By Ramona M. Wis
There shall never be another season of silence.
Deepen your sympathy, then convert it to action.
Pray every single second of your life, not on your knees but with your work.
Think your best thoughts, Speak your best words, Do your best work.
There is so much yet to be done.
Taken from speeches and writings of Susan B. Anthony
These words of Susan B. Anthony, brilliantly set by Jake Runestad in his piece, Rise Up, for women’s voices, have become the centerpiece of my teaching this fall. Our Women’s Chorale has discussed the centennial celebration of the 19th amendment, giving women the constitutional right to vote, serendipitously occurring during a time when we face what is arguably the most important election in our lifetimes. And all of our choirs have had important conversations inspired by the text of the pieces they are preparing: discussions about equity, love, and moving joyously toward a better world.
There shall never be another season of silence
Yes, we always talk about the text and context of the music we sing; this is central to our work as conductors. But the questions, challenges, and uncertainties of our world loom larger than ever. We have an opportunity and I believe, a responsibility, to find appropriate ways to help singers make sense of it all as they grow as musicians and as people.
An important point: this post is not about ideologies of politics or religion. It is more personal, central to our core and our ability to function as the best version of ourselves in the world. This is about the human need for agency.
In their book, The Power of Agency, Paul Napper and Anthony Rao, write, “ Agency is what allows you to pause, evaluate, and act when you face a challenge—be it at work, home, or anywhere else in the world. . . . In simpler words, agency is what humans have always used to feel in command of their lives.” (6)
It may be a long time since you (or your singers) have felt “in command of your life.” Even before the pandemic, anxiety and overwhelm were common experiences for so many, as we “[absorbed and carried] around unhealthy amounts of tension, worry, and fear, which produce more distraction, restlessness, and fatigue.” (7) When we are in constant reaction mode (high alert), we feel like the victim and this leads to damaging physical reactions in the body. Fight, flight, or freeze.
We have never been more aware of all the things we can’t control. Which means we have never been more in need of reclaiming our sense of agency and helping singers to do the same.
I have thought a lot about agency and how it intersects with the human need to feel significant, to know that we matter. It is easy for singers to feel lost in large ensembles; even more now, in a Zoom world. The feeling of insignificance is often rooted in the belief that we don’t have much to offer, no real way to impact the events and people around us or even, our own lives. Lack of agency leaves us feeling stuck, “controlled or held back by outside forces . . . . Lack of agency often involves experiencing considerable doubt about your proper place in the world.” (11)
We have the opportunity to change this narrative for those we lead, to help them realize they have worth, insight, and the ability to act in small and often, large ways, to create important change. “Agency is about being active rather than passive . . . “ (6); agency is our voice expressed through action.
Deepen your sympathy, then convert it to action
How can we help singers build their agency (agency can be learned); how can you pray every single second of your life, not on your knees but with your work?
Think your best thoughts
Start by believing that your singers are capable; that underneath their current level of musical skill lies an ocean of thought, feeling, insight, wisdom, and a whole lot of “stuff” we know little to nothing about. Everyone in our ensemble is an expert on something. Let’s respect that.
Speak your best words
During breathwork in rehearsal, say “decide what you need right now” (deeper inhale for energy or long exhale for calm?) rather than controlling the timing of the breath. During warm-ups, especially when muted on Zoom, you might say “explore different vowels or dynamics.” When you explore gesture or practice Tree pose for focus, invite singers to “play with whatever gesture or arm position works for you.” We can lead corporately and still allow for individual judgement (decision making) and action (key to agency) but we need to speak words, adapting for age or experience, that acknowledge singers’ ability to do what is best for them in this moment.
Then . . .
Do your best work
Lack of agency can be reframed as an “erosion of confidence.” (15) We build singers’ confidence when we do our best teaching. The choral skills we have always taught and now, also, all things tech (like it or not). I am so aware how our singers changed from their first video submission to their last as they gained skill and understanding of the music and the tools we currently rely on to share that music. Singers are more confident (if not a little tech-fatigued), with a noticeable change in demeanor and engagement in rehearsal.
There is so much yet to be done
No doubt, both in our choral lives and in the wider world. I will continue to seek input from singers on repertoire, technology, rehearsal schedule and format, and so much more. And in this final week before the election, I will encourage everyone to build on the small actions and exercise their agency in a larger way:
VOTE. Don’t let the vote happen to you. You can happen to the vote.
Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium. Dr. Wis is a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher) with training in yoga history, philosophy, meditation, energetics, pranayama (breath work), anatomy, Sanskrit, and the teaching, sequencing, and adaptations of asana (posture-based) practice. Reach her at:
Check out Rise Up by Jake Runestad: https://jakerunestad.com/
Read more about the Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative: https://www.2020centennial.org
Check out The Power of Agency Paul Napper, Psy.D and Anthony Rao, Ph.D. : www.amazon.com/dp/1250127572/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_BnBLFb5GZZE3S