Silence vs talking in the Inclusive Choir

Marsilio Ficino (1433-1498), Florentine philosopher wrote a wonderful sentence: “Music is nothing more than a Decoration of Silence”. What a wonderful statement.
Shall we take it to the choir?
Undoubtedly silence is in many ways a pre condition for music making. In silence we concentrate, in silence we can really listen… so that we realize that total silence is almost impossible. In silence we meditate, and in silence we keep calm before sound happens.
There are different and controversial feelings from choir singers towards silence during choir practice. Some people is not used to keep silence, and may even feel uncomfortable in silence. Others need so much to be in silence so they can concentrate. Some people tend to talk a lot, or wish to. Others don’t. Some people don’t get bothered by some talking, others get really nervous about it.
So what is my approach having in mind I promote inclusive choirs?
I personally like silence. I also don’t mind some talking. Talking can mean that people is happy together and enjoy to communicate, is not something I would always evaluate as “bad”. Can I ignore chatting when is not too loud while I conduct? I can. But still my choirs need a policy on how to tackle this issue.
Because in an inclusive choir it’s a lot about tolerance and developing empathy, so both ends need to be addressed: the people who do the talking and the people who get irritated at it (if any).

I wouldn’t take for granted that talking is a lack of respect for the others, that will necessarily make people uncomfortable. As much as I will still promote silence. But I won’t enforce it out of fear or ridiculing people publicly because that is a killer for creativity and wellness.

Let’s take an example. We sometimes take for granted the need of silence in order to learn a song. We love African songs. Songs from Southafrica, also from Tanzania. I do have some lovely songs from a great selection that professor Polo Vallejo has been compiling for more than twenty years and published in different formats.

So would you imagine that in the kind of villages Dr Vallejo visited to record the music from the Wagogo tribe, there was silence all the time? I know from his books, from his conferences and from my personal knowledge of Dr Vallejo that they don’t. Singing is a part of the life of the Wagogo, and they do it while working, walking, cooking, collecting the crop… and there is never silence around that: you can hear in his recordings and see in his videos people talking, laughing, clapping at different tempos, and different sounds like animal grunts and grain smashing. I’m sure they never consider they need any specific kind of silence of concentration in order to learn any music, they just do it! And not having to go as far as Tanzania, I’ve many times seen two or three people in Spain all of them talking and speaking at the same time, and they did not fail to understand what the others where saying. 😉

It is perhaps a cultural thing to think we must all be in total silence for 2 hours in a classroom? I believe it comes with the personality and it also comes with cultural ways of understanding the limit of what is “disturbing”.

So in an inclusive choir with people from different cultures, different believes, different learning capacities and different degrees of commitment, I believe that tolerance is the key.

I believe that it’s more about concentrating in the positive side: promote silence instead of enforce non-talking. Encourage singers to enjoy some moments in silence, rather than tell people to stop making noises

How can I put that in practice as a choir leader?

I have listed a few tips here. Maybe you can add more of your own.

* Make the choir singers understand that you won’t treat them like little children but as adults, and that it’s their responsibility to keep focused.
* Understand that not everybody is used to silence (not even comfortable in it). Silence requires conscious practice.
* Understand and explain that when we really focus we can even train ourselves to overcome background noise (not every concert’s acoustic will be ideal so it’s not a bad thing to practice with some background noise sometimes). That it may not be ideal, that life is not always ideal. That it’s okay not to be always ideal.
* Develop strategies to help people accept each other, and make yourself as choir leader and effort to understand and accept different attitudes and feelings towards both silence and rumours.
* Help yourself as a choir leader not to get anxious when there is too much silence (people don’t talk to each other) or too much talking. Talking calmly and firmly will work better than displaying an anxious body language. Work slow into why that happens and you will be surprised at how much people can achieve.
* If a specific choir member does too much talking it might be a good idea to have a conversation with that person (out of everybody’s sight and ears) and try to find out why that is. You might find issues you where unaware of, and also you can make that person understand the reasons for the need of silence not having to put off that person in public.
* Give specific moments during rehearsals for talking and for making “sounds of release” (sighs, deep breaths with some sound, anything that will help release tension various times during the choir practice).
* Practice silence in every rehearsal.
It will require continuous adjusting to keep the fine line between the need to communicate with each other in a friendly environment and the need for focused attention. And that is your job if you are into community inclusive choirs: you need as many social skills as musical ones.
Massai women singing.
Massai women singing. Photo thanks to Marc Samsom under Creative Commons Licence, 2007


Finally, it comes to my mind a great anecdote about composer, teacher and musicologist Polo Vallejo. When he met for the first time the Wagogo people (a group form central Tanzania), he explained to them that he was a music teacher.

The Wagogo laughed at him.
Wagogos cannot conceive that something as natural as music is, needs to be taught.
We are, indeed, diverse.
And that should be our strength.
This article was published by Maria Soriano at where you can find more thoughts and resources about choirs and singing.

Bibliographical reference

«Polo Vallejo Patrimonio musical de los wagogo de Tanzania: contexto y sistemática (Patrimoine musical des Wagogo de Tanzanie: contexte et systématique)», Cahiers d’ethnomusicologie, 18/|2005


© Maria Soriano, 2014