The Dangerous Power of the Conductor

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MahlerThe power dynamics of choral directing is a significant theme in my second book, which I explored using Foucault’s ideas of discipline and surveillance. It is a subject I have been mulling over again recently, in the light of a comment from Mark on my post about non-musical things choir members can do to transform their choir. Mark expressed a not unreasonable wish that directors would offer a quid pro quo of courtesy towards their singers.

There are interesting things to be explored here about the social contract of the choral rehearsal, but the thing that leapt out at me first from Mark’s words was the depth of feeling behind them. Directors have such a power to affect the experience and emotional state of the people they conduct, and I am not sure that we always remember this.

Directors don’t always feel all-powerful of course. They are probably more immediately aware of the limits of their power. The gap between what a conductor desires from their choir and what they get can feel like a perpetual burden of impotence, holding them back.

But we need to note that this sensation is measuring power by contrast to an ideal of omnipotence, an imagined world in which the conductor simply has to will something for it to be so. And, yes, real life is apt to fall short of this I’m afraid.

If instead of measuring the conductor’s power in terms of its deficit from 100% we consider it in contrast to having no power at all, we find the conductor has a level of power far higher than most social roles. No wonder the business management literature periodically carries articles about what business leaders can learn from orchestral conductors - the power-hungry in offices must drool in envy when they look across at the podium.

So let us enumerate the factors that construct this power. That podium, to start with. The director is, by definition of the role, placed at the centre of attention, with everyone else organised so as to have a continuous and uninterrupted view of them. And the ensemble members are disciplined to keep using this line of viewing: not watching is a cardinal sin.

And then there is the power to speak. The conductor can talk whenever they like, about whatever they choose, and they expect everyone else to be quiet and listen. Every conducting manual warns the conductor not to speak too much, and many choir members still complain about their how much their directors lecture them. How much anyone else is allowed to speak is by contrast highly regulated; who, when and how much all within the control of the conductor.

And this in turn gives the power to set agendas. The director gets to define the ethos and working methods of the group, and to pass judgement on everything they do.

Once you realise quite how much power you do in fact wield as a director, simply from how the norms of the activity are structured, you can see how that gap between what you have and what you want can be very dangerous. The lack of what you want generates frustration, whilst what you have already gives you scope to take this out on your singers. Read Mark’s comment again to see what this does to the people in your care.

To the extent that a conductor responds with frustration to their shortfall from absolute power, their singers are at risk from emotional abuse.

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