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Team management – a choral perspective

Team management – a choral perspective

It’s a Friday evening and I’ve just come back from my regular workout. Some people run, some play golf and others swim. I conduct a choir, and today was just the most recent of perhaps several thousand choral workouts I’ve undertaken. The parameters are easy to define. I have an hour to ensure that the hymns and anthem for the Sunday service are as good as we can sing them. Although St. Andrew’s, Nuthurst is a small village church in Sussex it has a superb 15 voice choir so the anthems are often quite challenging. As I go through the practice I have to ensure that we cover all the music in a balanced way, so that voices, ears and brains can be rested from time to time and then used at maximum performance. I have to be prepared for the unexpected; perhaps a few bars of an anthem need particular attention even though a few months previously the anthem caused no problems at all. I’m also playing the organ at the same time, not only judging the balance of the organ against the voices but also anticipating how the balance will change on Sunday when the church is full and the acoustic changes significantly.

Over the years I’ve learned many lessons the hard way. The first is to know the music by heart and to have worked out a rough schedule for the practice. I have to know not only the organ music but the individual lines of each of the four voices, and be aware of difficult entries and note sequences (even in hymns) that might need individual practice. The second lesson is to listen all the time. As we sing through an anthem I have to remember all the places where there might be a need for attention so that I can go back to them at the end. I can’t stop every time to make corrections. But in addition I have to sense when a missed entry is perhaps accidental and does not need attention. The third lesson is never to criticise but to work with either the individual or a section or the entire choir on difficult passages. “We were fine up to bar 14 – can we get the same feeling into bars 15-18?”.  Notice the ‘we’. I may be the leader but I too can make mistakes and it’s easier for someone in the choir to highlight the need for me to change the way I play bars 15-18 if the ethos is ‘we’ at all times.

Sunday brings different challenges. We are not there to give a performance. Ideally the choir should be heard and not seen. They stand in the chancel but must never intrude on the eye looking at the altar. We are there as a team to lead another team, the congregation. The way we say the words is just as important as the way we sing. We even practice standing up together, not because we are an army on parade but because we are a team and standing together (not easy I can tell you) is a visible sign of teamwork.

Enough of the metaphors. The point I would like to make is that we all need to practice team work. Every member of the team needs to come prepared, be prepared to learn and to share their experience in working towards a common objective. I’m sure we have all sat in team meetings where the lack of preparation is all too obvious. Many observers of knowledge management have used the role of the orchestral conductor as a metaphor for leadership. This leadership starts with the rehearsal. This is where great orchestras and choirs are created. No one does it better than Sir Simon Rattle. Watch him in rehearsal and see what he accomplishes with an orchestra of school children in just 20 minutes. Note in particular his use of language, and I’m not just referring to him using German. In my opinion in  this video he exhibits every aspect of what it takes to create a team. Listen to the performance at the end. What a transformation!

Martin White