Before we start, I want to make one thing clear: while I refer to choral ensembles throughout this article, the principles are just as valid for worship teams, orchestras, handbell choirs, and any other musical ensemble.
Through my years of working with choirs (both in church and university), I have come to believe that building a true sense of community through choir is one of the most important aspects of our ministry. In fact, I’ve come to believe in it so strongly that I’m no longer willing to go without this important aspect of music making, and I don’t believe music can be at its best outside of a genuine sense of community.
I believe that we’re all in search of community – whatever our ages. We all long for a place and a group of friends who value and accept us. What exactly do I mean by community, and how can it be built? The following categories and comments which follow help to unpack this issue a bit.
Every great choir has a strong sense of trust among its members. Music is built on trust – I must be able to depend on you to do your part time after time especially when the pressure is on.
The issue of trust is important for the conductor and the singer. Just as singers must trust the conductor, the conductor must trust the singers. Directors must first earn trust while expecting the same from singers.
Trust is never built quickly – especially in today’s world where trusts are so often violated. Expect others to be won over slowly. Meanwhile, take every opportunity to allow singers to earn your trust. Furthermore, be up front with them when you are offering a trust-building opportunity.
Create a Nurturing Environment
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from working with church choirs for the last thirty-five years is the importance of nurturing. All of us have a difficult time dealing with the many pressures that our busy lives impose. We are all in great need of acceptance and encouragement.
People need to know that you’re interested in them outside the the rehearsal space. The choir needs you to model sensitivity for them so that they’re able to trust you with their emotions. Without freedom to express emotions, music making will always lack passion, and there may be nothing worse than music without passion!
Learn to be honest about your feelings, and risk being vulnerable. I often do this through telling stories that highlight issues with which I struggle and areas where I’m in need of improving. The people with whom we work need to know (and realize that you know) that you’re not perfect. They want to get to know you as a real person. They are interested that you have a life outside church, and they want to know what motivates you to do what you do. They also want and deserve for you to be honest about the music.
From time to time, I renew a pact with my the choir that I will only respond to them honestly, both personally and musically. I’m careful in rehearsal to use honest comments such as “I can hear your improvement.” and “Wow, that’s certainly better than last week.” While these comments are positive, they are not dishonest. When I observe student interns, I continually write, “Why did you say that was excellent when it wasn’t?”
Often we misperceive that we’re the only person in the room who can make discriminating decisions about the music or anything else. What results is that we create a group of singers who do not become independent musicians. At every possible juncture, ask the choir what they think. Questions may include “Where do you think we lost pitch?” “What can the tenors do to improve their tone?”
Also collaborate on non-musical issues. Take time outside rehearsal to share your dreams and to hear theirs. Work with the group’s leadership team and spend time hearing what they think. Create an environment where each person contributes through collaboration.
How can we put these ideas into practice? What immediate steps can we take to begin the community building process?
Start by assessing the level at which you perceive the group is connecting beyond music making.
- Do they linger after rehearsal to talk and share with each other?
- Do you have a sense that some of them choose to connect during the week?
- Is laughter and some level of positive chatter present in the rehearsal?
- Do you genuinely enjoy being with the group beyond the music making process?
- How well are they responding to needs that are expressed within the group?
Do you have any things you’ve learned about creating community? Please share them in the comments section below.