The Paradox of Conductors’ Leadership Styles

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There is a fair amount written in the literature, both of conducting studies and leadership/management studies, about the leadership styles of conductors. People in business are a bit envious of the audible unanimity conductors elicit, and rather more envious of the glamour in the cultural images that surround them.

Musical studies tend instead to use concepts of leadership style taken from business to analyse conductor behaviour. The generalisation here is that once upon a time autocracy was the accepted norm, but that you are expected to be rather more polite these days. Phrases like ‘servant-leadership’ get bandied about.

(As an aside, Jeanice Brooks has done some wonderful work on how Nadia Boulanger positioned herself as a ‘handmaid to music’ as a means to find a space within gendered discourses that would have tended to exclude female conductors. Somewhat tangential to my immediate intent today, but too interesting not to mention now it has come to mind!)

I was thinking about this recently when I was participating in a course on facilitation skills run by the Institute of Cultural Affairs. Part of the opening orientation session outlined the distinctions between hierarchical and facilitative leadership styles, and when each most usefully comes into its own. They have kindly allowed me to reproduce the graphic about this from their course materials.

On the face of it, conducting still looks pretty top-down. You get to be the only one who’s allowed to speak for most of the time and you are almost entirely in control of the flow of activity. The course was in the week after the A Cappella Spring Fest, in which I had been running very tight rehearsal sessions to get everything done in a short time, and so was feeling particularly aware of how it feels to exercise that control.

This is not the full story, however. There are some interesting ands and buts that came into focus during the course through an example shared as a discussion point. This was the scene from the movie Sister Act in which the Whoopi Goldberg character is sent in to sort the choir out. It depicts both her interactions with the (understandably resentful) existing director, and her first steps in changing what the singers do.

It was a good example for discussion as it involved elements from both columns, and we had an interesting time teasing out which were which. But the thing that leaped out at me, as the only musician in the room, was how much time she spent talking rather than the choir singing.

At a practical level, the singers in that film were just not having enough opportunity to make musical sounds to make any difference to their skill levels. To improve how you sing you need to do, do again, correct a detail, do again, hear the difference it makes, do again. A fancy bit of script-writing followed, eventually, by a single chord won’t build a choir.

This of course is why conductors are exhorted to minimise how much they talk. Any time you’re talking, the ensemble isn’t making music.

And this is where I had my penny-drop moment about that tight rehearsal where the conductor keeps everyone on task with no time for chit-chat. Yes, theirs may be the only speaking voice heard, but they are maximising the participation of everyone else’s musical voices.

The facilitative principle that every voice matters is central to ensemble musicianship – ‘voice’ here being the literal voices of singers, but also the individual contributions of instrumental ‘voices’. So is the point that everyone needs to listen and respond to each other – you can’t just make simultaneous sounds, you have to collaborate to create meaning. And the conductor has to listen most of all.

I originally started this paragraph, ‘The conductor’s job is mostly about listening’. Then I had a yes-but moment in that they conductor also needs to envisage, to imagine, make those technical and artistic decisions about how the music should go. But once they get into the same room as the ensemble, they need to be all ears. Balancing, shaping, working with the actual, concrete sounds the ensemble offers to bring the music to fruition.

The conductor’s role is top-down inasmuch as they need to bring expertise and executive decision-making. But they are also very much about method: they need to know how to facilitate the musicians in their care to use their technical and imaginative skills to best effect. The acuity and insight of the director’s listening is the basis for trust as well as for musical nuance.

So the paradox of my title is that the conductor deconstructs the either/or relationship between hierarchical and facilitative leadership styles.

But either way: the conductor still needs to resist the urge to talk.

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