Someone once asked me to what degree running a rehearsal is psychology. I answered: it’s all psychology. And while covering the whole gamut of the psychological aspects of a rehearsal would require several dissertations, there is one specific emotion that I have begun to see more and more crucial in understanding choral rehearsals.
This emotion is fear. Most often it is a fear of falling short of expectations, be they the singer’s or conductor’s expectations – assumed or real. This emotion or these emotions are at the root of behaviour patterns that manifest themselves as tiredness, edginess, submission, irritation, and even anger. We all know the angsty feeling that descends upon the rehearsal when things just do not seem to work out. I suspect that both conductors and singers blame this feeling on fatigue and believe that the way to resolve the situation is taking a break or having the singers stand up and stretch. This may help to alleviate the symptoms, but I am afraid it will not treat the disease.
In rehearsals, choral singers often face challenges that seriously test their technical and theoretical skills. In addition, this test is public and they experience pressure and even face criticism from their peers and the conductor. It is an abnormal situation for most people in their lives outside the choral context. And because of this, I believe that few singers have the means to deal with these situations. This is where the conductor needs to step up to the plate.
It is important, at times, to explain the emotional mechanism to the singers – that it is only natural to feel strong negative feelings when one is pushed to one’s limits. The conductor is the person who is in the best position to bring a sense of proportion to it all. We can take raw emotion and we give it content (‘Hey, learning tough pieces is like this. Just hang in there, it will be OK’). And with that, a great deal of Angst often disappears.
Just making sure that everyone understands that they are not found wanting as individuals can ease many tensions. The way we express ourselves in these situations can make a real difference. If the singers we feel trust and respect them, they will always perform better than if they feel mistrust and disrespect. I think most of us know this, but we might not always be aware that if we display anxiety, we will get anxiety. Make sure the singers believe that you have faith in them, that the piece is not beyond them.
It is important to display this trust and respect with both words and actions. One simple way of creating a stable and safe environment is to use the word we more than you. You should mostly be reserved for the times when you want to commend the choir or a voice part. When things go well, deflect the positive feedback you receive towards the choir. And when things do not go well, assume responsibility and cover the back of your singers. If they feel you are on their side, the moments when anxieties take over are much easier to get through.
Conductors also need to recognise the same strong forces at work within themselves. When the rehearsal process hits a wall and the choir or some part of it just does not seem to learn a passage; or the tuning is awful; or one voice part just seems to shrink into non-existence; or everyone seems to have forgotten everything they previously knew or should know, the conductor will experience the same anxieties of not being good enough. And most of the time, this leads to aggression. To feel this aggression is not wrong or dangerous, but getting caught up in the emotion can worsen the situation. We need to understand what is going on and defuse the situation. The natural consequence of feeling aggression is to express anger, meanness or sarcasm, all of which will in all likelihood be unhelpful in the situation – and cause remorse. Take a deep breath, tell a story, find something to laugh at or come up with a few pedagogical tricks that you are sure to have up your sleeve. Like with the singers, it is only a temporary glitch. You will find a way if you do not lose your cool.
At the same time, it is important to remember that the conductor also has the right to fail, be the failure small or grave. Actually, I am afraid we only learn through our failures. When something goes wrong, it is important to analyse what went wrong and see if there is something that should be done differently. When we manage to pinpoint what could have been done better, we learn and are stronger for the failure.
It helps if you remember that being a complete choral conductor is an impossible task. The demands are just too complex and varied. Every single one of us will have weaknesses as well as strengths. Actually, I think that the balance of these strengths and weaknesses is what makes us interesting as conductors and gives us character. And here we come back to fear. If we do not fear our weaknesses, we will find ways of compensating for these, and improving on them.