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Choral Pedagogy and the Construction of Identity

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines how theories of identity construction can usefully inform choral praxis. It starts with an outline of key concepts in theories of identity and how they can help us understand the processes by which choirs inculcate their members into their particular choral culture. It then examines three areas particularly salient for the choral leader. The first is the phenomenon of “non-singers”: how they emerge as a by-product of western cultural discourses, and what can be done to rehabilitate them. The second is the interpenetration of social and musical identity categories: how elements we may think of as “purely” musical are constructed in terms of wider social categories, including the habitus of the cultural environment, and the implications for how we frame the choral techniques we use. The third is the relationship between individual and group: how an ensemble establishes a corporate, supra-personal identity, and ways to facilitate this.

Keywords: identity construction, choral praxis, theories of identity, habitus, cultural discourses

“One is not born, but rather becomes, woman’

Simone de Beauvoir’s pithy statement from The Second Sex is the foundation stone of modern theories of identity, which have moved away from a concept of “self” as a stable, enduring core, to one of an ongoing project, actively maintained by the subject. Self-identity is constructed through practices and discourses, maintained as coherent patterns of action and feeling within the social groups they define.

Hence it would be equally valid to state “One is not born, but rather becomes, a choral singer.” Choral traditions represent communities of practice that actively maintain and promulgate musical behaviors and their associated meanings. From this perspective, the function of choral pedagogy is to transform a miscellaneous collection of human beings into a unified ensemble populated by individuals who all self-identify as choral singers. It defines the vocal and conceptual elements that a participant has to master to count as a competent member of that community, and presents a range of established methods through which to train new arrivals in the acquisition of these elements.

The aim of this chapter is to provide insights into these processes of identity-formation in order to inform the way choral leaders deploy and develop their repertories of choir-training techniques. Many western choral traditions maintain a genuinely inclusive ethos, built on beliefs in the naturalness and universality of singing together.1 At the same time, they maintain their heritage—and, indeed, attain their best results—through stringent disciplinary regimes, which in turn can lead to criticisms of exclusionary and (p. 130) elitist practices. It is possible to negotiate a path through this contradictory ideological landscape without either diluting artistic standards or alienating those one would wish to engage, but it is not always a simple process. Critical analysis of the ways that choral identities are formed will allow the choral leader to be more strategic and self-aware in their praxis and the ethical commitments they reflect.

The chapter will start with an outline of key concepts in theories of identity, and how they can help us understand the processes by which choirs inculcate their members into their particular choral culture. It will then examine in detail three areas particularly salient for the choral leader. The first is the phenomenon of “non-singers”: how they emerge as a by-product of western mythologies of talent, and what can be done to rehabilitate them. The second is the interpenetration of social and musical identity categories: how elements we may think of as “purely” musical are constructed in terms of wider social categories such as class, regionality, or race, and the implications for how we frame the choral techniques we use. The third is the relationship between individual and group: how an ensemble establishes a corporate, supra-personal identity, and ways to facilitate the lowering of individuals’ ego boundaries to allow this.

The emphasis throughout will be less on the description of techniques than on how to use the discipline’s established methods effectively and inclusively.2 This chapter draws on these methods to illustrate the processes it discusses, but does not attempt to duplicate their function. Rather, it aspires to send choral directors back to their disciplinary forerunners with a clearer sense of how to use the fruits of their experience without inadvertently reproducing implicit and unwanted cultural hierarchies.

The Project of the Choral Self

The identity of the choral singer is constituted within the context of, and through the same processes as, the self as a whole. Choir is in some ways a distinct social environment, separated from daily life by location and activity; self-identification as a choral singer is likewise a discrete element of one’s overall sense of identity. At the same time, people’s understanding of choral music as an art and as a social activity is formed within their experience of their wider cultural milieu. Several key concepts are useful to clarify the workings of these processes, and thus to unpick the role of choral pedagogy in producing proficient and well-adjusted singers.

First, is the idea of identity as performative (Butler, 1990). Both our experience of ourselves and other people’s conception of who we are come through what we do. Everybody’s daily life is built upon myriad iterative practices—habits—that through repetition provide a sense of coherence and continuity to their lived experience. We learn these habits through interaction with our cultural environment: through direct social contact with our family, neighbors, and peers; and through exposure to the products of mediated culture—television, radio, newspapers. Many are picked up without (p. 131) conscious awareness of their acquisition, while others are imposed as we learn standards of acceptable and unacceptable behavior through parental discipline, school rules, and peer pressure. Bourdieu (1984) uses the term habitus for the cultural environment that forms these basic patterns of behavior.

Our learned behaviors are not random, but are organized by cultural discourses into more-or-less stable constellations of practices, which are understood as identity categories: gender, religion, ethnicity. The discourses of identity are ideological, in that the social groups they define have access to different levels of power, both in terms of relative economic advantage and different levels of cultural prestige.

The extent to which individuals experience their relationship with these different axes of identity as salient to their sense of self will depend in the first instance largely on their habitus, but it is not a passive process. In a world shaped by migration, social mobility, and the mass media, individuals will find themselves interacting in multiple social contexts, with different and sometimes conflicting ethics and expectations, and they will need actively to develop their sense of self in dialogue with these competing claims on their allegiance and ways of being.

The subject thus creates and maintains his or her identity reflexively (Giddens, 1991), through an ongoing internal autobiography in which they make sense of their own experience. Through this personal narrative, people ascribe meaning to the events in their lives in terms of the cultural discourses available to them, and establish a sense of continuity in the trajectory of their lived experience. This reflexive project will be particularly intense at times of change or upheaval, as the subject decides how to construe a move into new social contexts: whether as a progression or departure from previous commitments, and whether to cling to old forms of behavior or abandon them in favor of new ones.

Hence the self is neither as “free” as ideologies of Western democracies might suggest nor as pre-determined as a Marxist analysis would contend. Both the patterns of behavior available to us and the narrative structures available to make sense of them are shared cultural artifacts, formed and maintained within contexts of power, authority and control. They are inscribed upon us through the social environments in which we act and interact. At the same time, they are not monolithic. Dominant ideologies spawn countercultures which offer both discursive critique and active forms of resistance. Even in the absence of outright opposition, individuals will often have a range of narrative and behavioral possibilities accessible to them through their habitus, although the degree of flexibility available will be more or less limited by their social status.

Individuals also have the opportunity to adopt certain ways of being temporarily or intermittently. Many people engage in activities that are bracketed off from their daily lives by their placement in distinct social spaces with distinct social groups, often articulated by specific forms of attire, language use, and norms of behavior. Bourdieu refers to these sub-sets of life as fields, while Giddens refers to them as lifestyle sectors. These activities are secondary forms of identity in that participants are less likely to use them as identity markers in other contexts, but they nonetheless take (p. 132) on a significant role in their personal narratives. People invest a lot of time, attention, and emotional commitment to their chosen lifestyle sectors, and may construe their development within that field in terms of a distinct career (Stebbins, 1996; Elkington and Stebbins, 2014).

These lifestyle sectors may be experientially separate from the wider culture in which they subsist, but they are still embedded within it, and draw upon its discourses in developing their sector-specific norms. Hence, whilst adherence to a particular field may be self-selecting in a way that primary identity categories are not (one can choose whether or not to be a biker; one cannot choose whether or not to be white), access to that field may not be equally open to all from that wider culture.

Choral singing operates as such a lifestyle sector: a slice of identity that people don for the duration of choral activities. It may interpenetrate with their wider life to some extent (inviting family members to concerts; socializing with choir members between choral activities), but it is a clearly defined world, with its own particular habits and values. Choral pedagogy thus emerges as the set of formal methods for constituting choral singers. The knowledge-base is well-developed, with clear procedures for inculcating both the patterns of desired behavior and the moral order that sustains them and gives them meaning. It also produces some unintended consequences.

Singers, Non-Singers, and Talent

We shall start by considering the “non-singer”: the individual who self-identifies as unable to sing. The most important task of choral pedagogy is arguably to avoid producing this self-identification in children and to reverse it in adults. As a cultural category it is a product of deeply ingrained beliefs about the nature of “talent” and “musicality.”3 It is created by exclusionary discourses wielded by authority, but once internalized it is actively maintained by the non-singer.

Many adults who self-identify as non-singers can identify the moment at which they learned that they “could not sing” (Whidden, 2008; Pascale, 2002). The tale is one of discovery or revelation, of being told for the first time by an authority figure that they were failing at something they were previously unaware of being unable to do. The stories are also tales of practical exclusion, of being set apart from those who “can” sing, whether being told to mime rather than sing out loud, or a physical removal from the activity. Other “non-singers” tell of how they adopted the label for themselves through observing their social milieu; their stories are of people they knew who were celebrated as “talented,” and from whom the “non-singers” felt different.

Once someone has accepted or assumed their designation as a “non-singer,” they maintain that identity through both their behaviors and their personal narratives. They may also find themselves managing contradictions between their narratively maintained identity and behaviors that contradict it. “Non-singers” may in fact sing routinely in daily life—in the shower, along with the radio, with their children—but they (p. 133) categorize these activities as “not really” singing, as they are informal, private, and therefore immune from the judgment of others.

The categories of “singer” and “non-singer” were once standard in the educational literature. Rutkowski’s (1990) overview of mid-20th-century pedagogical vocabulary gives the following terms for children with imperfect control of their voices: “nonsingers,” “problem singers,” “inaccurate singers,” “dependent or lazy singers,” “near singers,” “partial singers,” and “monotones.” Her summary of Joyner’s (1969) study of 11-year-old boys illustrates the problems associated with this literature:

“Normal singers” were those who could sing in a low and high key; “Grade A monotones” were tuneful in the low key but not in the higher key; “Grade B monotones” were those who were erratic at both pitch levels; “Grade C monotones” are always untuneful.

The classifications usefully analyze the way children develop control over different vocal registers sequentially, but at the same time impose an overarching division into “normal singers” and “monotones.” The use of the word “normal” is striking: one would gather from the taxonomy of “monotone” types that incomplete skill-acquisition is in fact a normal condition for this cohort of boys. By applying it instead to those with more secure skills, the term operates ideologically, pathologizing the “monotones” as aberrant rather than merely unskilled.

Underpinning these essentializing categories is the discourse of talent. To call someone “talented” is both to observe a degree of proficiency in what they do and to ascribe an inherent aptitude as the source of that proficiency. This is a pervasive cultural mythology, although there is little if any evidence that either technical or expressive skills are hereditary. As Sloboda (2005) stated: “Many people mistakenly assume that intuitive behavior must be innate. This is a major fallacy. Any well-practised habit eventually becomes automatic” (p. 268).

Studies of expertise across different disciplines have shown that the only identifiable differentiator between a casual or moderately capable executant and those at the top of their field is the sheer amount of time spent engaged in it. Mastery emerges after 10,000 hours of focused practice, which is typically double the time invested by the merely capable (Ericsson & Charness, 1994). Sloboda and Davidson’s (1996) study of young musicians also finds no empirical basis for two other elements of the myth of talent: that musical excellence is by definition rare, and that it is heralded by developmentally precocious displays of musical capacity. Instead, they find that the best predictors for success in young musicians are kindliness in their initial teachers and parental support for their musicianship. Like Whidden’s (2008) and Pascale’s (2002) studies of “non-singers,” they found that people who self-identify as “unmusical” commonly reported negative emotional experiences of music in early pedagogical situations. Notwithstanding these findings, the cultural conception of “talent” continues to consider it a quality that is inborn, bestowed upon the “gifted” by fate or genetics. If the years of effort are observed, they will be construed as evidence of this predetermined capacity, rather than as the source of acquired skill.4

(p. 134) Practical ramifications

The implications for choral leaders are far-reaching, both in the classroom and for those working with adults. The language we use with and about the singers in our care is not just descriptive, it is also productive. The labels we apply can give permission for a child to consider themselves as destined for success or cause them to consider themselves as categorically excluded from the ranks of the world’s singers.5

Abandoning an outmoded pedagogical vocabulary is, on the face of it, a simple enough task. Other areas of the curriculum manage perfectly well without their equivalents of “non-singer” after all. This will not be enough, however, to counteract the exclusionary effects of the discourse of talent, given the extent to which it structures belief about musical activity in culture at large. If a school presents a habitus in which singing is kept separate from the rest of the curriculum, only led by music specialists, while other classroom teachers either opt out or are excluded from singing this will shape children’s beliefs about musical capacity far more deeply than the specific vocabulary used in music sessions (Pascale, 2002).

England’s “Sing Up” program presents an extensive case study in the attempt to avoid producing non-singers.6 With the central ambition to give every child in primary school the opportunity to sing every day, it promoted singing as a learning activity across the curriculum, with two main strategies. The first was in providing training for generalist teachers so that they could feel confident using songs routinely in class, and the second was the development of a wide range of materials (songs, lesson plans, activity packs) designed specifically to link with subjects right across the country’s national curriculum.

Impact studies assessing the effectiveness of the program (Welch, Himonides, Saunders, & Papageorgi, 2010; Saunders, Papageorgi, Himonides, Rinta, & Welch, 2011) found that the standard demographic categories for social science research (gender, race, class/prosperity, urban/rural locations) were relevant for the baseline assessments, but substantially less so when measuring development in singing skills as the program progressed. Rather, the primary differentiator for the success of the interventions was the extent to which schools’ senior management teams supported the program. “In schools where singing was seen as important,” Welch (2009) reported, “we tended to find more advanced singing development being evidenced” (p. 10). These findings are instructive in the way they demonstrate both how one’s general habitus affects one’s engagement with singing, and how the specific social world of the school can inflect this. To be effective, it needs to be valued as part of the school’s wider culture, not fenced off into a music-specialist ghetto; however inspiring an individual teacher may be, their effectiveness is limited in isolation. These findings are also supported by Ashley (2011).

Leaders of adult choirs face the challenge of the legacy left by divisive practices of the past. It is possible to ignore the problem, as people who volunteer to join choirs are a self-selecting pool who already identify as “singers,” but in an era of aging choirs and declining participation in community leisure (Putnam, 2000), the great untapped pool of self-identified “non-singers” is a much-needed resource for adult choirs.

(p. 135) In this context, it is worth observing the strategies of various choirs and choral organizations which have positioned themselves as more or less countercultural to what they deem “traditional” choirs. I have written elsewhere, using analyses borrowed from the sociology of new religious movements, about how the barbershop movement can be characterized as a kind of musical “sect,” counter-poised against the “church” of the musical mainstream (Garnett, 2005). This comparison is also apt for other choral subcultures that share certain features in the way they go about recruiting those who self-identify as unable to sing, and reclaiming them as musically active participants.

First, these “new choral movements” operate with a proselytizing zeal, offering not just a musical experience but a promise of personal well-being. There is a heavy focus on outreach, with the emphasis on choir as a means of individual transformation and interpersonal connection. The Natural Voice Practitioners Network website, for example, states that, “Singing creates a sense of wellbeing, brings communities together and gives us the opportunity to create sounds of power and beauty” ( Second, they promote a strongly egalitarian ethos, appealing for anyone to join, regardless of previous experience, and actively removing barriers to entry. Hence, Rock Choir™ reassured potential members that, it “is for all ages and all levels of experience. Even if you have not sung in public before you can do it in Rock Choir as there is no audition and no requirement to read music” ( Choice of repertoire is part of this ethos, with a strong commitment to vernacular musics (particularly world music and/or commercially popular music) as opposed to the posited elitism of “traditional” (that is, classical) choral music.

There is also a more-or-less explicit critique of “traditional” choirs, placing their offerings in direct contrast to those attributes of the mainstream deemed to be off-putting to newcomers. New choral movements present themselves as friendly, accessible and entertaining, implying—if not always directly articulating—that traditional choirs are standoffish, elitist, and dull.7 For example, All Sorts Choir from Scotland presents itself as “an adult mixed-voice choir with a difference,” whose “aim is to make choir music exciting and fun. … [U]‌nlike the majority of traditional choirs we don’t just stand up in lines and sing” (

Through such evangelistic tactics, these new choral movements position themselves as “rescuing” adult non-singers from the damage inflicted on them in youth by a snooty and uncaring classical tradition. Those church choirs and classical choral societies who are struggling for members would no doubt find this characterization unfair; indeed, from ethnographic research, I would observe that friendliness is almost invariably in good supply across all choral genres. Moreover, the childhood experiences that produced the self-identity of “non-singer” were far more likely to have been associated with classroom music such as folk songs or hymns than classical music per se. However, this does illustrate how the ideological “lines of coherence” that delineate available identity categories are established using culturally-available discourses. The prestige of Western art music is conflated with the institutional authority of those who made the judgments (p. 136) that excluded people from singing, while popular repertories are cast in the role of a musical Everyman, on the side of the underdog.

These recuperative strategies have been highly successful in recruiting to new choral movements those with a fear of singing. They are problematic, though, in the way they are predicated on increasing barriers between choral genres. At the same time they offer self-identified “non-singers” support to rediscover their voices, they risk discouraging their newly reclaimed singers from venturing further into the varied choral landscape, and thereby make recruitment harder for choirs associated with the classical tradition.

None of these tactics, however, are beyond the reach of a choir of any genre. It is worth recalling that the British choral society movement of the 19th century, whose descendants are now being cast as the out-of-touch establishment, itself shared many of the features of today’s choral movements. In an era of great economic inequality it was one of the few social arenas that genuinely mixed social classes, and through the sol-fa methods developed by Glover and Curwen, made music literacy accessible on an unprecedented scale.8 Mass participation established the canonical works of Bach and Handel as vernacular musics.9

The task for choirs wishing to attract adult novices is thus both practical and ideological. At a practical level, they need to provide the kind of vocal and musical training that their target cohort missed out on in youth once identified as “non-singers.” This is not such an insuperable task as it may sound. As members of their culture, the recruits will have a well-developed competency in understanding music (Sloboda, 2005); what they will lack are habits and techniques that experienced choristers take for granted, and without which newcomers will find participation difficult and baffling—that is, there is a greater need for en explicit choral pedagogy to help newcomers overcome the practical barriers to entry than may be immediately obvious to those who have never doubted their capacity to sing.

The ideological task is to reappropriate the concept of choir as a socially accessible lifestyle sector. This includes, but goes beyond, the practical provision of training. It also involves, as the new choral movements have demonstrated, positioning choral participation as a transformative experience. Generating choral participants from adult “non-singers” is not merely a matter of remedying a skill deficit, it is a matter of redeeming emotional damage sustained in childhood. As such, it will be useful to examine in greater detail the way choral practice draws on ideological discourses from wider culture in constructing and maintaining its identity categories.

Musical Identities, Social Identities

While choral singing as a lifestyle sector is largely separate from everyday life as a social world and sphere of activity, the meanings it creates and maintains are constructed within wider cultural discourses. The musical and extramusical dimensions of identity interpenetrate, each domain being understood to an extent in terms of the other. Choral (p. 137) singing’s compulsory and forbidden forms of vocal behavior are routinely articulated in terms of wider cultural categories such as accent or genre. At the same time, the characteristic musical behaviors of the different parts in a choral texture are extrapolated out to subsume the entire personhood of the singers on that part, forming tradition-specific stereotypes.

The choral practitioner needs an awareness of these processes because the specific forms of alienation reported by those who drop out of choir, or who feel put off from joining in the first place, are often experienced in terms of a failure of identification: the feeling that “it’s not for people like me.”10 Such remarks may frustrate choral leaders who wish to foster an inclusionary ethos in their ensembles, but their own successful inculcation into a choral culture may often obscure their perception of the implicit cultural hierarchies intuited by those who perceive themselves as “outsiders.”

Accent, genre, and cultural hierarchies

The voice is a primary means by which people construct both a sense of self and a range of social and musical allegiances. The connection between voice and self is such that the word indicates not just vocal sound, but a person’s unique contribution to culture: the “voice” of the poet, the novelist, the composer.11 At the same time, we learn to use our voices within the culturally-constructed collections of practices understood as identity markers: class, educational background, and regionality are all inscribed upon and inferred from our voices.

When people join a choir, the first thing they are asked to do is change how they use their voices. The preferred norms of vowel shape and placement in choral singing vary according to nationality and genre, but are invariably configured to privilege accents that enjoy greater cultural esteem. Writers on choral practice routinely warn against pronunciation “problems” (Kaplan, 1985, p. 55),12 and the avoidance of “colloquial” and “regional” accents (Hylton, 1995, p. 21). Singers who use such word sounds are seen as either willfully deviant from the normative, with their accents described as “mannerisms” (Garretson, 1974, p. 56) or “peculiarities” (Coward, 1914, p. 86), or simply not trying hard enough, with their “slovenly” and “lip-lazy” habits (Garretson, 1974, p. 56). Choral methods require singers from backgrounds other than middle-class middle England or middle America to erase the audible traces of their social origins in order to align themselves with a universalized choral identity, and do so in terms which range from the casually dismissive to the deeply judgmental.

As well as seeking to modify these social or demographic identity markers, choral pedagogies also come into conflict with people’s existing forms of musical identification, whether these are formally taught or informally learned. Many writers consider the styles of voice production associated with popular musics not simply as different traditions, but as faults that need to be corrected when singers partake in what Neuen (2002) referred to as “legitimate” choral singing (p. 45). Knight (2000), for instance, mandates that “pop-orientated singers wishing to join choirs and operatic societies must be (p. 138) expected to show goodwill towards the unfamiliar style. They are entitled to be greeted with reciprocal goodwill as individuals, but musically they must change, not seek acceptance as they are” (p. 6).

Discourses such as those of accent and genre allow hierarchies in wider culture to act as obstacles to access to choral music for those who already lack cultural capital. Choral leaders need to find ways to “check their privilege” and consciously counter rather than inadvertently reinforce the exclusionary power of these discourses.

To do this by trying to be “purely” musical in approach, by trying to strip off cultural meanings in an attempt to avoid evoking these extramusical associations, rarely works. Theoretical or technical language is after all itself a marker of cultural prestige. Avoiding wider discourses also impoverishes the experience, since musical understanding relies on clusters of connotations that bring richness and depth to the experience (Green, 1988; Garnett, 1998). Without contextual and associative reference singers find it harder to connect emotionally and imaginatively with the music they sing.13 Moreover, people still bring their cultural competence to bear on their perception of an ensemble’s activities. In a workplace choir I observed, for example, it was not the predominantly classical repertoire that produced anxieties about social and musical identities, but exercises designed to work on vowel placement and a legato vocal line, which elicited the question: “Do we have to sound posh?”

A more productive strategy is to reframe hierarchical exclusionary practices as informed decisions about style: to treat language, genre and accent as axes of exploration rather than rigidly located boundaries of the acceptable.14 To relativize the concept of “correct” is to exploit choral music’s status as a lifestyle sector—a distinct world with its particular modes of being—while recognizing that individuals will routinely move through a variety of such social environments, adapting to the norms and expressive registers of each as they go. It is possible to teach people appropriate vocal techniques for a particular repertory or performance tradition without implying (or indeed stating) that the way they use their voices in other social and musical contexts is wrong. Flexibility of style, and therefore also of technical control, becomes an act of informed empathy, performers aligning themselves with each other and with the music’s identity commitments to create a convincing imaginative world.

Voice-type and personality

Voice classification is a central part of most choral pedagogies. This is often presented as a quasi-scientific process, but in fact the only aspects of voice which are genetically determined are the thickness of the vocal folds (and therefore weight of the voice) and the outer limits of range (Wright, 2014). Choral traditions take these basic physiological elements and build upon them a complex set of beliefs about the character and behaviors expected from the owners of voices in each particular range. These expectations are derived in part from the role of that voice in the musical texture (“supportive altos”, for instance), but are generalized out to apply to people’s overall character. The process (p. 139) of classification may be systematic in its methods, but it is as much a dialogue between the individual’s experience and habitus to date and the vocal and emotional behaviors encoded within a particular choral tradition as it is an act of objective assessment.15

Probably the most developed example of this is the Fach system used in German opera houses. This uses a detailed taxonomy of voice types to classify both roles and singers as a practical tool to build repertory companies.16 Each voice category is defined by range and timbre, by the character types of the roles it applies to, and the physical appearance of the singers needed for those roles. It thus offers both an in-depth analysis of the musical constructions of identity in that particular tradition, and an ongoing demonstration—in its use in the preparation of young singers for the profession—of how an ostensibly “natural” attribute like the voice is formed within the cultural expectations of specific traditions.

Choral genres generally use categories that are less narrowly defined than the Fach system, but their expectations of those who fall into the categories are no less absolute. Indeed, they are arguably more controlling, since they lack the Fach system’s pragmatic artificiality. Opera producers know that few voices fit the categories exactly, but still value the system as a tried-and-tested method for managing a busy schedule; choral practitioners typically treat their typologies as natural and essential attributes of those they apply them to.

The arbitrary nature of these stereotypes becomes apparent when one moves between different choral genres. Voices of broadly the same pitch range play rather different musical roles in the textures of different choral traditions, and consequently encounter quite different expectations of their associated personalities. Even the ostensibly natural element of range shows significant variation in definition: what is unusually high for a female barbershop tenor is perfectly normal for a classical soprano, and what is low for a classical alto is routine for a female barbershop bass.

These belief systems are thus, like the ideology of talent, productive rather than merely descriptive. They can also be useful. Voice-part stereotypes provide holistic structures of understanding through which individuals can develop a relationship with their voice and their expressive behaviors that makes sense in the context of a particular genre. They are part of the cultural infrastructure that allows us to make sense of music and of ourselves as musicians.

They also have dangers, however. Stereotypes can make the experience of a voice that changes over time harder to manage.17 They can act as obstacles to participation if the characteristics ascribed to a singer’s range conflicts with the self-identity they maintain in their overall internal life-narrative. They can interfere with choral blend if the sections are overly identified with their voice-part at the expense of the choir as a whole.

Again, supporting flexibility is a good way to deal with these risks. Encouraging singers periodically to sing a different part from usual gives them a chance to explore different parts of their voices and different expressive modes as well as facilitating a broader musicianship.18 Developing an awareness of historical perspective is also valuable. While the same part labels may be used in repertories written 200 years apart, the vocal and expressive ways of using the self they encode can be quite different: being a soprano (p. 140) in Bruckner is a significantly different experience from being a soprano in Monteverdi. The “self” who sings is in part brought into being by the repertories sung.19 This dialogic relationship between performer and musical content is also relevant to constituting a choir as an ensemble with its own, suprapersonal, identity.

Corporate Identity and the Loss of Self

A central challenge in forming a choir is how to coordinate a diverse assortment of people to operate as a coherent ensemble. Many of choral pedagogy’s standard methods are designed specifically to induce uniform patterns of vocal and musical behavior among disparate individuals. Indeed, the literature reserves some of its most censorious comments for those who insist on singing with those traits which in a solo context act as markers of individual expressiveness: vibrato, portamenti, rhythmic flexibility or a prominent singer’s formant. This tension between the need for soloists to develop a distinctive performing identity and the choral requirement for blend underlies the conflicts between voice teachers and choral directors documented by Ekholm (2000): each appears to be waging a campaign to deliberately undo central elements of the other’s specialism.20

Approaching the challenge in such an adversarial mode, however, makes the task harder than it needs to be. To attempt ensemble cohesion through the suppression of “disagreeable excesses of individuality” (Coward, 1914, p. 25) risks entrenching positions, inviting singers to incorporate this conflict of musical imperatives into their personal identity narrative. More effective is to find ways to encourage people to identify with the group, to adopt it as an identity category with which they align themselves and thus diminish conflict between self-as-individual and group needs (Brewer & Garnett, 2012). This in turn creates an environment in which the director can manage their singers’ attention such that their individual internal narratives shift from a central, actively maintained focus to the periphery of their awareness.

Identity narrative and choir mythologies

Just as individuals’ self-identities are maintained reflexively through an internal autobiography, groups develop and maintain a continuity of experience through shared narratives. Long-standing members reminisce to newcomers; landmark anniversaries are celebrated; in-jokes are repeated. The narratives are rehearsed through formal or semi-formal channels (officers’ reports at the AGM, choir newsletters, notices and announcements) and through the informal exchanges of social interactions. This process will happen whether or not the director participates actively in it, but not to participate is to relinquish a significant form of influence on the choir’s artistic and ethical agendas.

(p. 141) The iterative patterns of a choir’s activities also bind the group together in shared experience, both musical and extramusical. Some forms of behavior are explicitly invested with meanings to articulate group identity, such as wearing visible tokens of belonging or the marking of occasions with particular pieces of music. But the simple routines of regular rehearsal form the experiential substrate of what it is to be part of that choir. There are thus opportunities for the director to consciously deploy standard pedagogical methods in service of the ensemble’s identity by framing their use in terms of the choir’s shared narratives and values. Any repeated activity can accrue the resonance of ritual if invested with choir-specific meanings.21

Rehearsal strategies that give singers the opportunity to listen are particularly valuable as rituals around which to build the choir’s sense of corporate self, for several reasons. Purposeful listening supports the development of musicianship by giving singers insight into the wider musical texture beyond their own part. This awareness in turn builds a sense of the music itself as a distinct identity with whom the performers need to empathize for the performance to work. And listening activates the mirror neurons, the unconscious mechanism that underlies both skill acquisition and the “chameleon effect” by which people become more alike in social interactions.22

Flow and flux

A flow state is one in which the subject is completely immersed in an activity, losing all self-consciousness, with action and awareness completely merged (Czikszentmihalyi, 1990; De Manzano, Harmat, Theonell, & Ullén, 2010). This concept is important for educators because it relates both to the development of complex, high-level skills and to high levels of personal satisfaction.

There are several conditions required to induce a flow state, all of which are available to musicians, and all of which can be facilitated or hindered by the choral practitioner through their choice of rehearsal tactics. The activity needs to be intrinsically rewarding; it needs to be clearly defined, such that participants know whether they have achieved it or not; related to this, there needs to be direct and immediate feedback, so that participants can adjust what they do in real time; and participants need to have a sense of personal control over what they are doing. Most importantly, there needs to be a balance between the activity’s challenge and its achievability: if it is too far beyond the skills of the participants, they will become anxious, but if it is too easy they will become bored.

Difficulty level is clearly central to decisions that directors make in both long-term planning and moment-to-moment rehearsal management. Apt choice of repertoire to stretch but not overwhelm a choir largely determines success over a season, while the capacity to anticipate and respond to the choir’s needs in real time makes the difference between the singers feeling secure or frustrated.

Feedback is also important: the rehearsal process is essentially one of iterative feedback on a choir’s successive attempts at vocal and musical tasks. There are different forms of feedback, however, and some are more useful than others in fulfilling the other (p. 142) criteria to create a flow state. Stopping the choir to give spoken instruction will always be a part of the conductor’s toolkit, but it does not give the same immediate and ongoing response as real-time interactions with the singers while managing and molding the music as it unfolds. Singers also receive aural and kinaesthetic feedback from their immersion in the sound, and gain both more intrinsic satisfaction and more personal control over what they do when given the opportunity to respond to it. Almost every conducting manual warns the director against talking too much in rehearsal; the psychology of flow gives another good reason to follow this advice.

Flow is a state experienced by individuals. It can optimize both the learning process and the personal satisfaction experienced by singers, but it does not by itself guarantee interconnection within the ensemble. A singer in a flow state will feel at one with the music, but whether this loss of self-consciousness connects them to the whole choir will depend on how much their internal representation of the music embraces the full texture. This is in part a matter of musicianship, but it is also a function of the interpersonal relationships within the choir.

Flux is a state experienced by a group. Like flow, it involves a sense of losing the self, but rather than being lost in an activity, the individual becomes merged into the collective (Bradley, 1987; Bradley & Pibram, 1998). It is a highly-charged state emotionally, associated with feelings of euphoria and overwhelming love; for this reason it is also sometimes referred to as “communion.”23 The key dynamic in creating a flux state is the combination of specific relationship and power structures within the group. The relationship structure is characterized by all members of the group having access to, and affective bonds with, all other members. The presence of cliques, or allegiances that create “us versus them” relationships within the group, will mitigate against the experience of communion. The power structure is characterized by a strong top-down hierarchy through which the leader exerts control over all members. Both elements are needed to create flux: the relationship structure generates the emotional energy that is experienced as euphoria, while the power structure maintains the coherence of the group. The two dimensions work in tandem. Emotional energy without control creates chaos; top-down discipline without internal affective bonds produces tyranny.

These structures can be observed in standard choral practice. Consider, for example, the use of space in a rehearsal room. There are many different ways to organize choral seating/stacking, but all the standard models ensure that every singer shares communicative space with the conductor, while preventing sub-groups of singers from setting up shared communicative spaces that exclude others. They thus set up both the interactional structure to generate flux and the top-down power-structure to contain it. 24

The flux/control matrix allows choral practitioners to analyze and adjust their rehearsal strategies in each of its two dimensions. Rehearsal tactics that require singers to connect with different members of the ensemble build social attachments as well as increased aural acuity; it is neither possible nor desirable to prevent friendship groups evolving within a choir, but it is important for the musical bonds to transcend social preferences. At the same time, the level of rigor in choral discipline needs adjusting proportionately to the emotional tone of the room. Excitement needs to be channeled if it is (p. 143) to produce music rather than mere hubbub, while applying an authoritarian approach to a subdued ensemble will simply make them retreat further.


Choral pedagogy can be seen as a “technology of the self”—that is, a set of methods by which people make changes to their external and internal states in order to transform themselves into a desired state (Foucault, 1988). Choral leaders manage and guide the processes by which individuals are constituted as singers and by which groups of singers are constituted into ensembles, but the methods are only effective through the active complicity of those individuals. To become a choral singer involves not only physical participation in technical and musical tasks, but emotional and imaginative participation in the flow of the musical content and in the life of the ensemble. Rehearsals teach not only the skills required to take part, but also the discourses that allow individuals to integrate the identity of singer into their personal narrative projects of the self and that allow the group to collaborate in the project of the choir’s corporate identity.

Much of what choral leaders need to achieve in order to produce convincing musical performances from capable ensembles are already built into the habits, practices, and discourses of the traditions in which they operate. In that sense, this chapter’s analyses could be seen as simply illustrating theories of identity developed in other realms of experience with examples from choral cultures. Theory says identity is constructed through discursively-bundled packages of behavior patterns; choral pedagogy has a standardized repertory of methods for creating uniform vocal production. Theory says that flux’s euphoric merging of egos is potentiated by a comprehensive network of bonds within a group; choral pedagogy teaches blend. The aim of the chapter, after all, has not been to extend established practice, but to deepen insight into it.

This is not to say, however, that choral practitioners should take this analysis as an invitation to simply continue with business as usual. The lines of coherence as currently drawn carry considerable risks, both for individuals and consequently also for the ensembles that rely on the successful co-option of new members for their continued existence. The literature and habitus of western choral culture are infused with exclusionary discourses that conflate social and genre identity markers with moral inadequacy; it is not surprising therefore to see the alienation evinced by those choirs and choral movements that position themselves in opposition to the “traditional.” The mythology of talent has an even higher casualty rate in its systematic production of self-identified “non-singers.”

These are problems that cannot be solved solely from within the choral rehearsal. People bring their belief structures and expectations from their wider habitus to choir; people who are already alienated from singing and/or choral music are necessarily even harder to reach. But they are problems that need to be addressed in the rehearsal room if choral pedagogy is to minimize the hazards potential singers have to negotiate in (p. 144) learning to identify with a choir. For, whilst all choral traditions are framed by the wider cultural contexts from which they draw their members, their status as distinct lifestyle sectors does give choral leaders space within which to make strategic decisions about how best to use the methods and discourses available to them.

This chapter has discussed the “project of the choral self” in terms both of the individual who becomes a choral singer and the corporate identity of the choir that emerges from the collaboration of many such selves. The discipline of choral pedagogy is likewise maintained through both praxis and the reflexive narratives represented by volumes such as this one. This chapter contributes to our shared disciplinary identity by facilitating the ongoing discursive project to position choral singing as an inclusionary and accessible artform.


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                                                                                                                (1.) By “western choral traditions” I refer to the collection of culturally dominant practices based in churches, schools, and concert halls in the first world. They maintain their cultural dominance through a combination of a partly professionalized leadership; institutional support (from churches, schools, universities, etc.); the wider prestige associated with the classical canon; and the propagation of their values through published literature. I am referring to them in the plural, however, as despite the continuity of practice implied by these common factors, there is still a variety of distinct strands of practice, such that a singer with experience in one may need to make significant adjustments to both musical and nonmusical habits to fit into another.

                                                                                                                (2.) There is a well-developed literature going back to the early years of the 20th century on the practical methods for training choirs, which reflects the depth and nuance of western choral traditions. There is also a more recent, more explicitly scholarly literature in choral pedagogy, which, while equally practical in intent, aims to substantiate the common knowledge of the discipline that the practitioner literature presents in largely anecdotal forms with more systematic study. For a more detailed overview of these bodies of knowledge, and a discussion of the relationship between the two, see Garnett (2009).

                                                                                                                (3.) Welch (2009) asserts that the “ascribed musical identity as a ‘non-singer,’ ‘tone-deaf,’ or ‘tone-dumb’ ” is “found in virtually all cultures.” Ethnomusicological studies, however, show that in many cultures active musical participation is the norm (Turino, 2008; Hill, 2012). The concept of congenital musical incapacity may exist in all cultures, but the level of its prevalence in the West is unusual.

                                                                                                                (4.) Kingsbury’s (1988) ethnographical study of a specialist music college gives a detailed analysis of how “talent” is a socially negotiated quality, the label bestowed upon learners by experts as a recognition of achievements to date. The young musician needs the approval of those whose authority they respect to consider themselves “talented,” and the ascription provides both the motivation and the obligation to put in the hard work required to realize the potential.

                                                                                                                (5.) Peterson (2002) found increased motivation and persistence in school choirs where success was attributed to effort rather than innate ability.

                                                                                                                (6.) The National Singing Programme “Sing Up” was launched by the Department for Education in 2007, and ran with direct state funding until 2011. Since then, it has been run as a not-for-profit organization, with support from the DfE, but funded largely by membership subscriptions from participating schools. At the time of writing (2014), the only research into the program’s impact dealt with the initial phase; it is too soon at any rate to assess its longer-term impact.

                                                                                                                (7.) See also the tensions between show choirs and “traditional” choirs reported in by Russell (2006).

                                                                                                                (8.) Russell (1987) gives a detailed analysis of the social composition of choral societies in Victorian and Edwardian England. While social hierarchies from wider society were still clearly in evidence (along both class and gender lines), this was nonetheless a far more socially mixed milieu than most of that era. Both the egalitarian impulse and the underlying cultural politics shine through the writing of Coward (1914)—a text which bears study not just as a historical document of a particular era, but as a repository of practical advice from a distinguished and insightful choral conductor.

                                                                                                                (9.) Notwithstanding the inappropriateness of such forces in the eyes of today’s specialists in historically-informed performance.

                                                                                                                (10.) See, for example, Maxted (2014).

                                                                                                                (11.) Barthes (1977) theorizes the intersection between individuality and cultural meanings in vocal timbre; see also Dunn and Jones (1996).

                                                                                                                (12.) See also Darrow (1975), pp. 150–151, which gives a summary of pronunciation “errors,” many of which are related to variations in accent.

                                                                                                                (13.) Carter (2005) promotes the use of methods derived from drama as a means actively to foster this kind of emotional connection.

                                                                                                                (14.) This approach uses the “inner game” principle of Will; see Green & Gallway (1986).

                                                                                                                (15.) See Garnett (2005), Chapter 8 for a detailed discussion of this process.

                                                                                                                (16.) Cotton (2007) gives a useful critical overview of this system and its impact on the development of young opera singers.

                                                                                                                (17.) The voice changes at puberty and their impact on self-identity has received a considerable amount of scholarly attention (for example, Ashley, 2009; Welch & Howard, 2002). There is a smaller body of work on the effects of aging on the voice, and this mostly concerns physiological changes and how to manage them rather than questions of musical identity (see Butler, Lind and Van Weelden, 2001).

                                                                                                                (18.) Not all repertoire allows for this, of course, but there are more opportunities than is often supposed.

                                                                                                                (19.) See Cone (1974) and Pabich (2012) for, respectively, work-based and listener-based discussions of this idea.

                                                                                                                (20.) See also Ford (2003).

                                                                                                                (21.) A striking example of this process is Seth’s (1999) fictional account of a string quartet’s practice of playing a slow, unison scale at the start of rehearsals: a basic technique for building the ensemble’s sound becomes a meditative practice that lets the distractions of the outside world fall away and both the symbol and vehicle for a sense of ensemble “unity” that goes beyond technical coordination to imaginative and emotional connection.

                                                                                                                (22.) See Iacoboni (2009) for an overview of mirror neuron research and its implications for both socialization and learning. The term “chameleon effect” was coined by Chartrand and Bargh (1999).

                                                                                                                (23.) There are echoes here of the new choral movements discussed earlier. The evangelistic testimonies of those recruiting to choirs are often couched in the terms of a flux experience: “It energises me, it connects me. I love the power” (Maxted, 2014).

                                                                                                                (24.) The creation of shared communicative spaces through physical positioning is discussed by Kendon (1990); see Garnett (2009), pp. 160–162 for a discussion of how they emerge in different choral layouts.