Conduct with Charisma: Post-Workshop Reflections

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What is the collective noun for charismatic directors?What is the collective noun for charismatic directors?
Saturday saw leaders of singers from around the country meeting in Birmingham for my workshop ‘Conduct with Charisma’, which regular readers will have seen advertised on my front page for the last few months. As you know, I have been blogging on this subject since last summer – and I have been researching it for over 3 years now. It started out as an off-shoot from my choral conducting book, and has developed into a fully-blown fascination in its own right.

Charisma is one of those things that a conductor is supposed to have, but is usually placed in a box marked ‘magic – do not think about’. Not helpful, especially to someone starting out in the craft, since it can so easily undermine your faith in your own legitimacy as a director. (Or is it only me who worried about this?)

So the day’s central theme was to explore the social dynamics of charismatic encounters, to understand that it’s not just about what the director does, but about a particular type of relationship between leader and group, and within the groups itself, that arises in particular types of situation.

It is useful to think about charisma this way for two reasons. First, it helps you understand why it happens so readily on some days and hardly at all on others – and what you can do to set up the situations in which it will more easily occur. Second, it takes your attention off yourself as a director and onto your ensemble where it belongs. A lot of the self-help literature on charisma is full of advice that is sound in its way, but diverts attention onto a self-conscious monitoring of your own language and behaviour – distracting enough in everyday interactions, let alone when you have a group of singers to lead.

However assiduously you prepare this kind of event, you never know exactly how it’s going to run, since the whole point is to bring people together so they can generate ideas they wouldn’t have had by themselves. I reflected on the way home on Saturday how lucky we’d been with the make-up of the group: the spread by gender, age and musical (and/or professional) background gave everybody people they could easily connect with as well as insights into less familiar choral worlds. It wasn’t far off my ideal party invitation list – in which everybody knows somebody but nobody knows everybody.

But then again, what did I expect if I held a workshop for choral directors? At the risk of stereotyping, people who accept the role of leading singers are interesting, thoughtful people, who like hanging out with people with whom they share interests and are good at team-work and problem-solving. If they’re not like that before they start directing a choir, they develop these traits pretty rapidly in order to fulfil the demands the role places on them. So whilst the demographic profile was fortuitous, we had probability on our side for a dynamic and mutually-supportive group.

And this observation links in with one of the discussions we had during the morning – about the vexed question of whether ‘you either have it or you don’t’. Now, the main cultural myths about charisma hold it to be the result of extraordinary powers that are vouchsafed on a few special individual and set them apart from ordinary mortals. This isn’t something that stands up to critical scrutiny terribly well, though it is awfully useful for a charismatic leader if people believe it – it inhibits competition for authority no end. On the other hand, you get much of the self-help literature telling you that anyone can learn to be charismatic, that we all have the seeds of potential within us. This is better for book sales, of course.

Looking at charisma from a situational perspective gives a more equivocal answer than either of those. There are some people who get their kicks from galvanising groups; they make crises out of dramas in order that they can emerge as the hero of the day. If you have this kind of personality, you are likely to seek out situations in which you get the best opportunities to play the knight in shining armour. On the other hand, there are people who would not have felt any particular urge to lead or campaign were it not for some real and pressing problem in their world. But they believed in something so deeply that they felt compelled to action, and to engage other people in their cause.

My current working hypothesis is that people don’t become directors of ensembles on anything more than a very temporary basis unless they have something in their make-up that falls along this spectrum. So, whilst I would not claim that I could teach absolutely anybody to be charismatic, if you are a choral director, you are probably at least part of the way there already (so I can help you on your way). Thinking about it since our discussion on Saturday, I have found examples that fall at either extreme.

I have known people who as students were always agitating – they had an urge to critique the status quo, and to persuade others to join their campaigns – and who have since gone on to become conductors. I have also known people who had never thought of themselves as directors until something happened that prompted them into stepping up to the plate – often, though not always, the threatened dissolution of the choir. The latter group may often be more riddled with self-doubt (or, possibly, more willing to admit to it), but they are also often more driven, with a clearer sense of their fundamental purpose. Both extremes show the key charismatic ingredients of a cause emanating from some core values and some crisis or threat that gives impetus and urgency to that cause.

So, as is often the case, sharing ideas with people has both given me a deeper and more nuanced conception of the subject as others use the ideas creatively, and challenged me to refine and develop the ideas further. This stuff with the written word is all very well, but it needs the imaginative energy of social interaction to nourish it too. My thanks to all the participants for making it such a stimulating group dynamic.

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