The Benefits of Being ‘Young and Talented’

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Having picked over some of the hurdles that face the sprightly new director when they take up their first post with an older choir in my last post, it occurred to me that there are also some advantages to this situation that it is worth pointing out. It may seem redundant to tell someone why they are fortunate to be both youthful and skilled, but when you are struggling against the twin obstacles of inexperience and condescension, it doesn’t necessarily feel as enviable as outsiders assume.

But there is a specific advantage that any new director has, and which is amplified significantly by both the qualities of relative youth and high skill. Your very existence bounces people out of their comfort zones.

People are stimulated by change; it expands their boundaries. Hedonic adaptation means that regular, repeated activities, though they may be deeply valued, come to have progressively less impact on people’s lived experience. Indeed, what they value may in part be the comfort of the routine (as well as the social contact and the musical pleasure of course!). But people inside their comfort zones don’t learn anything, and boundaries that aren’t periodically challenged start to shrink.

But a little stimulation, a little arousal lights people up. They feel energised, they feel enthused. Their voices get a particular ring and brightness when they’ve got a bit of adrenaline in their systems. So it isn’t just the emotional tone of the rehearsal that is lifted by a change out front, you also get a direct benefit to the sound of the choir.

There are some corollaries to this, of course. One is that the immediate improvement to the sound of a choir on the appointment of a new director may be a result of that director’s wonderfulness, or it could just be novelty value. You’ll know one way or the other a couple of years down the line. (Sorry, that point isn’t as cheery as the title implies.) On the bright side, it does mean that those early days, when a new director is at their most boggled at what they’ve taken on, they get a very welcome confidence boost from the response they get from their choir, both vocally and emotionally.

Another corollary is that you don’t have to do very much at first to push people into the learning zone. They were on their way there already when you turned up. This is related to the point about why choirs may initially resist changes a new director wants to make. In the context of the new director, each change feels much bigger than it would under a familiar conductor. If that limits you to making only incremental changes at first, it also means that you really get the full benefit from each of these changes.

Of course, the new director themselves is well out of their comfort zone when they first step into post, and the adrenaline load they are carrying will be vicariously exciting for the singers too.

The benefits of youth and newness don’t last forever of course. (The benefits of being a skilled musician, conversely, do continue to build through time, which is the reward for all the hours of dedication that produced the musicianship in the first place.) Unlike musicianship, youth and newness are essentially unearned benefits - there’s nothing you did that made them happen, and nothing that anyone who is older or well-established can do to recreate them. But they are useful to off-set the challenges of inexperience, so we might as well be grateful for their effects while they last.

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