To compete or not to compete

Recently, several people have told me that they’d like BeVox to enter a singing competition – be it “Britain’s Got Talent”, “Eurovision Choir of the Year” or any one of a number of others. In this blog, I’d like to look at this suggestion, and explain the thought process behind why my answer is “no”.

What is good, and what is good for us?

There are some basic things that a choir can be reasonably accurately judged on – objective things. Are they in tune and in time? Were the notes, rhythms and words correct? However, these objective measurements don’t take into account who it is that is singing, and what their experiences are. For The Sixteen or the BBC Singers to achieve all of these objective goals is hardly worthy of mention – it is the absolute least that you would expect. For a group of complete amateur singers, who have just come together to enjoy singing, achieving all of these things would be a big deal. So, what constitutes success when you have such wildly different expectations of different groups?

With BeVox, as with virtually all community choirs, within the choir we have strong, confident singers and nervous, timid ones. We have people who have been singing most of their lives, and people who have never sung before. We have people who are comfortable standing up in front of an audience, and people for whom it takes all their courage to walk into the weekly session with the rest of their fellow singers. We have fluent music readers, and people for whom the sheet music may as well be Egyptian hieroglyphs. What standard of purely technical achievement would constitute “good” for this disparate group?

Any judgement of the choir would be given to us as a single entity, not taking into account the variety of people we have within the choir. Technical perfection would be beyond our least experienced singers, so if this is the standard used to judge us, we’ll always fail. But if the standards used to judge us are lower, they fail to recognise the achievement of those who do get everything right. They also fail to recognise the achievement of those who previously haven’t been able to get everything right, but now can – and that journey, from “can’t” to “can”, is the most important thing we do.

Who judges us, and what authority do they have?

There are so many more elements, beyond those mentioned above, that we could be judged on. After we’ve considered the objective measurements that can be made, we get into the realm of the subjective. Does the choir blend well? Did we have lots of variation of volume? Was the meaning of the song conveyed? As soon as we get into these subjective areas, personal taste starts to play a part. With some things, such as blend, there can be broad agreement about what is a “desirable” sound, but there’s room for different views. With other elements, such as emotional resonance or the “tingle factor”, it’s entirely personal, and one person’s view has no more weight than another’s. In a race, one person goes measurably faster than the others and wins – in a choir competition, how can you fairly decide who has “won”?

If a competition judge was to tell us that our performance lacked variety of volume, this is because they expected variety of volume and we didn’t deliver it. We might have chosen to keep the dynamics subtle for a reason, but because it wasn’t what the judge was expecting, or what they wanted, we’d be marked down. Why does the judge’s opinion on this have more weight than ours? Sure, they’re likely to have a significant amount of musical experience, but that doesn’t make their view on subjective matters any more valid than anyone else’s. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that experience and expertise count for nothing – just that elements of personal taste are bound to come into something as subjective as the sound of a choir singing. These elements of personal taste couldn’t be shared with the competitors beforehand, so we would be trying to please the judge without knowing what their criteria were. Plus, there is a tendency to accept the judgement of authority figures without question, and I think this should be challenged. The wisdom of experience is definitely valuable, but it shouldn’t be accepted blindly – after all, how can new and startling things be developed if everyone aims to replicate what has already been done?

Winners and losers

In any competition, there are winners and losers. How we handle being branded a “winner” or a “loser” will depend a lot on our psychological make-up. If we’re called a “winner”, it can make us feel happy, proud, and jubilant. Why would we be happy and proud of our achievement because someone else has told us we’re a winner – why couldn’t we be happy and proud of our achievements anyway? Why do we need an external source to validate what we’re doing? Wouldn’t it be more healthy, emotionally, to evaluate how we’re doing as a choir every time we sing, and have our emotional reaction to that, rather than to someone else’s subjective opinion of our performance? Taking this further, is there a danger that we become “hooked” on seeking external validation – wanting to win the next prize, to succeed in the next competition – constantly looking for the next buzz rather than enjoying what we’re doing right here and now? Is there also a danger that the thrill we receive from winning starts to dull if we keep winning? That we become complacent or blasé about success?

Striving to win a competition includes wanting other like-minded people to lose. If we want to get better at what we do, we might do better learning from other groups rather than hoping they fail so that we can succeed.

And how about if we lose? We are a “loser”. For some, this will spur them on to try harder next time – in fact, this is the main argument that people put to me when I suggest that “winning” and “losing” isn’t healthy. It certainly seems like it could be a good thing – we enter a competition, we lose, we try harder next time in an effort to win. Where’s the harm in that? My argument is that we’re working harder in order to get someone else’s validation, someone else’s approval of what we’re doing. Wouldn’t it be much better if we were seeking our own validation – our own sense of pride and success? “Chasing the win” puts responsibility for our successes and failures in someone else’s hands – and takes away from the great sense of pride and joy that should come from being in a choir. For me, singing should be about enjoying making music together, not from jumping through arbitrary hoops in order to please an external judge.

Of course, for some people, being a “loser” is a big blow. They’ve worked so hard, come so far, and then they’re told it’s not good enough. It might bring back memories of being told they can’t sing, perhaps as a child (a very common story from people who join community choirs). It might make them question why they’re bothering. It might make them less confident, not just as a singer, but at putting themselves forward in life generally. Is that a price we’re willing to pay?

I would argue that, when a group of people come together to share their love of singing, there can be no losers. We know the great benefits that singing together brings – physically, mentally, socially. How can anyone who is engaged in that activity be a loser? The label just doesn’t fit, and I view it as wrong for competitions to brand people as “losers” for failing to match some arbitrary, subjective standards – not just something I merely disagree with, but something that is actively damaging to those taking part.

What’s the alternative?

When I tell people that I don’t believe competition is healthy, a number of them think I’m saying that we shouldn’t strive to improve. That couldn’t be further from the case. Striving to improve is absolutely central to my whole philosophy – not just for choirs, but in life generally. I believe the only sensible, healthy measure of improvement is to measure yourself against yourself – to try to get better at what you are doing, not to worry about how you compare to others. If you don’t have the beautiful tone of Bryn Terfel (there’s that subjective thing again!) or the vocal range of Whitney Houston, that’s because you’re not them; you’re YOU. If you’d like to have a nicer tone or a wider range, you can work on it, and see how you improve – compare the you of now to the you of last year, and compete with that, rather than with anyone else. This is like athletes striving to beat their previous personal best, and is the healthiest form of competition I can imagine.

Competition versus collaboration

Rather than competing with other choirs, why not collaborate with them? That doesn’t necessarily mean singing with them, although it easily could. It could involve a partnership where two choirs in a similar area agree to go and watch the other’s performances, and give each other feedback afterwards. This is hugely rewarding in lots of different ways – musically, each choir will learn from the other; socially, all the singers will get a great night out; and financially, each choir will get a bigger audience for their concerts!

There are a small number of music festivals that just celebrate people performing, rather than awarding prizes or introducing other elements of competition. These festivals seem far more worthwhile to me than those that compete – you come away from them having been immersed in great music-making, and with new bonds of friendship formed between the performers. I would view this experience as being far more in tune with the goals of a community choir than any competition could ever be.

Post-script: The difference between competition and auditions

I’m very aware that I’m posting this blog the day after the BeVox soloist auditions, and there could be a danger of people looking at what I’m saying here and thinking that auditions do a similar thing to competitions. After all, they rely on an external person (me) making subjective decisions about people’s performance, and if someone auditions and isn’t offered the chance to sing in a concert, they may feel they’ve been branded a “loser”. I wanted to address this idea straight away, as I can see how it would be easy to think I was saying one thing and doing another, and I want to explain why that isn’t the case.

First of all, with our soloist auditions there is no competition between singers taking part. This is because we don’t have a set number of soloist “slots” within a concert that we have to fill. If we were looking for a fixed number of soloists, say 5, then the “best” 5 solos from the auditions would be picked, and everyone else wouldn’t be, which means that singers would be competing between themselves for the available slots. We don’t do this – we have a certain standard that we’re looking for in our soloists, and if people meet that standard, they’re offered the chance to sing in a concert. It doesn’t matter how many people meet the standard – if they do, they’re offered something. (We’re able to do this because we do multiple concerts at the end of each season, so we can spread the soloists over several concerts if we have lots that hit the standard). The only competitive element is people competing with themselves to develop as singers, to the point that they’re ready for an audience.

The audition process isn’t about being “judged”, it’s about getting an accurate appraisal of how your performance as a soloist would be perceived by an audience. It’s a step in a process, not an end in itself. There are two goals to the audition process – one is for the soloist to find out what standard their own performance is at, which calibrates their own self-assessment of their development. It’s tough to get an accurate picture of how your performance stacks up as a singer, and having an external ear (and a video recording of your audition) can help with that. The other goal is for me to assess whether a soloist’s performance is ready for an audience or not, and to match soloists with appropriate events. This is partly about making sure we have the right soloists for a concert, but it’s equally about making sure we have the right concerts for a soloist – it’s about giving people an event that matches their current capabilities. It’s not in the choir’s best interests for us to include a soloist who isn’t ready for an audience yet – but more importantly, it’s not in the soloist’s interests either. When someone auditions and I don’t offer them a spot in a concert, I’m not branding them a “loser” – I’m protecting them from the deeply debilitating experience of singing to a live audience who don’t enjoy their performance. I also give them focussed feedback on how they can improve, alongside a video of their audition that they can watch and learn from. It’s a supportive process, with the best interests of the singer at heart – a far cry from the atmosphere of a singing competition.

There is no I in Tim

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.