Classic interview question: What class or academic experience do you think best prepared you for your career/life? Now I’ve had a varied career that’s ranged from post production on feature films, to heading up production at a boutique animation house, to teaching and writing. Yet the answer to the aforementioned question for all of these things is singing in a choir.
Joining a choir is like joining any other “team”—everybody counts on you to be prepared and on time, and you need to work the rest of your life around these responsibilities. I’ve sung in choirs since I was in elementary school, and learning this time management skill from such a young age has helped me immeasurably in myriad aspects of my life. Whether it was doing make-up work from missing class while singing in a traveling performance choir in high school, or postponing or foregoing social engagements in order to rehearse or perform, I’ve had lots of practice in learning how to honor a commitment. And this ability has served me well in all aspects of my life.
2. Practice and Work Hard
Truly, the only way to get really good at something is to practice. Few people know every word, harmony, phrasing, dynamic, tempo or cue to every song right out of the gate (save for a few musical savants I’ve met in my time who come freakishly close after hearing a song played once)—most of us have to dedicate a fair amount of time and effort to hitting the right notes when we’re supposed to hit them, while singing the correct verse (in a way that is hopefully sonically pleasing as well). Focus, hard work, attention to detail and persistence pay off—in music, and in life—and often bring joy and a sense of accomplishment along with them.
3. Listen and Work Together
The thing about singing in a choir is that it is not a solitary exploit. Sure there are solos to be had but there is much more time spent blending and working together to create the beauty the composer has envisioned. Everyone plays a part. And although there are some leaders (those who are always spot-on with the correct notes, words and phrasing, etc.) the amazing part is that all members come together as a whole to sing in harmony where no one voice really stands out. This requires learning to listen to others so that your voice is strong and true, yet no louder than the folks’ to either side of you on the risers. Singing in a choir is really about blending voices together.
4. Take direction
In a choir the choral conductor runs the show. In life, in order for people to work together especially in large groups, it’s often most effective to have a single point person lead the group. Allowing that one person’s leadership or vision to guide your work together allows people to stay on task and accomplish goals. You may not always agree with their choices, but following this person’s lead not only helps coordinate everybody’s efforts, it may just open you up to new ways of looking at, interpreting or accomplishing goals – sometimes even stretching your own ability and creativity. Like it or not, we all find ourselves in situations when we are asked to take direction, to accept it and try to learn something from it – even if it’s how not to do something in the future.
5. Sometimes you must stand on your own
There are times while singing in the choir that you take center stage and sing on your own. All eyes are on you, and part of the fun is that you get to show a little bit more of yourself and what you can do in ways that are different from your usual choral singing. I’ve sung solos a cappella, or with instrumental or vocal backup. Being able to confidently present yourself in these types of situations is a great skill to have. Sometimes, things go as planned, other times, the choir has gone flat and you come in on key or the mic doesn’t work or your voice cracks or the pianist misses her cue…and you must improvise. This is another extremely important skill to master, because things in life do NOT always go as planned. Period. Successful people are those who are able to assess the situation and quickly come up with a new plan given the current (often unforeseen) circumstances. This is a skill often strengthened through singing solos, being in the moment and dealing with changing circumstances.
6. Contribute what you can
We all have different talents and challenges. Sometimes we want a different voice from what we have. And you can work on broadening your range and further developing what comes naturally, but there is not much to be gained through jealousy of others’ gifts or conversely, not recognizing and utilizing one’s own. There’s a place for melody and harmony. Decide which you can bring and bring it well! You may get the chance to experience both, depending on what is needed in a given song or situation. Balance and diversity of skill and point of view often bring about the best outcomes. Be thankful for who you are the things you do well.
Through performing I’ve been “putting myself out there” since I was very young. I’ve been taught how to deliver in front of small groups as well as those numbering into the thousands. I know when and how not to pull focus (like not playing with your hair) and when and how to take center stage to be heard. These experiences have allowed me to develop skills that I use in both my personal and professional lives, and that have afforded me the opportunity to participate in ways I otherwise wouldn’t. I know how to connect with people and I feel as comfortable being part of a team as I do serving as its leader. Essentially, I am confident in my abilities and who I am through years of experience—and in no small part due to the specific experience I’ve gained through singing with multiple choirs.
8. Do what you love
My grandfather told me to “do something you love—that way you’ll never work a day in your life.” Granted, not everyone can sing for a living, but not everyone has to in order to benefit from the joy it brings. Singing along to the radio turned up full blast while doing chores, to holiday caroling or teaching music class have all given me a chance to vocalize.
However, there have been times in my life where I really needed a choir, and I was usually lucky enough to be able to find one. To be able to escape the pain of a bad break-up, or just the everyday stress of an over-scheduled life, is a valuable pursuit and happy result of doing something you love. For me, nothing matches the whole body (almost at times out of body) experience of singing 3- to 4- to 8-part harmony, either a cappella or accompanied by a piano or full orchestra, to transport me to my happiest place.
So jump in – find a choir that’s right for you and sing, sing, sing! You might be surprised by what you learn.