Should I Stay or Should I Go?

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I had a note recently from a conductor of a community band about his dilemma of whether he should continue working with them. I say 'note' - it was actually a lengthy reflection on the situation as it has developed over the decade he has been working with them. So I can only summarise here. But I think I can pull out the key points, and they are questions that face many musicians at various points in their lives, so worth mulling over together.

So the situation, in brief, is this. During his tenure, there are significant ways in which he feels he has succeeded: the band's performance standard is better, they are tackling more interesting and/or more ambitious music, and membership is up.

But he is worried that this process has also involved a degree of loss of some of the qualities that he valued on first acquaintance with the band: musical leadership and organisational management are more top-down these days, with the players seeming less in involved in things like suggesting music or finding gigs. He is worried that people are having less fun - there's less laughter in rehearsal, less buzz, less vibrancy.

And the work-load for both committee and director is getting increasingly onerous with the combination of increased numbers and more adventurous musical aims.

So, he's wondering whether to stand down, or maybe become an Associate Conductor. He's wondering whether he's burned out with this ensemble. And he wondered what I thought...

It strikes me that this problem has two dimensions: the band's needs, and the conductor's needs. Obviously the two affect each other closely, but they are distinct dimensions and need looking at separately to get a happy result for everyone.

The first thing to point out is that much of the band's problem is also a sign of success. Increasing musical standards are attracting more members: that is a major sign that people are having a good time. They may not express verbally so much within rehearsals, but what people do tells you as much or more than what they say. And to be fair the bigger the group, the less it is possible for the banter of a small ensemble to work. So I think he needs to beat himself up about this bit a little less.

However, the band clearly does have a problem in that the infrastructure that supports a small and intimate band can't cope with the bigger ensemble it has become. The car park is full, the librarian's task is unrealistically unwieldy, the whole has outgrown its current organisational chart. It needs a phase change in management to cope with its expanded scale.

This is a major project, and takes not only some close collaboration between director and executive committee, but also effective communication with the whole membership. Change is by definition unsettling, but when it comes in response to a clear need (and a need that is a symptom of success, no less), it also provides the opportunity to refresh the values that the conductor feared were being diluted over time.

Whether the current conductor is the best person to lead this, though, is a separate question, and relates more to his needs than those of the band. In many ways, of course, he is well-placed to do this as he knows the people, understands what the problem is, and - most importantly - has a real feel for the group's underlying values. On the other hand, new leadership has a lot more leverage to effect change: a new face at the helm has the chance to start relationships from scratch, unencumbered by mutual history.

And a decade is a good long stint. If my correspondent is feeling that he is somewhat burned out, that he has achieved what he set out to achieve with them and is daunted rather than excited by the next challenge, then there is no shame in moving on. If he has other projects that are currently absorbing his creative and emotional attention, then he may quite reasonably feel he doesn't have the spare capacity to embark on the kind of project the band needs.

But if that's the case it would be kind to work with the band to plan for his replacement. He needs to let them know what he thinks they need for their next phase of development, offer them help in recruiting, but then refrain from joggling their elbows if they go about it in ways that he wouldn't. They are, after all, the ones who will have to live with their decisions - once you give notice to resign, you relinquish the right to impose your opinions!

(A few hours after writing this, I happened across a rather excellent post by Amelia Nagoski offering advice on how to make the transition between conductors.)

Only my correspondent can know exactly how he feels, and therefore which decision to make, but these are the things I think he should be taking into account to decide. Indeed, mostly I'm just reflecting back to him the issues he identified. But that's the point of being a sounding-board isn't it? To help someone take a problem that's sloshing around in their own head and hold it outside them for a while so they can see it more clearly.

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