Categories
Choirs Leadership

Musical leadership without music

The role of conductor changed abruptly in mid-March of this year. For me, it’s thrown the nature of musical leadership into the spotlight: how can those of us with responsibility for musical direction maintain this responsibility when a direct musical relationship isn’t possible?

The business world tells us that the companies that do well are those that are light on their feet. They adapt; they are, in teeth-grinding but somewhat useful management-speak, agile, alert to market conditions and ready to respond.

Musical groups are not businesses, or at least they don’t like to think of themselves that way. But the substantially ‘market-altering’ conditions which 2020 has visited on the performing arts have forced change on a genre which is normally remarkably resistant to it: western classical music. Likewise the leader or conductor of the group has had to make changes, and in this post I’m reflecting on mine, thinking out loud about musical leadership in a time of crisis.

A change in goals

Until earlier this year, the goal of the groups I direct was largely to work towards musical performances, and build up our common musicianship along the way. Goals are important for the motivation of any organisation, and musical groups are no different – indeed, many now have ‘mission statements’, a concept imported from the business world.

Our goals have adapted and evolved during the various stages of lockdown, roughly along the following lines:

  1. Keep our community intact

The immediate priority for me was making sure that, however long this all lasted, there would still be a strong sense of community within the group. The worst thing would be if, after all this, there remained only the husk of an ensemble to come back to. Zoom meet-ups, virtual pub quizzes, seminars and workshops formed a large part of this initial phase.

During this time, we became familiar with and adjusted to the requirements of online meetings, a necessary relearning of the rules of interaction.

  1. Maintain our musicianship

After these initial experiences with online get-togethers, my focus turned towards how to preserve any gains we’ve made in our musicianship, technique, or other skills, so that when we return, we can hit the ground running, without having lost too much momentum. This is where online music sessions came in.

I’ve generally resisted the term ‘virtual rehearsal’ when talking about these – it’s not really the same thing as a rehearsal, at least in the OED’s sense of ‘practice performance…in preparation for later public performance’. The most cynical way to think about it would be a sort of ‘choral karaoke’ – but I think even this has value.

The online sessions had a similar structure to our in-person rehearsals, but with a shift in focus: away from an eventual performance, and towards preservation of key skills. The warm-up was slightly longer, focusing on maintaining healthy technique even in a confined space or if sitting. The preparation of a piece was necessarily more basic, with no possibility of rehearsing anything involving ensemble. Instead we looked at possible interpretations, attention to details in the score, poetry and text. Performance was done along to a guide recording, either pre-existing or recorded by me for this purpose.

The performance element of the rehearsal had an almost completely different function – not so much cementing an interpretation honed or notes learned, as listening and reacting to an unfamiliar recording. Sometimes this led to critical listening of a performance or recording.

3. Produce something

Being a performing ensemble ultimately means generating a performance of some kind. Most of us are still in the process of working out what this looks like within the constraints currently imposed on us. I’ve written about one answer here. And with my cathedral choir, we’ve been recording items for use in broadcast services along the lines described here.

The autumn will provide the real test of ingenuity, if current restrictions continue. I’ve got some ideas, and I’m excited to see what others will come up with.

Lest this sound self-congratulatory, I think I was slow to react in the early stages, when we didn’t really have a notion of how long this might last. I was initially sceptical of taking everything online, and I might have been tempted to batten down the hatches and wait for it all to blow over. It was seeing others boldly pushing out of their comfort zone that inspired me to do the same.

Setting the tone

Perhaps more strongly than the move to redefine goals, the thing that came home to me was how much people look to leaders/conductors for moral and emotional leadership. No big surprise, you might think; but it reminded me of my responsibility.

When the message comes down from the top that ‘everything will be OK’, or ‘we’ll get through this and emerge stronger’, it permeates through the ensemble. If it’s true that what counts is ‘not what happens to us, but the way that we react to it’, then, in organisational terms, leaders set the tone and pattern of that reaction.

In those weeks where I was able to successfully project this optimism and reassurance – even if I wasn’t completely convinced myself – we ended our sessions with a sense of positivity and potential.

I’ve been trying to stay on the right side of a fine line: between the energetic, tigger-ish buoyancy that completely ignores what’s going on; and the quieter, more stable outlook which acknowledges the difficulty while believing in the strength of everyone involved to overcome it. There’s a place for both approaches. The first style might beget the response ‘I completely forgot about all the bad things for a couple of hours’, while the other might lead to ‘I didn’t forget about the bad things; but I remembered that we can overcome them’.


In Oxford, I used to occasionally act as a guinea-pig for MBA students and others at the University’s Said Business School. Unsuspecting lawyers, engineers, middle managers, or students would be thrust in front of a group of professional singers and told to conduct. They had no prior training, and, with few exceptions, no idea what they were doing.

Some would get up immediately, wave their hands around enthusiastically, and be rather surprised when nothing happened. But the most successful at this exercise were not the ones who tried to bulldoze their way through on pure confidence. Instead, they got up, and, with a mixture of openness, positivity, and humility, engendered a genuine connection, making us want them to succeed even when their technique was deficient.

I often miss the mark; but I think this is what I’m going for.

The last few months have frequently held up a mirror – literally, in the case of online video conferencing, or self-videography – in which we can see our attempts at leadership played back to us. I’ve found it a salient reminder of the need to try and maintain that openness, positivity, and humility.