My Rules for Working With Adult Choirs
Warning: many generalizations ahead, and also an assumption that you may see these singers once or twice a week. Now, read on ...
I have seen many enormously talented musicians and conductors from educational backgrounds and successful teaching careers struggle with teaching, motivating, and leading adult singers, namely volunteer and community choirs.
Over several years with the Turtle Creek Chorale, I have come to find that the way we motivate and teach adults could not be more different than we find in classrooms. But, so many times, we attempt to transfer these specific techniques and concepts to discover not just reluctance from adults, but sometimes, downright anger and resentment for these well-intentioned choral leaders.
Sure, choral concepts remain the same, but HOW we approach these concepts makes all the difference between success with adults, and a not-so-pleasant experience, and increased attrition.
Therefore, here are my rules for working with adult singers ...
1. You Are NOT their Teacher and They are NOT your Students
As much as we want to deny this basic tenant, as a general rule, adults in community choirs ARE NOT THERE TO LEARN. Ok, I hear you now! “But, I’m one of those singers, and I always want to be better!” Or, perhaps “Just a darn minute ... my singers always want to strive for excellence in everything they do.” Well, sure - if this is the case - then you are doing something right. But, my money is on the simple fact that most adult singers do what they do because they want to HAVE A GREAT TIME. The primary goal is to enjoy themselves. These singers have full-time jobs that require their focus and dedication - the LAST thing they want to do is leave those jobs only to find a rehearsal environment centered around teaching, and less around the enjoyment of singing.
You still want to teach choral and vocal concepts? Great - do it in “stealth mode.” Like getting a kid to eat their veggies - cover that broccoli in cheese! Sneak in concepts that relate directly to the music they are performing. They will see immediate results, and latch on to those concepts. Figure out a way to make it fun (a great resource is Tim Seelig’s wonderful books on warmups - specifically “The Perfect Blend”). AND FOR PETE’S SAKE - do NOT spend 20 minutes on warm-ups. This is the fastest way to turn off adult singers who, mostly, have come from an 8-hour workday, and have no desire to have more concepts “beat into them.” If you intend on spending that much time on choral concepts/warmups during a two-hour rehearsal, spread it throughout the rehearsal.
2. Always Focus on the Big Picture (Micro to Macro)
Adults need context, and they cannot place repertoire in context if they do not understand the overall effect or purpose of a piece of music. As painful as it might be, sing through entire pieces from beginning to end, as much as possible.
Yes, it might be horrible. Yes, your ears and head will hurt. Yes, you might feel every desire to stop and fix every detail. However, while your intentions might be lauded, this will turn-off your singers faster than anything else. I’ve seen it first-hand many times, and have often been guilty of it. We want every note of every measure to be perfect - but our perfection can often inhibit true connection with a piece of music, specifically with adults.
We have all sat through performances where attention to detail was very much apparent, however, it was obvious the singers did not connect to the piece, and it just fell flat. I attribute this to much less a degree the repertoire chosen, but more so that the leader did not allow the singers to emotionally associate with a piece of music.
Perfection, in a community chorus, should never be our goal. Connection with the singers and audience should be our primary goal. Perfection (or “excellence” as we sometimes like to call it) is a wonderful by-product of an engaged and well-trained chorus.
3. Repertoire is EVERYTHING
Guess what? Nobody cares about your fancy musical choices. Nobody. Including your adult singers. (And ahem - your audience.) We choose these pieces for one reason, and one reason only - OUR individual ego.
Adult singers want to sing repertoire that they enjoy singing! That sounds so basic and obvious, but oh my, how often have we (read: I) missed the mark.
My chorus was recently invited to open the SW-ACDA conference in 2018. Wow - the perfect opportunity to commission a huge, sophisticated, complex suite of music. So I did, and presented it to my singers. It’s GLORIOUS music, don’t get me wrong. And will come, with time. But my singers resisted. This wasn’t THEIR music. They understood the need to present it, in the appropriate context, but it wasn’t the music THEY connected with. When I announced, several weeks later, that I was scrapping the new piece for this particular event, and replacing it with music they have loved and performed recently, the room erupted in cheers. I had many more singers sign-up to be a part of this important event.
Your singers, sometimes, know more about repertoire than you do. Ouch - I know. We spend hundreds of hours researching pieces for our choruses. But, some of the most gratifying musical moments I have had have been times I let my guard down, and just sang what the singers desired.
Practice True Vulnerability
I would never suggest vulnerability as a primary leadership trait for educators. However, with adults, being vulnerable can lead to an astonishing connection between you and your singers.
If your adult singers know your struggles, your insecurities, your weaknesses, they are much more prone to grant you grace, when needed, and help you through the more trying times.
Be open. Acknowledge shortcomings. Own mistakes. If you’re hurting, let them know. If you are happy, let them know. If they do something that makes you feel less-than, let them know. I YOU do something that you regret, apologize and ask forgiveness. Let them know, as long as you believe it, that you might not always be right. Do this, and they will love you back for it.
If you are not familiar with the work of Brene Brown, then get to know her. It will transform how you lead, live, and work.
If we conductors truly modeled vulnerable behavior from the podium, our choruses would not only sound different, but they would act different, and be perfectly positioned to change the world and our communities.