Creating a Charismatic Encounter: LABBS Directors Weekend

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Feeling the love: bestowing a hug and a box of Cadbury's Heros on our guestFeeling the love: bestowing a hug and a box of Cadbury's Heros on our guest


The weekend of 17-19 July was the culmination of my biggest project for 2015: planning and then leading a training weekend for the chorus directors of the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers. I didn’t do it all by myself - I had the support of the organisation’s fabulous events team, who managed all the logistics and communications with delegates, and of a glorious faculty drawn from LABBS’s most skilled and successful directors to help devise and deliver the curriculum. But, still, the project was my baby, and took up a lot of time and attention in the 6 months leading up to it.

Apologies if I sound smug at any point when talking about it. It is merely that I am immensely pleased by how it all went. The director education programme doesn’t get the budget for a big event every year, so it mattered to me that we made the most of it.

There will be many and repeated references to ideas that have emerged over the weekend in my blog over the coming months as I process the experience, but my first area of interest in reviewing it is to consider it as a charismatic encounter. As I planned, I was consciously aware of drawing on the ideas from my charisma project in setting it up, and I would find it useful to reflect on the various dimensions in which this functioned.

This will take a while to work through. So, today I will be considering how the basic set-up helped, and also why I framed this intention in the first place. The next two stages will consider, first the charismatic building blocks of cause and crisis, and second the generation of communion or flux. I have no idea at this stage how many posts I’ll take to cover this ground, the nature and purpose of this blog being one of discovering what I’m thinking.

Part 1: The Set-Up

In many ways, the occasion was set fair to become a charismatic encounter with or without my help. The structure had several key elements that mitigated towards this, and gave space for my deliberate interventions to work. It wasn’t necessarily a given that it would have happened without my help - I have been to events with the first three of these features that were valuable learning experiences without this happening. Having said that, I think we’d have had to work quite counter-productively to prevent a charismatic encounter with the particular guest educator we had. People arrived very ready to respond to him.

So some key elements were:

  1. Separation from everyday life. Remove people from their usual environments and stimuli and you detach them from their regular patterns of responses.
  2. Singing together. There are many ways in which group singing taps into the same group dynamics as new religious movements (aka cults). I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth noting that choral organisations have such a head start on this compared to other forms of activity in the fundamental content of what we do.
  3. Size of group. Again, I have written before about how, once you get the structures in place for a charismatic encounter to happen, a larger group automatically raises the emotional temperature compared with a smaller one. With 65 delegates we weren’t in the territory of sweeping people mindlessly into a cultic experience, but we had enough to add a good deal of intensity to the event. (The metaphors that come to mind are either the heat at the core of the earth, or the heat generated if you have a big enough compost heap. Whilst the second probably connects with more people’s experience, the first is more complimentary to our delegates...)
  4. Jim Henry. There were three main reasons why I had asked Dr Jim Henry to be our guest educator for the weekend. There was the depth of his specialist knowledge and skill as a choral conductor (and as a teacher of choral conductors): I wanted our delegates to be taught by someone who is really good at this stuff. There was his heart: I knew his kindness and humanity would be deeply enabling for our delegates, especially when they were facing their hardest obstacles. And then there was his barbershop hero status.

    I was telling my mum about the weekend and she asked how I found our guest, so I had to say, ‘Mum, if you are a barbershopper and you have a pulse, you know who this guy is.’ (Heh, I meant that in the sense of being alive, not that only the less rhythmically-challenged barbershoppers would be aware of him!)

    I am sure Jim sees himself as a perfectly normal human being who has achieved certain things by dint of caring deeply and working diligently. But those achievements rightly impress people and they generate around him an aura of wonder that precedes his arrival and then resonates around him as he walks into the room. The magic may be entirely in the eye of the beholder, but it is no less effective for that, and the capacities that produced the achievements that inspire the response to him are certainly real and not magical.

    So, people arrived ready to hand their hearts and minds over to him, trusting that what he would do with them would make them better musicians, and even better human beings.

And then there’s the question: why would you want to create a charismatic encounter? The remit was educational, shouldn’t I have been focusing on that?

Well, of course the remit was educational. And the programme we delivered was educational. We had a range of learning activities in different sized groups aimed at developing different areas of skills and knowledge, yada yada yada.

And, if you don’t mind me saying, it was a really good programme. I can remember the moment back on 9 April when I had pieced it together using input from successive waves of consultation with potential delegates and debates amongst the faculty. I looked at the overall schedule, and felt both confidence that we had a great event on our hands, and - consequently - a little bubble of delight.

Okay, done with the self-congratulation. There were two main reasons why I was gunning for an event that was not just informative but charismatic.

  • To soften people up, to unfreeze them. You can do ordinary, incremental learning in your ordinary, day-to-day mindset, but to access really transformative learning experiences, you have to lower your ego boundaries to allow yourself to change. In Dilts’ terms, I wanted the experience to operate not just at the levels of people’s behaviours and capabilities, but to reach deep into them, through their beliefs and into their identities.
  • To ignite evangelism. It is one thing to send people home feeling like they’ve changed. But as soon as they get back to their everyday music-making, there is the risk that their choruses - who have not been through a transformative experience - stay rooted in their established response patterns, and thus gradually pull their directors back into their old ways of beings.

    The weekend thus needed to provide sufficient momentum to allow the directors to take their singers with them as went back to apply all they had learned. The proselytising impulse, with its urgency of desire to share and to convert was thus intended as a means to help directors unfreeze and transform their choruses along with them.

That is plenty for today. I’m expecting to have a few coaching reports to intersperse with this review process (July has ended up a busy month), but the next parts will be coming out over the course of August.

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