There are lots of different ways to lead a choir (or to lead in other areas of life, too). These are some thoughts about the approach I take, and how that manifests itself in what we do as a choir.
To me, the absolute most important thing about leading a choir is putting the singers at the heart of what we do. When it comes to responsibility for the choir’s successes and failures, I have a simply philosophy: if the choir succeeds, it’s because of the whole team; if the choir fails, it’s down to me. No-one in the choir should feel that their actions could lead to the choir failing – I’m the safety net to prevent people having to take that responsibility. When singers know that this safety net is always there, they feel free to experiment, to take risks, and to explore the edge of what’s possible.
As a simple example of this, take a look at the system BeVox uses for selecting the repertoire for each season (and hence for each set of concerts at the end of each season). Every singer in the choir is able to suggest songs, and every suggestion is taken seriously. This means that people can suggest whatever they want, without worrying about whether it will work or not, whether it will fit within a programme or not, or whether it will be popular or not. All these suggestions go into a big melting pot, and I have the responsibility for picking songs from those suggestions and building a programme from them. If the songs for a particular season are well-received, the team as a whole can take credit – the singers for suggesting the songs, and me for picking a good combination. If the programme doesn’t go down well (and this has happened once or twice), the only person who has to take responsibility for that is me. It’s not the fault of the singers who suggested the songs – they could well have worked if they’d been put into a different programme. If we succeed, it’s down to all of us – if we fail, it’s down to me.
Another example of this can be seen in my approach to singing from memory. I encourage singers to try to sing from memory whenever possible (although it’s only a requirement for our “big events”, and people can use their sheet music for smaller events). I see it as my job to help people get to the point where they can take that leap of faith and put their book down – and then it’s my responsibility to give them as much help and support as I can so that they feel confident singing from memory. This is why I mouth all the words, all the time. It’s why I give really big cues for when each voice part is about to come in. If one voice part is singing “Ooo” whilst another is singing lyrics, I’ll be mouthing the lyrics whilst making a circle with the fingers of the hand I’m conducting with, so there’s always a clear cue to show what’s happening. It’s my job to give singers as many tools to succeed as I can – and if the whole thing falls to pieces, that’s my fault, as this can only happen if I’ve asked people to do more than they’re capable of, or not provided them with sufficient support to enable them to achieve their potential.
The only way that it’s possible to take this approach is by shedding any hint of ego. If I had an ego about my work, it would get in the way of this philosophy – not just because I’d want to take credit for our successes, but also because I’d struggle to take responsibility for all our failures. One of our singers recently summed this up with a great quote: “Despite the spelling, there is no I in Tim!”.
Please don’t think that this makes me some kind of martyr though, constantly taking the blame for our mistakes and passing responsibility for our triumphs onto others. The approach that I take gives me the deepest possible sense of fulfilment. Seeing what a difference this approach makes to people’s lives is a source of constant joy for me, and I get a huge personal kick out of seeing singers achieve things they didn’t think they were capable of. No approach to leadership is sustainable if there isn’t something in it for the leader too – it’s just that I get my kicks from seeing other people flourish, not from basking in the limelight myself!
If you’ve seen BeVox in concert, you’ll have seen me very much front and centre. I conduct the choir, I talk to the audience between songs, I accompany soloists on the piano, and I’ve even been known to sing too (as a soloist, or in duets or ensembles with other singers). If I had a different mindset, if I let ego creep into things, it would be very easy for BeVox concerts to become “The Timothy Allen Show”. But I don’t think anyone would come away from one of our performances thinking that it was all about me (at least, I hope they wouldn’t!). There are a few things that I do, very deliberately, that show the audience that the stars of the show are the singers. They are small things, but I think they make a difference. One of the subtlest of these things is the order in which people bow at the end of the concert. In many choirs, where the conductor has brought their ego with them, they will bow first, and often several times, before they acknowledge the choir. And in a lot of cases, that’s all the choir get – an acknowledgement. With BeVox, the first and second bows are taken by the choir. That’s who the audience have come to see – not me. I will take a bow, to thank the audience for their applause and to acknowledge my part in the success of the performance, but that comes after the choir’s bows – always.
Wherever possible, as the choir leave the stage, I’ll be there congratulating them on their performance – often in the wings, or on a staircase between the stage and the dressing rooms. And then, whilst the choir are backstage, enjoying their success, I’ll be back on the stage again, starting to pack away our equipment. It’s a funny thing, but I take great satisfaction in packing away the PA gear, the piano, the microphones, the cables and mixing desk etc at the end of a concert. It reminds me that I’m just a cog in the machine, no more or less important than anyone else on the stage.
This philosophy can be misunderstood as weakness. In our current society, having strong views and imposing them on others is often seen as strength, which makes a more collaborative approach appear weaker by comparison. I do have a very clear vision of what I want the choir to be, but this is a vision of the processes we’ll use, not the end result we’ll achieve. It’s also a vision informed by feedback from our singers and audience members. Note that this is only “informed by”, not “dictated by” – I do take the views of singers very seriously, but if they would take the choir in a direction that I don’t think is in the whole choir’s best interests, I won’t stray from our course (there’s that safety net again…). Anytime that a singers makes a suggestion, I’ll always thank them for it – and either incorporate it into our future plans, or explain why I’m not able (or willing) to. This means that every singer has a voice in the choir – not just a singing voice, but a personal voice too – whilst at the same time, they can exercise that voice in a safe space, secure in the knowledge that the responsibility for keeping the choir successful is mine.
In future posts, I’d like to explore some of the consequences of running the choir with this philosophy. It can be really empowering for people, and make a fundamental difference to their lives, way beyond just the singing. At the same time, it can have its dangers too, and if people don’t truly “get” where we’re coming from, they can struggle with the freedom our approach brings. And, to be completely frank, it poses challenges for me too – there is a delicate balancing act between BeVox the choir, BeVox the community, and BeVox the company, and navigating a sensible course between these three poles isn’t always easy.