Creating a Charismatic Encounter: LABBS Directors Weekend, Part 4

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Communion

The key marker of the charismatic encounter isn’t, as is commonly supposed, anything to do with the personal qualities of a leader, but in the emotional experience of the participants. The characteristic sensation is a heightened, emotionally labile state of euphoria and love, that theorist of charisma have called ‘communion’ or ‘flux’.

Things that a leader does are often implicated in creating (or indeed preventing) this feeling, principally providing a Cause to line people’s sense of purpose up in the same direction, and a sense of Crisis to energise them into action. But how that emotional energy operates within the group depends significantly on the structure of interpersonal bonds within that group. Three factors are particularly important in setting this up, and this is how I factored them into my planning for the LABBS Directors Weekend in July.

Lowering the ego boundaries

In order to feel connected to one another, people need relax their hold on their differences and feel more alike. This is one of the key ways that choral singing facilitates charismatic encounters, as the coordinated, concerted activity of resonating and harmonising together creates a group identity that subsumes the individuals within it.

The primary reason we had Jim work with a delegate chorus is because delegates had specifically requested that as an activity. But the reason it was scheduled for the first session after everybody had arrived was so as to set up this process of mental and emotional alignment right from the start.

The structure of the curriculum was also designed to encourage people to identify with one another. On multiple occasions in the months on the run up to the event I turned down requests from people who wanted to ‘just come and watch’. At one level this was simply a pragmatic point - it would be impossible to accommodate everybody who might think they could learn from doing that. But it was also about the internal dynamic of the group.

Every delegate had hands-on one-to-one coaching with a chorus in a small pod of 3 or 4 directors. This was a decision based on educational principles (you learn a lot by watching as well as by doing), but had the effect of creating bonds of trust. Anybody who watched you being coached would themselves also be watched in their turn. By the time we saw three directors being coached under glass in the final plenary session, everyone in that room could identify with their experience.

Which meant that, by the time we came to the final piece of content for the weekend, everyone was in a position to identify with the association’s most successful director, Sally McLean directing the association’s most successful chorus, the White Rosettes, being coached by one of the world’s most esteemed barbershop directors. It had been set up to be the emotional focal point of the weekend, and it did not disappoint.

Interlocking bonds of affection

A primary feature of the social structure of communion is that all members of the collective have access to bond with all other members of the collective. Again, this is something that barbershop is already pretty good at, with a strongly egalitarian ethos, and a set of social conventions that allow you to strike up a conversation with any other barbershopper at an event in a way that is quite at odds with the interpersonally awkward modes of being the British usually inhabit.

And I consciously maximised this feature in the way I set up the event in the following ways:

  • Together time. Whilst the coaching and parallel classes had to take place in subsets of the whole group (for both practical and educational reasons), the weekend was punctuated by both formal plenary sessions that brought us all together, and mealtimes and afterglows that did so in more fluid and informal ways. All delegates ended up with a large fund of shared experience. (I confess I have dithered as to whether this factor should go in this section or the one above. It shows how these two factors are linked.)
  • Faculty/delegate role interchange. Everyone on the faculty also had time when they were in a delegate role, receiving input rather than presenting it. My original plan had a rather bigger faculty, each with a more mixed role, and with a less clear distinction between faculty and other delegates, which would have made this even more so, but for budgetary reasons I was talked into having a defined core faculty who I had to work quite hard. But some quality of the original plan survived the pragmatics of the event to facilitate a sense of bonding with peers.
  • Coaching pod construction. When assigning people to coaching pods, I deliberately kept people from the same chorus in different pods, and - where I knew of such relationships, or where other faculty members clued me in on them - avoided having people coached by faculty members they had worked with a lot already. From an educational perspective this was to maximise novelty value, but it also provided a means for people to bond with individuals they might share experience with but did not necessarily previously know well.
  • Directors Question Time team. Saturday night’s plenary session was an extravaganza of frivolity, intended - from an educational perspective - to offer a moment of light relief in which people could process their experience after a long and intense day of classes and coaching. I took the opportunity to involve 20 of the 65 delegates (including none of the faculty) in the presentation of it. Again, this was specifically to give everyone the chance to feel they had access to each other. In choosing whom to involve, I was careful to tap into geographical spread, age range, and experience range from across the delegate body specifically so as to promote this feeling that we could all bond with anyone and everyone present

Control

When you create an environment in which emotions are running high and near the surface, you need some clear top-down structures to keep it contained. It’s like a pressure cooker - you want all that energy focused on the task in hand, not exploding all over your kitchen. This is what riser discipline is for in the choral rehearsal.

When I started reflecting on the event for this series of blog posts, I wondered briefly what forms of control we were operating. And then I remembered the 65 individual timetables sent out to delegates in advance and my uncompromising exhortations about timekeeping when we got there.

At the time I was being a complete control freak about that, I did genuinely have my eye on the sheer logistics of it all. If we didn’t run to time, nothing would work. But giving everybody very specific instructions about where to be when did also function to give us a safe containment structure for all the welter of love and fear and anticipation of possibility that buoyed us all through the weekend.

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