Let’s Get Real: Creating a Culture of Vulnerability in Choir

In a public conference address a number of years ago, the now late Weston Noble shared about what he felt was the greatest attribute of an outstanding choral director. In a discussion prior, his interviewer stopped him while he was searching for the right answer to a question, “Are you trying to say vulnerability?” he asked. The word vulnerability rang through Weston’s entire body. Weston described how he knew it was right even though he didn’t know why. The openness to feel and release emotions, as well as the openness to make mistakes and admit to them. Though he lived through many years of not putting his finger on the right word, vulnerability became Weston Noble’s lifelong journey. He stated, “I want to take my singers to a level of emotional and spiritual vulnerability they simply could not achieve on their own. The music is the vehicle through which I want to show singers more about themselves.”

What is Vulnerability? 

We have heard this word a lot in modern culture and thus there are many different ideas of what it means. Webster defines vulnerability as being “capable of or susceptible to being hurt” as well as “open to criticism.” Because vulnerability is a completely universal experience, that shows up in so many different ways, there is more present in that word than a straight forward, black and white description in a dictionary. So much so, that world renowned researcher and psychologist Dr. Brené Brown has made it her life’s mission to research the uncomfortable experiences of life known as vulnerability and shame. She describes it a bit more eloquently: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity. It is the source of hope, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful lives, vulnerability is the path.” She also defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” How about for us as artists? Well, she has thought about us as well. “To put our art out into the world with no assurance of acceptance or appreciation – that’s vulnerability.”

Vulnerability and Singing

As musicians, we all create vulnerable things. In the choral field, what we often do is put on armor as a way of protecting ourselves from being judged. I believe that our role as teachers and mentors is to work to shed that armor and help our students overcome that tendency as well. Why is it important for singers to shed the armor and access vulnerability? I think many of us can agree that by nature, singing is one of the most vulnerable activities we can do. We create sound from with inside our bodies. As a singer who is also an instrumentalist, I am careful how I say this, but I believe there something even more personal about sharing our voices than playing an instrument. Because singers create sound 100% biologically, the sounds we make are closely tied with who we are as a human beings. Not only do choral musicians have to build up the courage to make sound with others, but we have to share it with the world. We put it out there without any assurance of acceptance or appreciation. Students need to understand that laying it on the line can and will result in some failure. The judgement and criticism will likely be there and their performance may not be met with praise.

The vulnerability factor is even more sensitive with boys as it relates to singing. All of their lives, society teaches them that showing emotion is a sign of weakness. They hear things like “Don’t cry.” “Suck it up.” and “Be a man.” It’s no secret that singing is a vulnerable activity, so already there is a subconscious connection between vulnerability and emotion with choir. Rightly so, as emotion is such an integral part of impactful artistic creation. The problem is that boys recognize this correlation before even entering a choir room, and thereby decide that because “choir equals emotion,” then certainly “choir must be weak.” I believe these negative stereotypes should be addressed. Talk to them about the fact that it’s courageous that they are there. This is a wonderful opportunity to show young men how being vulnerable in this way helps people realize their most authentic selves. There is nothing weak about being an authentic human being in a world that pressures us to be like others. In fact, it’s nothing short of courageous.

The Culture Begins with You

I believe the most important thing choral directors can do to encourage the development of vulnerability in a choir, is to be vulnerable themselves. Share things about yourself and freely talk about difficult things. Obviously, don’t share about the divorce you’re going through, etc. but there are plenty of opportunities to allow the students to connect with you on a deeper level. One example is I’ve personally shared with my students was about my negative experience in high school. I grew up in a very small town in which sports reigned supreme. Music was what I loved most in life, but I wasn’t able to realize that due to the pressure to play sports. It wasn’t something that was told to me, but it was something that I knew. I felt it. I had to play sports to compensate for being a musician and to be a part of the accepted social group. I was not a music major when I started college. It was all my parents could do to get me to sign up for the “y’all come and sing” choir at the university. I begrudgingly signed up. Thankfully, after meeting so many students who were unapologetically passionate about music and singing, I began to become comfortable with my authentic self. Finally, at the age of 18, I was able to truly discover my passion for music and not be apologetic about it. I became a music major the 2nd semester of my freshman year and entered this wonderful field. My life goal as a teacher is to make sure that my students don’t have the experience that I had. I want them to feel PROUD to be in choir! Being authentic and sharing this about myself has had a strong impact on my students.

Modeling and Developing Vulnerability

  1. Think about who you are as person and be true to who you are. Be the very best possible version of you. Whenever I attend music conferences and watch experts in my field talk about how they teach and conduct, I am inspired. However, I often leave those conferences questioning myself. Maybe my teaching personality needs to be more like this person, or perhaps I should adopt this set of philosophies because this person is so successful. What I’ve found, however, is that trying to be like someone else gets in the way of accessing our own gifts and talents. As soon as I began the journey of realizing my own value is when success and happiness started to come my way. And for those of you who work with teenagers, you’ve probably realized that they can sniff out inauthenticity in a second, so you may as well be yourself!
  2. Be free with your emotions. Music is emotional. If students are expected to lay it on the line in rehearsal and performance, this is a way for them to know that that’s ok. If they see that you are not afraid to be vulnerable in this way, they will follow suit.
  3. Share WHY a piece of music is important/special to you. We request that students buy in to an art form they know little about. That’s already a tall task. If we can share something that AUTHENTICALLY connects us to the music or the text of a piece they will connect. If you are performing a Sara Teasdale text about loss, perhaps talk about a personal story and how you overcame it. What an opportunity to teach about life!
  4. If you or a student are being affected by a piece of music or a current event, stop and talk about it. Rehearsal can always wait! If there is an opportunity for a powerful moment or beautiful discussion, don’t pass it up. Always take advantage of those moments. I’ll share one such example. It was the day after the Parkland shooting in Florida. It was not long before our concert, so the temptation was to rehearse. A student suggested we sing Jake Runestad’s “Let My Love Be Heard” as an offering to those victims. We stood in a circle, grasped hands, and sang. Of course, everyone in the room was an emotional mess at the end. Although there were 45 minutes of class left, there was no way there was going to be a meaningful rehearsal. We took the rest of class having the students share how they were feeling. There were tears, there was anger, there was despair, there was hopelessness. But, there was also healing. The choir room was a safe place for them to have a platform to be vulnerable with their feelings in this way.
  5. Make sure the students always know how much you care for them. LOVE is the word here. Everyone wants to be in a group that performs well, but being accepted is what students want and need most in a music ensemble. Provide affirmation at every opportunity. Each student should feel he/she is the director’s biggest fan. They should feel like, no matter what, there is always going to be a place for me in this group. This creates safety for students to explore their authentic selves in a vulnerable way.
  6. Examine where you are on the spectrum of Perfectionism vs. Healthy Striving. Perfectionism fuels this thought that, “if I do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgement, and blame.” Healthy striving is self-focused, i.e. “How can I improve? Perfectionism is other- focused, i.e. “What will they think?” While the word perfectionism certainly “sounds” like a virtue of dedication, it can put students under a lot of pressure. They can develop an unhealthy fear of making mistakes, the fear of being criticized, the fear of rejection and judgement. It creates an environment in which vulnerability cannot thrive.
  7. Encourage vulnerability through activities and team building. We do choir related skits at our retreats every year. The only parameters they are given is the topic needs to be choir related. In addition to forcing the kiddos into a vulnerable place right off the bat, they are hilarious! They usually use it as a platform to make fun of their director. We also do an activity base around fear. Students write down their greatest fears. These are shared anonymously with the class. Almost every time we’ve done this, the common thread that comes out of this is fear of being judged or criticized in front of their peers. Vulnerability, essentially. Realizing this common fear helps break down those walls and they become more comfortable being their true authentic selves.

Singing Benefits

Vulnerability isn’t purely for the emotional well being of the choir. There are direct correlations with how they sound. If the students feel like they need to be careful with who they are in the classroom, their sound will be “careful.” If the students are emotionally free, the choir can more easily achieve a “free” sound. It goes back to how and where the sound is created. As I mentioned before, because the sound is created biologically, it is so closely tied with who we are as human beings. Become a more “free” human being will create a more free choral musician.

A few final words from Weston about this…“I want to be unifying and catalytic, drawing a desire from each singer to be more than they ever could be as individuals, willing to embrace the community of the choral ensemble. I want to become more of who we already are but often hide to others. I want to express the freedom that comes in authentic expression of the body, soul, and spirit—and that freedom found in the choral community experience is a treasure beyond compare.” 

We have been given the opportunity as choral directors to not only inspire people to be better musicians, but equip them for the rest of their lives. Let’s do all we can to help our singers become more loving, vulnerable, and truly authentic human beings.

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