Pop Filter: Managing the vocal assembly

Student-run organizations are peculiar microcosms of American democracy: you’ve got your presidents, your vice presidents, secretaries and treasurers, and all are determined to ensure that a group can function well both internally and externally. The larger the organization, the more power becomes concentrated in fewer hands, and the more removed individual members feel from their elected officials. One would think that since a cappella groups are typically comprised of fewer than 20 people, governance would be more efficient. On the contrary, small groups have to struggle with a different problem: allocating power fairly among the few.

Every a cappella group has its own governance system, but when a group first starts, there is a sense of obligation to pursue direct democracy. Those of us who have been born and raised to have faith in the American political process believe that all opinions should be heard. No one person’s opinion or vote is more valuable than another’s. For this reason, it is imperative that we thoroughly debate the issues first to ensure the various arguments and their accompanying pros and cons are laid bare before putting the issue to vote — a vote which should involve the whole group. This is the “logical” way to run a flat organization like a small club or startup, and yet despite the careful plans made to evenly distribute power, egalitarian ideals can make effective leadership difficult for even the smallest of groups.

A performance group such as an a cappella group is no stranger to this difficulty. Performance groups are more likely to attract people eager to express their opinions. Expressing emotion is the basis of all art, and as one might expect, a concentration of artists of various backgrounds within a small space creates opportunities for a frank exchange of ideas. Sometimes extremely passionate exchanges. Differing views give rise to impasses, opposing concentrations of power and feelings of animosity which can further complicate matters.

Despite our desire for egalitarianism, we still look to figureheads and prominent individuals within the group as sources of leadership and wisdom. This directly conflicts with the notion that no single person’s opinion means more than another’s, but humans are capable of no small measure of cognitive dissonance. Especially in times of crisis, we look to our matriarchal and patriarchal figures for guidance, and these aren’t necessarily the leaders we elect.

My prior experience with music has mostly been in various choirs, so to my knowledge, performance group dynamics involved being ordered around by adults who would tell me how to sing, how to stand and how to move. In times of stress, we can find solace in the fact that for these brief moments, someone else will make decisions for you, but the creative mind still cries for freedom. After many years of religious repertoires, the self-governance offered by collegiate a cappella is greatly liberating, but I am ever cognizant that this liberty does not come without a price.