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When a choir becomes a clique

As a collegiate choral director, I'd love to hear opinions about the social aspects of your college choirs. I have observed a situation wherein an excellent choral ensemble has a clique mentality. It appears that there is almost a codependent relationship between the conductor and the members of this ensemble and it is the same year in and year out. Specific to this particular situation is the fact that the members of this "community" (the label they use) are involved in all aspects of the group's musical and non-musical activities, including the final word on who, by audition including blending and assessment of goodness of fit, are selected as new members. Ours is a small university with 4 vocal ensembles and about the same number of instrumental ensembles and none of the other ensembles are run this way or have this clique-ish characteristic. It is a source of friction within our department. Where do you, as a director, draw lines in administrative, musical, and audition policies? Have you experienced or observed such a thing? Do you find it healthy or unhealthy? Etc,?
Replies (6): Threaded | Chronological
on April 27, 2014 5:43am
John: I'll make this very short and to the point - unless a choir is sponsored by some outside division [e.g., student services, etc] its members should NEVER have the final word on who is accepted into the ensemble. The conductor has that responsibility because the ensemble is within the Dept of Music. You could allow them to offer suggestions/recommendations about auditioned singers, but certainly nothing more. 
Applauded by an audience of 6
on April 27, 2014 12:18pm
Your succinct reply is appreciated. I agree.
on April 27, 2014 12:00pm
Fora singer, and for at least some directors, one of the most satisfying and productive situations is to be part of an ensemble which is a community of friends and co-workers, all contributing what they can with mutual respect, so that artistic and social coherence reinforce one another. When you're training up singers, do you not hope you're giving them skills to allow some of them to experience that in the future?
That said, I can well understand why this situation is problematic for other ensembles and other directors in the same college. I don't have a solution to offer - so I probably shouldn't be posting. I'd simply like to express the hope that you can find a way to deal with this without breaking up an artistically successful grouping.
on April 27, 2014 1:13pm
Hi John,
Thanks for your reply. Yes, I am fully for music as a uniting force for excellence and for social support. A sense of community is, indeed, important to an ensemble's identity. My issue is more with how that community identity becomes exclusivity and how that exclusivity is achieved, in this case by allowing the young adult members of a college group, whose brains and social skills are still developing, to be involved in many musical and all non-musical decisions of the group, including those who will be accepted as members based on things other than musical ability through audition. College level choruses are classes first, even if the ensemble is by audition. Goodness of fit socially might work for non-academic ensembles, but it is a very slippery philosophical slope in a small college music department. In my 30 plus years as a choral director in churches and in higher education, I have never observed nor practiced such a philiosophy. I favor the director making final decisions on member acceptance and accepting full responsibility for said decisions, which is not the case here. It is not my goal to see an excellent group such as this broken up, but when it causes departmental friction, I feel it should be addressed.
Applauded by an audience of 3
on April 28, 2014 7:40am
I have to wonder if a complete change of venue - i.e., moving the conductor to an altogether different group, and moving someone else in to direct - might help change both the dynamic of the group AND the conductor's approach.  It sounds to me as though, if that conductor is not the department chair, it's time for the chair to have a long sit down and discussion with that individual.  This is a professional matter, and must be addressed by a person in the professional hierarchy.  As independently-minded as musicians are, and as resentful as we are of changes made, one of the teachng elements here to be attended to is that groups change in composition, and while a certain internal dynamic is to be appreciated, the old saw of "familiarity breeds contempt" may also apply here.  I don't have a lot other than this to offer, but it sounds like it's time for leadership to lead.
And one more thing:  if the group comes apart at the seams, it may not be such a bad thing after all.  As much as that is not desirable, perhaps from a long-term perspective, it may allow for a healthier dynamic to be established?
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 28, 2014 12:53pm
Though he agrees with me in private, the chair refuses to confront this head-on, which is why it has been a problem for at least a decade. Sad to say, this particular faculty member, who now has the longest tenure and is at retirement age but refuses to retire, actually taught the chair when he was an undergrad at this university. This is one reason for the chair's unwillingness to proactively address the matter. This has resulted in at least two former choral ensemble directors leaving the the institution in years past. I am not returning in the fall, and the failure to address the situation is a contributing factor, though not the only one, to my decision.
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