Monday 30 January 2023

Careers Syndromes 11: Choirs

To try to do something which is impossible is always a corrupting enterprise. (Philosopher Michael Oakeshott) 

Had he ever tried to turn a group that doesn’t audition into an a capella outfit that sings in public for money?

In the 80s and 90s, there were many “community choirs” with lovely ideals. One was that you didn’t “teach” people to sing, you “enabled” them. Unfortunately some singers interpreted this as “Let me sing in a group in public without making any effort”. We also believed that "process was more important than product", which made it really hard to achieve anything at all. And some interpreted this mantra as "all we need to do is go through the motions".

Arts Council funding gave many a distorted idea of commercial realities. It handed out money to street festivals which ticked a box saying “involved local people” or “contacted other cultures”. The groups never twigged that they were just a means to an end. This is not the same as being paid in the real world. 

Some groups became a cargo cult version of the real thing.

The group doesn’t audition, but thinks it can give concerts because that’s what choirs do

As a performance approaches, the group defaults to "white blouse, long black skirt" and "Stand rigidly straight with arms at sides" – again because that's what choirs do.

The group tries to attract enough members to sing Fauré's Requiem, because that's what choirs do. Group members continue for years expecting to turn into an SATB choir that performs with an orchestra, despite singing nothing more complicated than folk songs, and consisting of 12 women and two men – because that's what choirs do.

Some more conventional choirs are started by an untalented core who act as the officers. They hire a musical director, who drafts in enough genuine musicians to carry the core through a performance of Fauré's Requiem. These singers may stay a couple of years, but will eventually move to other groups, because they can. Meanwhile the core stays and the MD repeats this procedure over and over again. It never occurs to the core to have voice lessons or learn to read music.

Or else the musical director gets an amateur group to struggle with Fauré's Requiem even though it's too hard for them, because that's what choirs do.

Sometimes he tries to teach a beautiful and difficult piece to a group that can't even sing Baa Baa Black Sheep. He may break his heart trying to get them to sing Baa Baa Black Sheep.

Why do people who join singing groups have such fixed ideas about what such groups are and what happens there? Why are their ideas so hard to shift, eg:

Warm-ups are a waste of time.
Singing lessons are for people who want to be professional opera singers.
Singing is just for fun and I don’t want to progress or learn anything.
Everybody should be allowed to join in, even if they’re tone-deaf.

So, how do you keep the show on the road?

Have blue-skies aims, but sabotage progress at every turn.

Appoint a leader and then challenge everything she does or says, or refuse to follow instructions because autonomy. Make it impossible for her to lead, because you have no idea what a musical director is supposed to do.

Say you want to record a CD of new material, but refuse to work on the new material for more than five minutes a week.

Manage not to see how much work the MD does between sessions.

Constantly back-seat drive – when she's trying to get a concept across.

The group is run by a committee, so all musical questions must be decided in committee. And everybody must be heard from. And all opinions are equally valid.

The group ethos is to prop up weaker members, but nobody is allowed to refer to the fact that not all are equally talented

Despite constant committee meetings and AGMs, every single member has their own idea of the group's raison d'etre. There is no mission statement and the subject is never discussed.


Query instructions, but don't listen to explanations.

Assume the instruction is just for this week, not for all time. Comply once, and then never again.

Comply in tiny increments week by week. 

Send up the instruction and act the class clown.

Ignore an instruction, thinking the MD will get bored eventually. Or throw a huge tantrum so that she'll never ask you to do anything again.

Displace: open a window, put the kettle on, pass round your wedding photos, start a debate, suggest that the MD is politically incorrect – or didn’t say please.

Invoke another authority.

Follow another instruction you were given 20 years ago that you disregarded at the time, have never put into practice, and have misinterpreted and half-forgotten.

Interrupt just as the altos are about to get it, and only need one more repetition.

Assume instructions are for the others, not you.

When in doubt, come out with: “You have to remember that people are here for different reasons.” (Reasons never specified. See "mission statement" above.)

Put an equal emPHASis on every syllABle. Have a conniption every time there is more than one note per syllable. Eventually learn that there are two notes on THIS syllable in THIS song, only.

Mistakes get fossilised, or become more extreme with time.

Have a set of unwritten rules, eg: “If one person objects to a piece, we don’t sing it”.

When the MD says "Emphasise the vowels", assume she means "Emphasise the consonants".

When she says "Breathe!", assume she means "Don't breathe!"

Turn up late and miss the breathing exercises. Send up the exercises and then say you don't see the point of them. Then ask how you can sing a long note without having to breathe in the middle.

Claim that you are built differently and breathe using your own patented method.

If in doubt, cry.

Pull in different directions.

Refuse to go the extra mile.

Try and learn your part in the run-through before the performance.

Talk all the time and you won’t have to listen.

Some singers drag, so you help things along by rushing

Decide that the MD is taking a piece too slowly, and gallop ahead, assuming others will follow.

Insist on singing music that's easy enough for the untalented – that nobody will want to listen to. 

Produce a complicated classical piece with six parts, and an orchestral accompaniment, and refuse to understand why the MD won't attempt it. (The reason is "It's too difficult for us", but the unwritten rules forbid anyone to say this.)

Have a pocketful of objections to everything. Anything slow or sad is "terribly dirge-like". (Some of the best music is slow and sad.)

Object to all new pieces because you don't want to reveal how long it takes you to learn anything.

Refuse to listen to "theory", while leaning on colleagues who've learned some.

Pretend not to know what "gradually" means.

Throw around the one technical term you know.

Read the score literally,
without giving yourself time to breathe at the end of a phrase.

Withhold attention, concentration, beautiful sounds.

Sing badly as a protest until it becomes a habit – and everybody copies you. Fail to see that if the wind changes you'll get stuck like that.

Adapt the group to yourself, instead of yourself to the group.

Whinge if the MD works out harmonies on the fly.

Expect every piece to consist of three lines that start at the same time, move together and end together. Imagine this is all there is to "singing in harmony".

Claim that if the group gets too good, newcomers will be put off. Fail to see that the opposite is true.

Promise "I'll do it in the performance".

Live anywhere but in the moment.

Turn any rehearsal into a meeting.
If you manage to get away without singing at all, you've won.

A performance is coming up, so you take up all the rehearsal time with other activities.

Be outraged when required to sing. Be outraged when you have to sing music. Insist the rules can be rewritten until it’s OK for you to sing out of tune.

Ask "But what if I hear a different drummer?"

Listen to your yoga teacher, but not your MD.

Remain confused about the difference between a press release and a flyer; and recording a CD, a showreel and a learning tape – no matter how many times this is explained.

Every week, ask if bars always have the same number of beats, no matter how wide or narrow they are.

Everyone arrives later and later, but going-home time never changes.

Rehearsals start with a half-hour chat, with tea. There’s a teabreak half-way through. 

Cultivate the MD’s friendship. Take her out and pressurise her to return the group to the way it was when you joined. Ask why the group can't do "more challenging" music, by which you mean "less challenging".

Spend all your time and energy trying to keep the group at your own level, and none on learning how to sing in tune, in time and as if the music meant something. One way to achieve this is to import disruptive, untalented people

"Collaboration, democracy, equality, arts-for-all, inclusivity" can all be invoked to excuse any bad behaviour. Make plain, ordinary bad behaviour undiscussable.

The musical director is determinedly positive, but it's never enough.

One by one, disruptive members leave. Reasons for quitting are never “It’s getting too hard for me”.

The CIA may like to add the above to its instructions for sabotaging meetings.

(Email and MP3s have happened since then, and group leaders send recordings round and expect members to learn words and listen to the music between sessions. The idea!)


The Originators
of the group are the group no matter who joins later. They love to waltz down memory lane and relate their origin story.

The Tourist: The group is the group and I can drop in and out at will. It will always be there for me, despite my rather lofty attitude towards it. 

The Passenger: The others will do the singing for me.

The Homing Pigeon: Leave the group and drop back in without even wondering what everybody has been doing in the intervening years. In fact you can drop back in and tell them all what to do.

The Hamster: Keep everything, including plastic cups, expired tea bags, extra copies of songs that are never sung, and names on the mailing list of people who came once, disappeared and have since moved.


Some people are convinced they can’t sing because at school they were told to stand at the back and mouth silently. Schools can make mistakes and often do – but the misdiagnosed may go into a permanent huff.

A musical man with a lovely voice claims he can’t sing because he doesn’t want to be dragged into some worthy activity – he’d rather go to the pub. And what would his mates say? And he doesn’t want to spend his evenings propping up non-singers. Quite rightly.

A woman says she loves singing in a big group – she can't hear herself and likes to pretend she alone is producing that huge sound. Meanwhile she doesn't know whether or not she is in tune, singing the right notes, or producing her voice properly.

A woman wants to be a diva. She has a voice, but less of an ear. She won’t take direction or have voice lessons. She doesn’t bother to learn a repertoire. It hasn't occurred to her to find one. She doesn’t listen to music much – she doesn’t like it. She makes sure she is never tested in real-world conditions.

An amateur has been to one Balkan workshop and is now an expert.

The concert programme devotes several pages to the history of the choir's uniform, explaining how they finally decided on diamanté bow ties.

After being dropped when your choir re-auditions, you spend the rest of your life complaining to anyone who’ll listen about the awful musical directors who insulted you, and the workshop leaders who were no good at their job (they went too fast for you).


(PS A lot of the time we had fun and sounded wonderful. I'll tell you a secret: warm-ups are disguised singing lessons. And I don't see how any group, formed for any purpose, can deliberately stay at beginner's level. If you keep doing the same thing, you are liable to get better at it.)

Part One.
Part Two.
Part Three.
Part Four.
Part Five.
Part Six.
Part Seven.
Part Eight.
Part Nine.
Part Ten.


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