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Thursday, November 1, 2012

Creating a positive culture in your choir

This will be a short series about the idea of creating a  "culture" in your choir.

I've thought about this a lot over the years. By "culture," I mean those things about the way the choir operates, what the singers do, that become normal and expected--and once established are "enforced" or maintained by the culture. When a new member joins the choir, how much do they pick up about how to behave in this choir simply by being a part of it for a few rehearsals? If you've ever had a cultural anthropology class, you know that cultures develop ways of interacting, social strata, and behaviors that don't need to be externally enforced, but are simply a part of that culture, so anyone growing up in that culture learns many (not all) of those expectations by osmosis, rather than direct teaching or rules.

Of course, one can build a negative culture as well as a positive one!

I remember a few years ago having a great discussion about this topic over pizza with Robert Vance, a terrific young choral conductor, now the Associate Director of Choral Studies at Baldwin Wallace University Conservatory of Music, but then a student at CCM/University of Cincinnati, where I was a guest professor. The discussion ranged widely over ways to do this (he'd just done an interim posiition or sabbatical replacement), what to expect of your singers and how to change an establlished culture. Since he'd been a student of Joe Miller, who'd fairly recently moved to Westminster, we talked about the things Joe had built in his previous position and how that would translate to Westminster, which had gone through a couple interim years after Joe Flummerfelt (who'd built his own, great culture) retired. Having been part of transitions myself, I know how important it is to think of what to build into the new culture (and to be aware of what aspects of the pre-existing culture you might wish to change).

So, what are some things to think about? A few examples:

What does your choir expect to do when they walk in the rehearsal door?
What about posture in rehearsal?
Do they talk?
What do they know to do in terms of choral sound/vocal approach?
What's the approach to working on a new piece?
And one could go on and on.

How much do you consciously build the habits, behaviors, approaches that you expect from your choir, so the way the choir works (or older members of the choir) inform newer members about what it means to be in that choir? How much can ultimately happen without having to talk about it?
These are just a few of the things I'll talk about in the next few posts.


Ken said...

I love this idea and look forward to seeing ideas of how to build these kinds of things into a culture. I teach at a community college and have a lot of turn-over every quarter, so a stronger culture would help. I've also been reading research on leadership styles from the Harvard school of Business and thinking about how different styles would apply to choral directing. I think this culture building idea could fall under "coaching style."

Richard said...


Glad you're enjoying this series of posts. Thanks for reading!