What Great Choral Conductors Can Teach Speakers and Leaders

Updated: Feb 7, 2020

Learning leadership through the collaborative process of creating music.


music conductor
Through great leadership musicians learn to think together as one.

Music served as one of my first loves. At an early age, I spent hours with the music turned up as loud as my mom would allow, singing and dancing to Olivia Newton John, the Pointer Sisters, and Whitney Houston. In elementary school, I couldn't wait to begin choral music in earnest through the Singing Angels choir at my Catholic school, the highlight of which, a solo in "The Song of the Littlest Angel"during the Christmas service. I still remember the lyric's humble offering: "May I sing a song, just a tiny song to the baby in the stall. May I whisper in his ear, I am happy you are here. You came to love us all." As I continued music in high school and later at Concordia College, I felt a polarity of choosing music or a career outside of music. Twenty years later, as I begin to integrate all these seemingly disjointed interests, I realize how connected they all are. I, perhaps, have always been drawn to the idea of the voice connecting one another through sharing joy and love.


“Life seems to go on without effort when I am filled with music." George Eliot

Wisdom for Speakers

Choral conductors and choral music can share much wisdom not just with singers but to speakers as well. First of all, singing technique and speaking technique share the same fundamentals of breath support, lack of vocal tension, resonance chambers, and articulation. Secondly though, the complex integration of head and heart provide powerfully transporting communication, whether through song or speech. World-renowned composer and conductor of The Concordia Choir, Dr. Rene Clausen, explains in an interview with the Kansas City Chorale:


"I think it is no mistake that the Creator put your voice half way between your head and your heart...Sometimes they call this the subderma. The subderma of great music has that emotional quality, yet if you go too far in one side or the other, we lose that balance,and great performances have both of those qualities...and when you combine both of those things, what do you get? You have inspired performance. And when you listen to it, you are aesthetically moved. You are connected to that music making, so how can you not be thrilled?"


The powerful combination of head and heart transports all, whether on stage or in the audience, on the journey envisioned by the composer and conductor. You can hear this power in one of my favorites from Dr. Clausen's conducting: O Magnum Mysterium - The Concordia Choir - Dr. René Clausen - Christmas Concert 1997. The lyrics translate to "O great mystery and wonderful sacrament that even the animals saw the newborn Lord lying in a manger." Take a moment to meditate and enjoy its mystery and wonder.


"I think it is no mistake that the Creator put your voice half way between your head and your heart." Dr. Rene Clausen


Transformative Collaboration

Choral music is a collaborative art. However, unlike many other collaborations, which occur at different times or stages of the process, the interaction between choir and conductor is one of unification in the moment. In fact science shows that brain waves synchronize during this process, even for the audience members.The singers hang on every word, every sound, every eye expression. The graceful release and float of a hand or the flick of a wrist controls the reaction of sixty people. Yet, it's not so much control as an agreed-upon relationship. I will go where you lead. I will give you my best, and you will give me your best, and together we will create something beautiful and powerful and ephemeral. For this is the spark of which life is made, the core of who we are as people: creators in love.


What then from these experiences of unity can I translate to other collaborative situations?


Collaboration in a Spirit of Grace

Musical performance requires practice; there is no way around that. Singers and conductors work together to get it right, and no one expects perfection immediately. Wrong notes and missteps come with the process. We give each other the benefit of the doubt as errors arise; all are trying. The Chinese proverb emphasizes the importance of the act of the imperfect offering: "a bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song." At times, the work might seem tedious and detailed. Out of context, individualized lines might seem confusing, not making sense to the ear. It is only when these lines come together that you understand the beauty and power of each individualized effort.

“A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song." Chinese proverb


Trust

Trust forms the heart of the collaborative relationship in music. As a singer, you trust your colleagues will enter on their cue and do their part. You trust your conductor hears your offering and will shape it to maximize its potential. You trust wrong notes are heard; in fact, you want the conductor looking out for them. You know this is not out of criticism or comparison but because the conductor has your best performance at heart. Your best performance leads to the group's best performance.


Focus on the Whole

All of this would seem to indicate a self-centered focus. Nevertheless, rather than individually focusing on the self, you as a musician must give up yourself or rather dedicate yourself to serve the greater good of the whole. Group identity takes over. Like Maya Angelou says, "When we unite in purpose, we are greater than the sum of our parts." In an interview with Peter Myers, the producer of the PBS program Never Stop Singing, Dr. Rene Clausen explains this same idea: "So I think there’s that part of the spirit that has to be…I think in all really good choirs and with very good choral singers, there’s an aspect of their soul that is very communally oriented, that has to do with “we” rather than “me,” that willingness to give to ensemble." Sometimes that means stepping back and allowing others to shine. In these moments though, you do not give up the importance of your own part. Sopranos do not resent the tenors, looking at them with competition and envy. You strengthen your breath support, maintaining a quiet strength, your mind sharply focused, celebrating the hard work of another.


Conductors as Leaders

Lastly, while choral conductors serve as artists and teachers, they also serve as strong models of leadership.


Vision

The director has to be an expert at communicating a complex vision in simple terms. This is also exceptionally hard because in choral music the vision is one of sound and shape and resonance and art. Metaphors and comparisons prove useful to explain sound and kinesthetic processes. Luther College conductor Mark Potvin, as guest conductor for a local choral festival I recently participated in, described the sound he was looking for as "squishy feet stomps of Paul Bunyon" and a "full stalk of celery" versus a single string, the kind that annoyingly gets stuck in your teeth. Conductors must not only communicate their vision but also help the choir enact and create it, meeting each one where they are.


Listening

Conductors and musicians alike need intense listening in order to blend with each other to sound like one. Slight shifts prove powerful. A shift of the mouth, tilt of the head to get spin against the hard pallet, or a different vowel color all lead to significantly different effects. Listening is crucial throughout the entire creative process in order to create the desired vision.

Clarity and Decisiveness

Lastly, artists know that some decisions don't have a right answer. Key decisions will require judgment and discernment. In Peter Myers' interview, Dr. Clausen explains the importance of broad and varied experiences prior to leadership. He believes that " having various points of view widens your viewpoint then from which you can make the choices that are going to sustain you in your musical decision making." Furthermore, for leaders who want to push boundaries, Clausen offers this advice: "And if you’re going to expand the tradition both from which you come from and that which you are engendering, its so important that you have an intellectual as well as intuitive basis for making the decisions you make." Intellect only gets leaders so far; intuitive grace must enter, too.



Tonight, I sing again, united with people of different backgrounds from me, the voice connecting one another, sharing joy and love. I cannot separate my own leadership understanding apart from a life of music experiences. That would be to disregard some of the most highly effective leaders I have ever worked with. They all lead with grace, leading with spirit, leading with a desire to magnify love and beauty in this world, and leading with an open forgiveness and deep listening that allows for development and growth of themselves and others. Dr. Rene Clausen, Dr. Nesheim, soon-to-be Dr. Winter, Mr. Potvin, Mr. Hermanson and so many others-- thank you for your work and the beauty you bring in so many ways through your vision and leadership.


Words. Ideas. Sound. Vibration. Heart. God.


How have your musical or other artistic experiences shaped your understanding of collaboration and leadership? Share with me in comments!