Know Thyself: Understanding Your Group's "Culture"
Amateur or pro, knowing your group’s culture is key to getting the most out of your group.
I just saw a great concert last night: Perpetuum Jazzile, directed by former Real Group bass Peder Karlsson. (Remember that cool video that went viral a couple of years ago of the group doing “Africa” with rainforest and thunderstorm FX? Those guys.)
I had a nice chat with Peder after the show, and asked him what he had been doing with the group as their brand-new director. His answer: “Musically, I haven’t done much. I’ve been spending my time working on the group’s culture”.
Personality. Essence. In business talk, it’s called “corporate culture”. It’s that hard-to-define quality that defines the group, determines how the group operates, what it does, and how it does it. As a producer, workshop leader, or someone who walks in to a group for the first time, it’s the first thing I notice along with the music… because it’s *in* the music as well.
So what does this have to do with anything?
Short answer… everything.
Long answer… the group’s culture defines the group. The music, the politics, the vibe… you name it. Your culture is what makes your group unique. It’s what makes a collegiate group have a similar sound or vibe long after there’s been a complete turnaround in membership. It can propel you forward, or stand in your way. It explains why some things seem so natural, and some nearly impossible. Understanding the group’s culture can come in handy in some very important and specific ways:
• deciding and achieving your group’s goals • choosing the right singers, and working with existing ones • bringing in a new director/conductor… and minimizing the “growing pains”
… just to name a few.
It’s incredibly hard to define or articulate your group’s culture, especially if you’ve been in it for a long time, because the culture defines the members as well. So how do you get a birds-eye view here? One answer is to ask your listeners. Apart from musical descriptions, how does your show make them feel? You might hear…
“I was floored by your performance”, or “Everything is so precise”, or “You look like you’re enjoying yourselves… so we do as well”, or “You had me laughing/crying”
These may not tell you about the inner workings of the group, but they tell you what the “outside results” are: wowing the audience, or delivering a tight, flawless performance, or having fun and bringing them in to the party, or moving them emotionally. Trace these back and they give you a sense of what drives your group.
Better yet, ask former members, or very new members. When you’re inside a group for a while it’s hard to see it objectively, so these folks can give you perspective. You might hear…
“It’s pretty intense: everybody works so hard!”, or “It seems like there’s just a couple of people who make all the decisions”, or “I never understood why we didn’t perform more”, or “I loved the singing, but it seemed so disorganized”, or “I left XX years ago, and I’m still best friends with the people I sang with”
More clues. Eventually, you’ll probably find a few common themes: some good, some not-so-good. But knowing what they are is, well, all good!
I find corporate “mission statements” a little cheezy, but they help distill the intentions of the group. Go ahead… imagine a mission statement with 5-10 points on it. Let’s say, for example, that one of the points is to “win Some Big Competition”, but it hasn’t happened yet. You take a look at the culture of the group and realize that it’s fun, people hang out and laugh a lot at rehearsals (say one 2-hr rehearsal per week), and the director is laid-back and never bawls anyone out for not knowing their parts.
Well, there’s your disconnect. The group’s about having fun, not about competition.
So, you have a choice. You can work to change the culture of the group: more rehearsals, clear goals and musical “homework”, and the hangtime happens only when rehearsal is over. Or, you may decide that the group’s really all about the hang and the friendship. Winning a Thing is nice, but you’re not about to give up the relaxed atmosphere. That’s fine too… but knowing your group’s culture will help you decide whether to redefine it, or roll with it.
Another example… you decide that you want your group to “make its mark on the a cappella scene”. When deciding your rep for the year, you ask “what is everyone else out there doing?”. You buy (or lift) charts form your favourite groups. Someone in the group has some far-out ideas, but you can’t imagine how they would work, and it makes you a little uneasy to try them when so many other charts are already tried –tested-and-true.
Guess what? Your group’s not innovative: it’s risk-adverse.
Remember, there isn’t anything wrong with that! Some groups would rather stay in a comfort-zone, do the music that they know and love, and give audiences a guaranteed-good-time show. (Surprisingly, I see this more with professional groups, who don’t want to risk losing their fanbase.) But there’s your disconnect: you can’t be new and innovative without being willing to move beyond your comfort-zone, or even occasionally take a shot and miss. So, decide what’d more important: changing the culture to meet your goals, or re-aligning your goals to suit your culture.
There’s no right-or-wrong here. Sometimes a group’s culture *is* what puts them on the map. Knowing and working with the best parts of your group’s culture takes wisdom, and trying the change the less-admirable parts takes courage. Understanding it is the key to making it all happen.