Overcoming the Fear
In a study of Music Performance Anxiety (MPA) in the choral setting I undertook for my thesis, it was discovered that relational trust between a choral conductor and the singers under her leadership is of utmost importance in aiding singers who suffer from MPA. Ninety-five percent of the 85 participating singers indicated that they experienced some degree of MPA before performing and 64% stated that MPA prevented them from singing more often as a soloist.
Singers can feel vulnerable; it can feel like you are exposing an innermost part of yourself when you are singing. Relational trust between the singers and their conductor must be nurtured in order to achieve more satisfying choral performances for themselves and their listeners. (For a perspective on the differences between relational and presentational worship ministry, click here.)
Four Components of Relational Trust
Relational trust has four key components: respect, personal regard, personal integrity, and competence in core responsibilities. Respect is communicated when interactions convey good intentions and shared understanding. Good intentions are communicated when a leader’s approach is positive, as supported by the open-ended responses in the study.
Behaviors conductors can exhibit that help singers include smiling, being upbeat, having fun, and making rehearsing and performing fun. Shared understanding is cultivated when a conductor “communicates their joy of music,”” ““creates a safe environment where everyone can be themselves, and take chances,”” and remembers that “details are essential, but don’t sweat it in the moment if something goes wrong.”
It was suggested that to get everyone on the same page, a conductor could “discuss the meaning of art, and the nature of singing as a unique art form, and how each performance is similar and different.” Conductors showing respect for the singers under their leadership is imperative to develop trusting relationships; “be part of the choir, not separate,” as one singer wrote.
Conductors demonstrate personal regard for their singers when they go the extra mile to show they care by being “encouraging,” “supportive,” and “communicat(ing) expectations clearly.” Recognizing the singers as individuals is essential, as expressed in these comments: “listen to and interact with EACH choir member,” and, “be available as needed to help individually or in small groups.”
Participants want conductors to assess their needs, provide feedback, be aware of what each singer’s comfort zone is and how far he can be pushed, while, “making sure not to single out one person in front of the group.” Respondents suggested that conductors talk openly about MPA; “normalize their fears,” and “let people know that it’s normal and common.”
Another aspect of demonstrating personal regard is for a leader to be honest and share her own personal stories, including her vulnerabilities. Trust is a two-way street. When a conductor opens herself up in this way, she shows the choir that she trusts them, and the mutual nature of trust is nurtured.
Being trustworthy involves having personal integrity, a commitment to “walk the talk.” The issue of confidence arose in the qualitative data from the research a great deal. Choristers need their conductors to “demonstrate, encourage, and instill confidence.” They would like for conductors to “reflect the image they want to see in the choir,” “model calm and confident behavior,” and, “appear in control.” They want conductors to, “express confidence in (their) choirs,” and to, “look them in the eye and say, ‘I believe in you. Enjoy what you are singing and make it come alive.’”
When singers feel that the conductor is confident in herself and the choir, they will trust that the situation is safe for them to express themselves vocally more readily.
The final component of trusting relationships is competence. Competence in leading choirs involves being knowledgeable, prepared and organized. Singers in choirs need for their conductors to be knowledgeable in many realms: vocal technique, the language of music, the expression and interpretation of music, conducting, rehearsal techniques and teaching strategies, to name a few. One participant said, “Teach, don’t just conduct.”
Participants want to be taught physical and vocal warm-ups, theory, technique, memorization strategies, and coping strategies for dealing with MPA. They are keenly aware of the benefits of practice; they appreciate practice recordings, “nit picking for mistakes,” and the conductor, “working the choir diligently on technique and difficult parts of the repertoire.” They would like as many opportunities to perform, try solos informally, and practice in small groups, as possible.
Making expectations clear, such as home study, attendance, and memorization requirements helps singers to know where they stand. Conductors must plan the repertoire carefully by “tailoring the choice of the material to the ability of the majority of the group, but including some that challenge somewhat beyond expectations.”
The conductor knowing the music well is imperative and participants implore conductors to not make any last minute changes. Conductors can improve their competence level and thereby reduce the experience of MPA for the singers under their leadership by ensuring that they pursue new learning themselves, plan and prepare thoughtfully, communicate learning intention and goals clearly, and know the repertoire well.
The Leadership of Relational Trust
It is extremely beneficial for conductors to foster trusting relationships with the singers under their leadership in order to reduce the negative effects of MPA. They can do this by demonstrating respect for the singers, by showing personal regard for them as individuals, by maintaining personal integrity, and finally by demonstrating competence in their core responsibilities.
Conductors are in a privileged position to create conditions where singers can thrive and feel confident about their vocal contributions to a choir. The sound of an ensemble where the singers and conductor trust each other resonates with a joy and passion that uplifts all who partake in its music.
For a perspective on the differences between relational and presentational worship ministry, click here.
This article originally appeared in Anacrusis, the Journal of Choral Canada, and is used by permission of Anacrusis and the author.
© 2015 Anacrusis, used by permission