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Fear: The Bane of the Choir Director

As a choir director, you’re in position of high visibility. At the very least you can expect that each choir member knows who you are and has made some judgment about you. It’s not like worrying about what other people think of the clothes you’re wearing or how clean your house is. In those cases most people probably don’t think about it very much at all, and on the off chance someone actually does think you’re a bad person for not wearing the latest fashion or not alphabetizing your bookshelf they really aren’t worth your time. As a choir director, though, you can be sure that people do have an opinion of you and that to fairly high degree, those opinions matter.

Paranoid now? Well you should be! Sort of… What I mean is you should take some time to think about it. If you’re new to directing how do you plan to deal with not meeting people’s expectations? Can you handle critiques? Can you handle failure? Can you handle people looking to you for direction when you’re making it up as you go along?

I know it’s easy to let this kind of thinking affect your directing, because I’ve had it happen to me. I’m not an expert on singing. I’ve been singing in choirs for the last eight years, but I only had voice lessons for a few months and even then I didn’t learn all that much about about extending range or safe vocal production or anything like that. At the time I wasn’t even planning to be a choir director, I was just trying to improve my own singing ability. So here I am, the choir director for the Collegium, and I want to help the choir improve their singing. How do I tell them what to do when I don’t know what I’m doing? Moreover how do I tell them what to do when some of them have more knowledge than me.

So, what did I do? I froze and didn’t really offer any actual guidance. o.O Mostly I was afraid to discuss my ideas with the more knowledgeable choir members, and rather than be called out on my ignorance opted to do nothing. What I should have done was, of course, start a conversation with the experienced people to see what they had to say about my ideas. That way there’d be no awkwardness at rehearsal, and we’d all have a greater understanding of each other. Yet, oddly enough it never really crossed my mind to try to solve the problem. I never thought to go talk to them first. I was too preoccupied with getting called out on my inequities. And that, really, is one of the bad things fear does… especially the fear of failure. It paralyzes you. It says things like “Better to do nothing than to make a fool of yourself”. It’s bad enough in general, but as a choir director it’s especially bad because it makes you ineffective.

Dealing with Fear in General: Aim and Shoot

So, you’ve decided that you don’t want to let fear keep you from being the best director you can be. Now, how do you deal with it? For me it’s a two step process: 1) determine what it is you’re afraid of and why (Aim) and 2) figure out a way to combat it (Shoot).

There isn’t one way to determine what you’re afraid of. Sometimes it screams at you–like the fear of being called out on my ignorance–and sometimes it’s a whisper–really I was afraid of talking with my singers. If something’s been screaming at you for a while and you still don’t have a solution chances are good that the problem is deeper. Start there.

If no fears are screaming at you or whispering to you, then look at areas in your directing where you’ve been meaning to improve but for some reason haven’t. If you aren’t doing what you intend to do, then something is holding you back… and if it’s a mental thing it’s probably fear.

You’ll know when you’ve correctly identified your fear because it’ll *feel* right. It’ll be a “moment of insight” type feeling…. an “A-ha” moment. A moment like in school when some concept finally makes sense.

Once you’ve identified the fear, finding a solution should be trivial. If it’s not then you need to look deeper. Going back to the example, after identifying the surface fear, the fear of being called out on my ignorance, trying to solve it just sent me in circles. I’d think things like, “If I attempt to give instruction my fear might come true. If I don’t I’ll never gain experience.” Digging deeper, I found an irrational fear, talking to my singers, which as I found it I knew how to deal with it. (I said to myself, “Clearly that’s stupid.” And started coming up with topics to discuss with my more knowledgeable singers.)

Dealing with Fear of Failure: Acceptance

A common fear for many leaders is the fear of failure. You don’t want to let your people down, yet at the same time you’re only human. Failure is inevitable. So, how do you handle the fact that you will screw up from time to time? The short answer is that you accept it.

Accept it? What? Doesn’t that mean giving up? Like “I’m a screw-up so I might as well accept it. There’s no hope.”? No, that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that you acknowledge that failure is going to happen. You have to acknowledge it in order to be honest with yourself, and honesty is a prerequisite to dealing with your fears. If you skip the acceptance step you’ll have a much harder time getting over your fears. Now, once you’ve past that step, you’re free to take the failures and learn and grow from them. In committing to learn from your mistakes, you’ve taken care of most of the worries associated with failing. You’re not expected to be perfect, but you are expected to grow.

Any choir member who expects perfection instead of a commitment to improvement isn’t worth your time. (Well… unless they’re paying you… then that’s a different scenario. :-P)

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