Personal reflections on community music performance

Performance can be good but sometimes presents dangers too. Some very personal and meandering thoughts here on the benefits and drawbacks of performance and bringing different community choirs together to sing as one.


Performance in community music settings is for some of us framed within a model of acceptance. Acceptance that not all will want to perform and that others might simply not be available for rehearsals and indeed for the night of a performance, often at short notice.

This accepting, open, human, warm framework celebrates the truth that no pressure is ever placed upon singers to be available. Whilst this perhaps places specific restrictions upon the technical quality and quantity of music that should be realistically expected of a community choir in a performance setting it does mean that our singers are free to dip in and out of their music making as family and work responsibilities permit, without feelings of guilt or the judgement of others.

In a world where we seem to be forever at the beck and call of the expectation of others, this is perhaps a powerful concept indeed. It might be one of few spaces available to us where we can really relax and just be ourselves;

without feeling that someone somewhere is going to have a pop at us for not arriving on time, singing 'in tune' (whatever that means) or just deciding that we need a night on the couch because we're very tired after work.

Exercise the old grey matter

Performance in community music keeps us on our toes and exercises the old grey matter as we use both working and long term memory to remember harmonies and arrangements. If learning new stuff then it exercises working memory and builds confidence, if singing familiar stuff it exercises long term memory and makes us feel part of a group, all remembering the same song, again builds sense of security and confidence; gets the blood flowing around the old computer; use it or lose it and all that. It pulls us together, makes us feel part of a bigger protective tribe and offers something different in the competitive world in which we live.

Competition is everywhere

Music has become part of this competitive culture with 'Gospel Choir of The Year', The Voice, X Factor, Young Musician of the Year etc etc. One alternative to this obsession with best and worse is choirs coming together to sing as one. This is now a worldwide cultural phenomenon and offers an alternative to the universal narrative of competitiveness which we are perhaps sold day in day out by some (not all) of our leaders ; winners, losers, best, worse, pass, fail, saved, doomed, good, bad.

Of course we need standards.

Winners and losers too.

But perhaps there is a need for more relaxed spaces too.

Somewhere we can just be ourselves, let our hair down.

Chill out a bit.

And cut ourselves a bit of slack.

Without the worry that someone is going to have a pop at us.

Gospel Choir of the Year

So community music making is perhaps a part of a rather different philosophical tradition that offers a brief respite from that constantly competitive view of the world mentioned above.

Forgive me for sharing this personal thought but the idea of a competition to judge the 'best gospel choir' or the 'best soul choir' is for me perverse indeed but the needs of television to appeal to a hungry audience desperate for winners and losers wins the day I guess, very sadly.

Feeling good about building a sense of community

So maybe our 'coming together' provides something different.

Certainly for those less confident it is a chance for us to sing in public and enjoy the genuine appreciation of a supportive audience and yet at the same time enjoy the protection of many others around us. If we mess up it's no worries because our fellow singers are there for us and the audience is on our side too (hopefully) and the massed voices offer a redeeming blanket to cover our odd blip here and there.

Yes, for some it can be a real tonic and help us feel good about ourselves, what some call building 'self worth' and this is perhaps one of its most profound potential benefits.

However can I offer a thought that our 'self worth' should perhaps come from knowing that we are playing a very small part in helping to build a warm, rich and diverse community where people are allowed to think differently about the world; a world that appears very different to us all, depending upon our own life experience;

rather than the 'self esteem' that accrues as the result of the shallow positive reaction of an audience, so easily blown away when you have your first duff gig, or are on the receiving end of damning criticism from a friend or indeed a member of your own family.

Whether this sense of 'feeling good' is securely rooted inside of us, or rather the result of the shallow judgement of others is a profound philosophical concept that has engaged the intellectual minds of the great and the good for many centuries.

Something for another time :)

Having a good time - he-he !!

Above all though, performance can be a load of fun and a great chance to sing out loud and express ourselves through songs that we grow to love and to be connected to, like a good friend. Finally it also gives our audience a smashing evening of entertainment and even possibly increases reflection on important global issues.

Judgement and anxiety

If you put your head above the parapet be prepared to be shot at. Some who feel less confident will turn away from performance for the fear of ridicule and exposure. We have lost singers permanently from some of the choirs I run for this reason.

Just because some of us are confident and happy to 'have a go' doesn't mean we all are.

This can relate to bad experiences in youth, sober truths about self worth related to things like body image, age and gender even; also so called singing ability which is, for some us at least, a totally subjective and constructed concept, also the judgement of others in the past, thrown out of the school choir, laughed at in the school play when we forgot our lines; also anxiety and the need to avoid stressful situations for other health related reasons.

If you come to community singing groups to relieve anxiety why would you enjoy singing in public with the potential for failure and judgement ? On that subject, and this is a sensitive issue, some family and friends find themselves judging us without a second thought. This is just the way it is and perhaps no one is to blame for this.

It just is.

Our families and friends love us and just want the best for us and sometimes it's hard for them to apprciate that we need to find our own way in life. In my own case I never invite family to performances because of the guaranteed fault finding that will be offered to me. No one's to blame, just the way it is and partly due to my own over sensitivity to criticism for many different reasons. A slow journey indeed to a better place.

Music versus people

Creative people are often very insecure, using the arts for self expression and sometimes unconsciously as a way of trying to gain the approval and love of others. Community choir leaders need to be careful to ensure they are not pursuing performance for their own need for praise and affirmation, particularly if life long ambitions of musical success have not been achieved and they end up using their choirs as a vehicle for their own unfulfilled aspirations.

This is a universal danger in both auditioned and community choirs and requires self awareness on the part of the leader to have a clear understanding of what they are trying to achieve with their music making. This is not an easy influence for anyone to avoid and most of us have made mistakes in this department.

We're only human after all !!

This happens in families a lot as well as some parents totally innocently pass on their own unfulfilled aspirations to their children and in so doing can sometimes create unnecessary pressures on their loved ones when all they really want is the best for them.

Different forms of performance can be used to reduce the down sides - singing in a bar or a cafe or just on the street to passers by, involving the audience in singing and music making, so many different ways to use music to bring us together without the stress of judgement and prejudice.