Season Beginnings, Part Two

Last week, I talked about the returning members' meeting, and why it works for my choirs. 

Another thing I like to do at this time of the year is to actively build the social bonds in my choir groups.

I'll come to the "why" of this at the end of the blog post. Allow me to start with the "how", instead:

Strategies for making a choir into a community

Let them introduce themselves

We go through the choir and do individual introductions at the start of each season. Because my groups are big, and because people will inevitably be missing from week to week, I spread our intros out over the first few rehearsals, by section: sopranos one week, then tenors and basses, then altos, for example. 

It might sound something like this:

Hi, my name is Joe. I’m an acupuncturist. I’ve been in the choir for two years. And if I were an animal, I’d be a lemur, because I feel like Tenor 2s are an endangered species.

This does a few things for my choirs:

  • first, and most obviously, it helps them learn each other's names. This can be a challenge in a bigger group that meets weekly. (This year, at my returning members' request, we are wearing name tags for "a lot longer" too.)
  • it sends the message that it's not just your voice that you bring to rehearsal; it's your whole self, and we want to know about you!
  • it gives my returning members a chance to warmly welcome newcomers; it's not uncommon to hear a little cheer go up when someone says, "this is my first hour in the choir" – unprompted by me, of course! What a good way to make sure someone doesn't feel awkward about being new in the group.

SOCIAL MEDIA TOOLS

Some brilliant soul (who is not me, for the record) decided to create a secret Facebook group for one of my choirs a few years back. This was a stroke of genius, because:

  • people can find each other on Facebook and not feel awkward about that out-of-the-blue "friend request"
  • my choir members can passively get to know each other by reading each other's posts; this is especially helpful for the introverts among us!
  • it's a great place to have discussions about things like ride-sharing, gatherings at nearby eateries/pubs before and after choir events, and even more esoteric things like our choir's goals and values
 A little sample of one thread in my young adult choir's secret Facebook group. Names and photos redacted to protect the innocent.

A little sample of one thread in my young adult choir's secret Facebook group. Names and photos redacted to protect the innocent.

 Another thread, coincidentally started by that selfsame genius who created the first secret choir group. This guy is solid gold!

Another thread, coincidentally started by that selfsame genius who created the first secret choir group. This guy is solid gold!

Obviously, a word of caution is needed here: not everyone in your choir may be on Facebook, so this can't be a critical place for information or a place where secrets are kept!

TAKE A BREAK

Both my choirs have a break halfway through rehearsal. They usually linger for about three to five minutes longer than I officially give them – but break time is sacred to my singers.

The incredible and insightful Elroy Friesen, along with his equally brilliant colleague Cath Robbins, helped me to see why that is. In their amazing summer 2013 conducting course called Fikamusik, Elroy and Cath made "fika" (a Swedish cultural custom of a social coffee break) an integral part of the learning experience. We were sent to our break time with orders to chat with each other. For Cath, this is about sharing narratives for better self-interrogation and improvement; for Elroy, it's about building community.

About a month after I attended Fikamusik, I started my brand new adult choir with some trepidation. I gathered a group of adults who mostly didn't know each other, but knew about our organization and wanted to be a part of it. Choir rehearsals were an eerie affair at first. Everything was silent all the time. When we paused to change pieces, you could hear a pin drop.

I had previously always thought of this as a choral conductor's dream – but, confronted with the reality, I missed the happy bustle and furtive whispering of a choir that has a longer shared history. I took a page out of Elroy and Cath's book. I would send my choristers to break with orders: talk to someone you don't know, tell someone about your favorite band, ask somebody what their most inspiring moment was in the last week.

It took a few months, but I proudly wound up with a choir that never stops chattering when it comes to break time. (And, now and then, during rehearsal too. )

 My coffee cup from my Fikamusik experience: a prized memento!

My coffee cup from my Fikamusik experience: a prized memento!

The "Why" of it all...

Why on earth do I choose to make these strategies a priority for my groups, especially knowing they can eat into my precious rehearsal hours?

Well, for me, it's simple: my choirs simply sound better when they are comfortable around each other, when they're bonded and friendly and secure. I wish I knew why, but it's proven to be true over and over in my choirs – much as it's terrified me to occasionally devote time to something that can feel like a "waste" of rehearsal hours.

The truth is, this sort of thing is a time-saver.

Tuning problems tend to self-correct within each section, because people stop trying to out-sing each other. Those regimented singers who like to take on the role of "rule-enforcer" mellow out when they know that everyone here values the same goals they do. Newer members who are made to feel welcome will sing out a bit more.

And if you have a really brave few souls among your members, well – true displays of honesty and vulnerability have this way of making everyone loyal to each other. This sort of thing can build trust that allows the whole group to take risks in rehearsal and in performance.

That's the kind of group I want to work with: one where vulnerability is a greater goal than perfection.

It's about time...

This season marks my fourteenth year as a working (read: paid) choral conductor. Last season, I finally struck the word "emerging" from my bio as it was starting to seem a little forced. Nope, I'm not "emerging". I've emerged; here I am. I think I'm more properly known as a mid-career professional, these days.

But one thing I've been struggling with is this: what kind of professional am I? While my training is in singing and choral conducting, my job description gives only about 30% of my hours to that work.

The rest? Well, I'm an administrator. In fact, this is what I call myself nowadays when asked by someone outside the music world. ("Arts administrator" is so much more understandable to a customs official than "choral conductor".)

I've been Kokopelli's executive director for seven years now. But until recently, I've struggled with the truth of that. What does it mean, to be a choral conductor who does administrative work? Or, more truthfully, to be an administrator who conducts two nights a week?

We might call it paying the bills. There's plenty of that in the arts world, even for us mid-career types. We might also think of it as a bit of a failure, especially as seen through the eyes of those emerging artists. As a student and young professional, you don't exactly dream of writing policy and revising handbooks.

But for me, more and more, being an administrator who practices art, or an artist who does administrative work... well, it's a way of being the change you want to see in the world. I have the unique position of being able to dream a dream, and then work on the infrastructure to support it directly. I also get to support and promote the dreams of other artists in my organization, which actually feels nicer and less self-centered than that last thing -- but I don't have to stop doing the work that is my passion. And, surprisingly, doing administrative work is increasingly passionate for me. I'm helping to craft this organization as it enters its third decade, and the choices I champion to our board of directors will directly impact the musical lives of over 360 singers. That's -- kind of cool.

I'm a mid-career conductor, yes. But I think I'm also an emerging administrator. And I'm pretty darn proud of that.