A spiritual lesson from the life of a choral director

Recently, I have had cause to reflect on the ways in which my work as a choral director continues to shape my understanding of matters that are nothing to do with music or music-making. I have recently had a dfficult-but-necessary choir meeting with one of my choirs at which it emerged that many people were struggling with the way things had been going in recent rehearsals, and not liking nor understanding why I was choosing to rehearse the things that I was rehearsing in the way that I was rehearsing them, and now they had an opportunity to express their frustrations. To their credit, they took that opportunity.

At the heart of the many of the frustrations was the fact that I had been rehearsing small blocks of music in fine detail, but that the motivation to rehearse these blocks of music out of context of an actual piece of music was definitely having a negative effect. They did understand that there had to be some point to the ‘drilling’ but they were leaving rehearsals with a serious sense of non-fulfilment. And this was clearly not a good thing.

The message that came back from a variety of voices was that most members felt much more fulfilled when they had a piece of music sounding good. It was not that they were – and are – not up for some seriously hard work in rehearsal (had that been the case this choir could not even have begun to exist). This was and is a matter of musical ideology – what I want out of rehearsals and what they need out of our rehearsals are not the same thing.

A very tough test for an MD.

You see, I had a very specific aim for this year – 2013 – for this particular choir. My interest in fine-tuning actual repertoire was always going to take a back-seat to my specific aim of taking the entire choir on a serious musicianship journey whereby all of the singers became much, much stronger choral musicians in the mould of the music that we sing (which in the case of that group is almost entirely my arrangements and compositions) and that I would want for us to sing in future. I was not ever close to being a professional sportsman, but I did an awful lot of sport in high school and as seriously as I could. [Had I not lost so many opportunities due to games being played on the Sabbath who knows how much more I might have achieved? But that was never once an option.] And right across the sporting spectrum, and especially in team sports, one word would dominate at times:


You try surviving in a serious game of football (soccer) while only using one foot. In simpler games, you can just play with your strong foot, but in games with better players who may well also be fitter, you will be closed down much more quickly and you need to be able to control, pass and even shoot with either foot. Try surviving on a basketball court with a limited range of passing and you will become your own millstone, because no-one will trust you with the ball, especially when under pressure defensively.

Also with basketball, team members know each others’ shooting range, so if you are not a reliable three-point shooter and you put yourself out in space where you would normally receive a pass for a long shot, your team-mates will think twice about making the open pass – because you’re not a proven quantity at that distance!

I did not want to spend more time fine-tuning pieces without working on the actual choral-musicianship skills of the choir. Each of them struggles with different things in different ways at different times. So pieces are learnt, drilled and refined, but skills don’t actually build. The choir’s ability to sing stuff collectively improves, but the individual musicianship profiles are not really building. And so if I do something surprising – say, a new warm-up drill, or some other choral exercise, if it has hard intervals, someone’s tuning is getting tested. If it has hard rhythms, someone’s rhythmic ability is being tested. And if it requires a certain ‘feel,’ someone else is trying to ‘think’ the placement rather than ‘feel’ it.

And these are just continuing all the time!

There is a serious point to be made here: this choir is a supreme embodiment of the principle that the total sum is greater than the parts. What they can achieve together is so much more than what any of them could ever do on their own. And we have appreciated this fact. But my desire for each of them is to become more. I’d love to see them overcome more and more of their own individual weaknesses so that the total sum becomes even more as the parts become more.

But if some of them would read this and say that they want this too, I would have to a) question that in and of itself, or b) question whether or not their capacity to espouse the ideal is actually based on a credible understanding of how such an ideal is to be achieved based on actual practical music-and-life realities. Skills are learnt, and applied. Skills are not learnt in the context of playing games. A sporting equivalent of the breakdown in comprehension would be along these lines – a women’s netball team decides that they want to be a better team. But the players don’t enjoy doing training exercises that much. They persevere with them because they know that it is supposed to be beneficial. But they really only enjoy the moments when they can actually play the game of netball in training.

The team may get better, but the lack of emotional commitment to the technical training part of the training sessions will immediately cap the level of prospective achievement. Even if the players don’t love those sessions, if they don’t engage with them with a serious level of personal commitment, they will not get out of those sessions what they would have done, and as such they become the stumbling block to their own development.

And the team will only ever go so far.

In the days that followed this meeting with the choir in question, a spiritual truth hit me like a hammerbolt.

God has his church, filled with those who claim to be his followers. Many Christians are trying very hard to be faithful Christians. They want to do stuff for God. They want to keep it real. They want to reach the world with the saving message of the gospel.

God is not as interested in how much stuff gets done by His followers as He is in them being better people – inside first, then outside. But we have learnt from society about how to think from the outside-in rather than the inside out – and so we are negotiating our understanding of how to better serve God by how our religious actions are perceived by others. God, however, wants us to be better people at the moments when no-one sees us. He wants us to be more.

This is just like this situation with me and this choir of mine. They are serious and committed and they want to do a seriously good job of singing my music as well as possible. And they even understand that I intend to write more serious music that will demand more of them. What they don’t really and truly understand is that I don’t just want them to learn how to sing the harder music collectively and fine-tune our older music that they love. I want them to be better musically so that I can write new and more challenging music that will not bully them into submission while they are in the process of learning it!

I want them to be more.

But they really and truly only want to be able to sing the music together as well as they can. They genuinely want the product, but they want to be more emotionally connected to the journey that will take them there. And so rather than connect to the bits of rehearsal that are not enjoyable, they want the fabric of the rehearsal process to be re-jigged.

There are so many more ramifications on a musical level, but I want to pause on that and join the spiritual dots here. The fact is that the harder music I want to write cannot be achieved this way, so I cannot write it for them. God wants to do more in and through us, but if we don’t want to instil greater spiritual discipline into our lives on a deeper, more fundamental level, then we limit His very ability to give us more!

How is it possible to limit an omnipotent and omnipresent God by virtue of our own choices? No wonder non-Christians think that we are crazy! But this is exactly how it is, and I’m not doing a big theological lecture to bang home the point. I’m going to trust that if you have read this far, then you have followed the flow of this post and grasped enough of what I am saying to get the point.

I’m not planning to give up on this choir, even though I am disappointed that they don’t want what I want. I live in the real world. Instead, I am going to put this to God and let Him direct my path on this. Even though the precise musical challenges that I know I need for me may not be for this particular choir, God has surprising ways of working and I am going to work hard to make the next few rehearsals as enjoyable as possible and let Him work in this situation. We may or may not survive beyond our next gig. Only God knows the future, and I refuse to speculate as to where this choral project will end up. I have too much other work to do!

And by the stripes, I am grateful for the lesson that I have learned and what that has done for my ministry understanding. Even in our disappointments, God continues to work salvation in our lives.


8 thoughts on “A spiritual lesson from the life of a choral director

  1. We must be ever mindful that just as they learn from those God entrusted to us, we too can learn from those God has entrusted us to. Your use of sports analogy could be employed in a different way. While a coach must develop the members in his/her own individual talents, he also must build their relationship to each other and to the sport to bring about true “Team.” In your choir’s case, I think they are saying the musical drills are very important, and they are contextualized to the greater – which is their relationship to each other and their collective appreciation of music making. It appears that they clearly have the talent and ability, and it seems to me that you still have an opportunity to achieve your goals of building their musicianship skills. As you now know their learning style and what motivates them align your approach to one that teaches to their learning style and is driven by building on and channeling what motivates them. As you hear the “sound” you want, use it as an opportunity to convey to them the areas of individual growth exhibited that helped to achieve that sound.

    Your post is great food for thought!

    1. Thanks Michelle, and your comment has also been great food for thought!

      It is a very important point that you make and if we make it through to the long-term, then it will have to be to some extent as you say – no question. They’re not professional singers as such (and even those find my intensity tough going at times), but one of the challenges is that they are currently working in three parts, and I want to develop a way to work in four parts as well whilst keeping our three-part identity going. But this has proven to be a step too far, because the argument is that if I write a piece that is in four parts, and then there is the context of a piece to learn, they can focus on learning the piece and the (not unreasonable) assumption that skills will build automatically is now activated.

      Certain bits of music that I have tried to do with them have effectively crashed and burned, because the mental/musical chops are simply not there. This does not negate your point about other uses of the sporting analogy, but on the flip side, what you have said is that they do already, and very well, and you’ve picked up on that. MY issue is that no matter how strong the team spirit, everyone needs to be able to actually physically do whatever is needed to play the game!

      The three weak areas I identified: no amount of song-learning in and of itself is going to fix those – after all these years, the proof is in the pudding. But nevertheless, I am going to focus on song-learning in three parts (which we do very well) and see how I can find other forums for a heavier level of compositional creativity. And if God inspires some new directions for three-part writing, then that will play a huge part in this project keeping going…

  2. When the struggle between members of a team surface it may be pointing to the need to refocus around first principles. For Christian musicians the purpose for the music is to glorify God and bring others into his presence. This includes both audience and musicians. Oftentimes musicians err in focusing more on craft than on spirit. We need to grow in both areas and we need each other to grow in both areas as well. Perhaps in time if the right support is provided to members in all areas of development of their God-given gifting that the music will begin to sore beyond the imagination or expectation of any individual involved. To go in this direction begins with honest expressions of care and support within the group and the one who may influence this transformation most is the leader willing to share his heart as well as his talents.

  3. Hey Alex, I’m not sure about this. Hard to say without having been present at the rehersals (or knowing anywhere near enough about the methods or requirements), but couldn’t you go some way to addressing this by altering the pace? If you change your end 2013 plans to end 2014 plans, and make time in rehearsals for the bit that lifts their hearts as well as the bit that trains their mind and muscles, then it is a compromise of pace, not content.

    You talk about your goals for the choir, but as you’ve identified, these may not be the same as the goals of the choir members. Perhaps, as you’ve suggested, you need to change your expectations of the choir, but it seems too uncompromising to abandon your hopes for them. You may have a better chance of bringing them along with you and getting them to buy into your vision if you make time for the bits that they currently feel that they need. With time, they may start to stretch their abilities, and feel the benefits that these exercises bring, and they may be more willing to walk alongside you. Perhaps you just need to slow down a little, rather than changing the road.


    1. Hey Jessica, the most interesting people seem to be turning up on here! 🙂

      I am sorry for the protracted delay in responding to this, but you have made some very interesting points (one or two of which may best be discussed off-post in a more personal forum) and in essence and principle, what you say is absolutely correct. Father Time is marching with terrifying speed and this does not naturally motivate me to slow down, but that does not negate your point. Thanks for making time to comment on this, I really do appreciate that fact that you did what as well as the content of what you have said!

    2. Hey Jess, you may or may not follow up on this, but for those who come and read this post and its comments, here is a very important follow-up.

      Having had a more serious think about this, more pieces have fallen into place. The initial optimism that I had felt upon reading and considering your comment (which was sufficiently replete with appropriate caveats) was – and I knew it – because I wanted that to be true. But there is a reason why I felt able to make the depth of theological analogy that I did, and having revisited this thought process in much more depth and considered our position, I now have a more forcefully balanced position. Unless we add a number of new members who are truly able to gel with the current members (which would not be easy, as I have learnt over the years with previous ensembles), the ongoing existence of this choir under my direction means that the road itself HAS to change.

      The true depth of what I would have wanted does require so much than most of the choir members are able and willing to give. Those parameters are not easily expressed in language, but let us suffice it to say that I am already exploring other avenues by which I may find the type of depth of technical engagement that I am seeking – which takes the pressure off this choir.

      Perhaps in five years it may be possible for these guys to do what I would have anticipated, but our first challenge is to find out over the next several months if we can work to a fulfilling standard with the lower technical benchmark that was where we were before I attempted to raise the stakes. That is not a given, and we may need to fight for that. This choir has already gone through some serious sagas and I suspect that we will find a way to make it. But it will be anything but ‘slowing down a little’ – some of the other comments have successfully identified some of the unique types of challenge facing ensemble directors, and the fact that we all want different things out of the music means that the whole business of deciding ‘who you want to be’ as opposed to ‘what you want to do’ is even less straightforward than usual.

      These guys have all made a call about the values they appreciate most, and they know that they can be true to those values. The real question here is: can they take the benchmark they want to a standard that will be fulfilling for me as well as them, or at some point are we going to come to the end of the road? Either way, the ferocity of my commitment to working to a higher conceptual and practical standard is more unequivocal than most can easily comprehend. There is a high price to pay to go in that direction, and everyone must choose. [At some point we’ll talk in person!]

  4. The biggest challenge as a teacher, an MD, or anybody who is attempting to get a group of people to achieve a common aim, is that every individual has their own preferred way of working and learning. The leader is not so much running the show, as attempting to compromise their methods with every other member of the group. If the group has ten people, then leader has to meet this challenge in ten different ways, at every rehearsal (or whatever it is). It’s very, very difficult indeed.

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