A few days ago, I posted the following on Facebook:
Christmas is in the air! Well, at least to the choir. We started working on our Christmas Cantata tonight… ♫♪ “He came to earth so that we might have heaven, He lived his life as a man made of dust. This is the miracle, this is the mystery: He chose to be…one of us” ♫♪
Since my early years, I have always enjoyed participating in a choir. I migrated from soprano in a boy’s choir to bass over time but the experience has been mostly the same. By now, you may be asking yourself, “So what?”
My recent Facebook quote actually started me thinking about my experiences over the years in several choirs and how they fundamentally helped to shape my character. Since I started choral work in my young life, it stands to reason that some of the lessons learned there translated into my daily activities.
As the thought processes rolled along, I discovered that a choir (as a band or an orchestra or even team sports) certainly help to develop and hone several teamwork skills. I would almost go as far as to declare that many of my professional teamwork abilities were formed in the crucible of the choir. I instinctively learned the stages of team building there, how effective teams move through at least four critical stages: forming, storming, norming, and performing. I learned how to give and how to take, how to bend to accommodate others, and how to take a stand.
Consider the following points and see if you agree with my assessment.
A choir functions as a unit. Each person contributes to the whole and each has to work with each other to neither eclipse nor be eclipsed. As a group made up of sub-groups (sopranos, altos, tenors, basses) which in-turn are made up of individuals, a choir is a complex organism. Only by synergistic teamwork does it function.
Each person has to exhibit a degree of professionalism and expects it from everyone around him/her. Professionalism is defined here as keeping in tune, knowing the difference between soft and loud, and keeping timing and words crisp. One person out of tune can affect the whole group. Sub-groups must work together to blend their voices so that they sing one part and also do so at the right combined volume. It is teamwork that leads to experience in knowing how loud one has to sing to blend with the others around you to hit the perfect level required by the passage.
Additionally, teamwork is fomented by helping one another with difficult passages or timing issues or even the pitch of notes. As team bonding occurs individuals need to become more comfortable with speaking up with each other and pointing out problems that they can work out together rather than relying on the director to address every issue.
Hand in hand with this is the fact that the group learns each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Some people have limitations at one end of a range or another (some sing higher notes better than lower or vice-versa) or with volume (some can sing louder than others but others sing sweeter, vibrato notes while others are more strident). Teamwork sets in by the group making adjustments to cover individual weaknesses with others’ strengths.
Finally, in a choir, one learns how to backstop and fill-in. Team members can get sick, have family emergencies, or other commitments which affect their ability to be in practice or performance. Teamwork sets in to make up the difference and to fill the vacancy with minimal or no affect on the quality or timing of the product (the song).
Relying on each other
I mentioned in the previous section that the choir learns how to fill in for missing members. This lesson works the opposite way also. Choir members learn that their presence is important and do as much as possible to not be a burden on their group. They realize that they rely on each other and are relied upon just as well. A team knows that it is strongest when all of them are present and accounted for.
Within the choir, like on any effective team, there are many opportunities for cross-training. Some might read music well or know techniques that others don’t, and they pass along the fundamentals of these to fellow choir members who are willing to learn. Teams are strengthened through redundancy and cross-training promotes this. Well cross-trained choir members can more effectively back each other up.
Over time in a choir, one gets to know their partners, the people who stand around you in your immediate vicinity. Regardless of if they form part of your sub-group or not (a bass could be standing next to a tenor, for example), one forms relationships with them. One learns how to rely on them to derive your next note. One learns their style. One also gets to know those who stand one layer away because they might end up as being your immediate partner if someone is out and you need to know their styles and notes too.
Ultimately, you learn how to help each other grow. You give and you take.
Like any organized team, a choir needs a central source of direction. This is provided by the choir director (or conductor). The director holds a vision, an internalized goal for how the piece will play out and how it will sound. The director describes the pieces of the vision, coaches the group through difficult parts, provides cues to help the team remember what is important and where, and ultimately stands responsible for the outcome of the piece.
As such, the director keeps the tempo that synchronizes the choir. This large, unwieldy organism becomes one in action through the metronomic activity of the single director. This can only happen when each individual in the choir focuses their undivided attention on the director. There is an understanding that the director will bring about his/her vision for the performance and to do so requires an unwavering commitment to follow their direction regardless.
Accepting direction as a team requires a knowledge of when to be quiet and when to sing. Some parts of a composition depend on the lack of sound, total silence, from one or more or even all the sections in a choir! Undesired noise can affect solo or subtle orchestral passages and undermine the whole production. The same is true within a team. Sometimes input is desired and even required and other times silent compliance is the preferred path. The team lead and management team will provide the direction which brings the vision to life.
Of course, a director does not singlehandedly bring about the coordination. There are section leaders who may either be explicitly assigned as such, or implicitly take the incentive to lead. These help each section by grasping and transferring the director’s vision into their group. They coach and lead their cohorts through the difficult parts, and sometimes even feed concerns from the group back to the director to either receive additional high-level coaching or to effect an appropriate change in the vision. Such is also true of high-performing teams. Some members become assigned or defacto leaders and form a bridge between management and the group.
Letting off steam
Choirs are strange beasts. They may be a picture of seriousness when in performance mode, but behind the scenes they learn how to defuse their frustrations. It is important that frustration be dealt with and not allowed to fester. A good director can sense building frustration and can switch things around to erode problem areas and spend time in fun, comfortable areas in a balanced way.
The most important lesson one learns about dealing with frustration is how to laugh. I cannot count the number of times when, during practice, a choir has broken down into a collective belly laugh that has cleared the air. In fact, some of my best laughing moments have been in the context of choir practice! A good team knows that they have to blow off steam occasionally and a good leader will recognize this is an important part of the static generated by people working closely together.
Good choirs, like good teams, know how to celebrate success. A success might occur during practice when they finally “nail” an especially difficult passage. Celebration might be as simple as a group high-five or a cheer. It may be the “well done” of the director. Whatever form it takes, celebrating success breeds a desire for future success. This is a healthy and required desire of any high-performing team and is a lesson well learned in the ranks of a choir.
When all is said and done, the choir does not exist merely to execute practice drills. It exists to perform. Its product is the quality of sound it produces before an audience. It is this moment that all the training and drilling has been distilled into.
A choir must never let the excitement or the nervousness that the spotlights produce overcome their training. It is this moment that the hours of work pay dividends. They must know that this is the moment when everything they do counts. They must trust their director and follow his/her lead and bring the director’s vision into the realm of the spotlight. It is this moment that they can let everything hang out, hit the highest or lowest notes crisply, move as one from the quietest pianissimo to the loudest forte and back when necessary. It is their moment to awe the audience. Failure is not an option.
It is performance that tests a team. When the spotlight is on and someone is demanding production, the pedal is to the metal, the rubber is firmly on the road, the team will work or it will break. Failure is not an option. In the team, as in the choir, all of the practice, all of the relationships and bonding, all of the instinctive knowledge of strengths and weaknesses, all of the backstopping and all of the direction leads to successful execution of the mission.
I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to sing in a choir. Little did I know when I first started in the boy’s choir at Harrison College that I was building skills that would serve me well as a software developer. I have had the pleasure of singing countless melodies and harmonies over the years yet the most poignant memories are of those who sang alongside me. I have had, and continue to have, a wonderful time forming part of a choir. Each practice is an ongoing opportunity to learn team skills!
These past years I have had the pleasure of being a part of the choir at the Burlington Assembly of God. We are a small choir (20-30) but we work so well together. Our director, Jason DeBoer, is a tireless man and a fantastic leader who has taught me more about rhythm than I had ever learned in all my years of musical training. Indeed, as the old English carol “The Holly and the Ivy” states:
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing of the choir.
It is indeed sweet…and educational!