So, is Charisma a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

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The conducting literature has a somewhat uncertain relationship with the concept of charisma. It is a quality that is in many ways central to the maestro myth, but actual conductors writing about their craft show a degree of mistrust about it. Charisma can be seen to be tricksy, manipulative, or a worrying tendency to 'believe your own bullshit'.*

There are three elements in particular that quite reasonably arouse mistrust:

  • The hijacking of the executive function: one of the more disturbing studies on the neurology of charisma showed how, when people believe they are in the presence of a charismatic leader, they suppress the use of their critical faculties in a manner akin to hypnosis
  • The potential for tyranny: the need for strong top-down control to keep the emotional energies in charismatic groups from breaking the group apart concentrates a lot of power in the leader’s hands
  • Charisma’s inherently expansionist agenda: charismatic groups are inherently proselytising - they set themselves up against the mainstream, and then seek converts. They are not, therefore, necessarily very comfortable neighbours

At the same time, there are great emotional and psychological rewards available to people involved in charismatic movements or groups. These are the flip side of the same features that incite mistrust, and include:

  • Communion: the lowering of ego boundaries that comes from aligning yourself with a cause gives the opportunity to experience intense bonds of affection within the group, often described in terms of love and euphoria
  • A sense of purpose or meaning: the cause that provides the group’s moral impetus gives its adherents a sense of participating in something valuable, of making a contribution to something more important than themselves, which is a major component of the great human need for self-actualisation

And it is this last one that draws attention to the way that charisma acts for good or ill largely according to the nature of the cause it promotes. It is not itself an ethical category, but the values it serves are certainly subject to moral judgement. I have the cultural relativist's reluctance to pronounce on beliefs held by groups I do not understand from the inside, but I feel safe in disapproving of causes that involve killing people (Genghis Kahn, Hitler, Al Qaeda), and generally considering causes benign if they involve more singing.

Indeed, to be 'inspired' is one of the key selling points of group singing events. People flock to massed voice workshops and concerts precisely for their capacity to lift them out of the everyday. Participants actively seek the feeling of being swept up in the emotional flow of communal music-making and the belief that they are participating in the creation of something special.

And in specifically choral contexts, there are three major advantages that configuring events as charismatic encounters confer:

  • Extraordinary levels of coordination within the ensemble: the sense of merging of egos into the whole permits an ensemble to perform as a real unit, while the handing over of executive function to their director produces an immediacy of response far beyond that you get with a ‘signalling’ model of directing
  • Depth of emotional commitment to the music: this is the specific dimension that Tom Carter writes about as choral charisma - an unselfconscious responsiveness to musical meaning, resulting in powerfully expressive performances
  • Clarity of vocal sound: the directed yet controlled energies of a choir lit up in a charismatic encounter produces the most wonderful, clarion, ringing sound. This is partly due to the enhancement of blend from really working together as an ensemble, and from the extra colour in the voices from the emotional connection. But it is also the result of an optimal level of arousal - the voices are energised by adrenaline, producing that amazing level of resonance, yet the over-riding commitment to the cause keeps those energies aligned and working for the ensemble

So charisma remains a problematic quality. The reasons to mistrust it are real, and the dangers cannot be avoided, as they are part and parcel of its advantages. But the rewards are such that the it may be worth the risks.

*Hat-tip to Edwin Roxbrough for that turn of phrase. I wish I could remember which conductor he was quoting!

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