit rather than actively reflected upon.

So I got to thinking: how does a choir develop its values? And how do you identify the values your own choir holds?

At a BABS Directors College some years back, Chris Davidson introduced an exercise by which to identify your personal values. Ask three people, not necessarily people you are close to, but with whom you are reasonably well acquainted, to say in three words how they would describe you to someone who didn’t know you. The things that they all say are the values you currently live by.

The power of this exercise is that it cuts right past our self-deception and wishful-thinking and gives you a clear picture of what your impact in the world is like. If the picture the descriptions paint doesn’t match what you’d like to think your values are, then it gets you thinking about how to change your behaviour to match your beliefs. So it is about congruence, or personal authenticity (getting your internal and external lives matched up well), whilst also drawing attention to the idea that the point of values is to have an effect. Values are systems that help us make decisions about what we do and how we do it.

Chris introduced this exercise as a tool for choral directors to reflect on the values (and therefore behaviours) that they bring to what they do. But we can also apply it collectively to how a choir operates. ‘How would you describe this choir to someone who hadn’t been at rehearsal?’ is a good question to ask both established members and visitors.

By chance, the week when I started thinking about this, Magenta had two potential new members come to visit, and the unsolicited descriptions of what they saw, to my relief, matched what I thought we were aiming to achieve: friendly, inclusive, challenging. Yes, I thought, that matches my belief that people have to feel personally safe if they are to take the risks that stretch their skills and artistry. And apparently, this can be inferred from the things we do in rehearsal, and the way we do them. As with the Dilts Pyramid, the more abstract qualities both drive the concrete actions and are constituted through them.

This also drew my attention to the way that Magenta’s values are no longer solely within my control. When we started out, yes I was the instigator, and I had a clear sense of the direction I wanted us to go in. But once of the things I love about ensemble musicianship is that you have an abundance of other minds and hearts all actively creating and maintaining both the musical sounds and the group’s sense of identity.

And the times we really notice what our values are when we need to make hard decisions. When the world isn’t perfect and we need to sacrifice something, where do we draw our lines in the sand? These are the scary moments because they mark the places where people really discover exactly how shared our values are. When things are going routinely and well, the values just bubble away under the surface. When things are going badly and you are faced with something you’d rather not have to deal with (maybe whether to pull out of a performance, or to ask someone to leave), that’s when both need your values most urgently, and learn the most about them.

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