While I was in Vancouver a few weekends ago performing with the Ordo Collective, I had the opportunity to reconnect with an old choir friend of mine. We were joined by another performer and audience member. My choir friend and I readily agreed that we thrived on fear during rehearsals in our childhood choral experiences. At that time, what we labelled as fear, in fact, was our immediate feeling in response to conductor challenge. Spontaneous solos were not out of the ordinary if our conductor wanted to check our text memorization or searing glares cast our way if we missed an entry. Of course, we had fair warning if there would be a memorization check and we could sense fragile patience if we have already rehearsed a section multiple times to clean up entries. I understand how hearing this from an outsiders point of view makes it seem like we were were in some kind of abusive relationship. I don't deny the fact that there are some elements of perceived abuse in the previously mentioned conductor-chorister interactions. We were willingly subjecting ourselves to cold treatment in order to feel even a shred of positive reinforcement from a demanding leader. I was not surprised when I heard an aghast response from another person at the table: "There are other ways to achieve that same effect." Perhaps. I respect the fact that everybody has an individualistic response to challenge. One conductor's style of terror may not be the right approach for every chorister. However, if you were to ask me about my most fulfilling musical experiences, they did not result from being coddled by a conductor. I don't think I am alone in this regard.
It all comes down to one thing: respect. You can challenge your singers and demand the best as long as there is a level of respect. Oftentimes, when people are asked why they love a particular person, they say: "They make me a better person."
Why is that?
Is it because they are providing such boundless amounts of love that this surplus is what allows them to be improved versions of themselves? I don't believe this is the case. It all comes down to the aspect of challenge and the intent from which it has been elicited. There needs to be balance. Conductors who experiment with this equation need to constantly evaluate how many variables to manipulate. People need to be challenged by external figures. It is healthy for this to occur. I feel this applies to every relationship people consent to whether it be in a life partner or a choral one. Even with a strongly established voice of internal motivation, it is always powerful to have outside forces that demand the best. Challenge, pressure, stimulus - these are all conditions for change. If we are not challenging ourselves and taking musical risks, then what are we doing?
Love it or hate it, fear, is a powerful tool within a rehearsal. While I do not wish to be petrified at every rehearsal I attend, I know that it is sometimes necessary and that my short-term distress is a precursor to long-term learning. So for those conductors hesitant to employ a firm hand, speaking from my own chorister experience, I simply say: Go ahead and scare us. We need it.