Creating a Charismatic Encounter: LABBS Directors Weekend, Part 3

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Cause, Crisis, and our Guest Educator


My last post on this subject talked about how I had set up the framing values in the delegate pack, curriculum, and specific activities of last month’s LABBS Directors Weekend as a typical cause and crisis in order to facilitate a charismatic encounter.* And the first in this series talked a little about the reputational aura that surrounded our guest educator, Dr Jim Henry, and how this likewise helped our delegates give themselves over to the experience.

Before moving onto the aspects of the event that created the euphoric bonds of communion, I thought it worth discussing in a little more detail how Jim himself deployed elements of the charismatic toolkit.

Jim both rehearses and teaches directors to rehearse using the Cause of sincerity: ‘Not what, but why’. For him, it is vital that singers should be given space to feel the music and be expressive for themselves. Instilling ‘interpretation’ by a series of technical instructions (get louder here, pause there, etc) not only produces a mechanical, device-led performance, but robs singers of the opportunity to invest their own emotions in what they do.

If singers are invited to use their own hearts and brains in delivering a song, not only do you get a performance that is more meaningful for the audience, but the singers will care more about it too. And as a result they’ll keep coming back week after week, and they’ll remember how the music goes. (He didn’t use the word ‘retention’, but actually it’s a pay-off in terms of both membership and memory.)

Actually, now I’m reflecting on it at length, sincerity is just one of the manifestations of a deeper Cause that the individual matters. He sold his method of choral stacking (well, not specifically his, but the one that he likes to use) on the basis that it enables singers to sing freely and express themselves at their authentic best. He promoted a kinaesthetic approach to choral rehearsal on the basis of the way it empowers singers to connect intuitively with musical shape and make it part of themselves.

His primary Crisis is pitch. The biggest threat to good music, in his world, is sagging tonality. It robs the music of life and vitality, and dulls the emotional impact on both singers and listeners. If this sounds remarkably similar to the views expressed by Jim Clancy I reported earlier this year, that’s not a coincidence. Jim (H) tells of how Jim (C) came to coach the Ambassadors, and spent three hours working on nothing but pitch. ‘Hmm,’ thought Jim (H), ‘I guess we better work on that.’

Now, pitch works as a Crisis because, in fixing that, you sort all sorts of other things out. Or possibly, in order to fix that, you have to sort those other things (ear things, concept things, vocal technique things, psychological things). And that’s why I’ve always tended, myself, to see things the other way out: that pitch isn’t a thing in itself, but a barometer of how things are going on with the singers. I’m probably just as obsessive about it, now I come to reflect, but I tend not to talk about it with the singers. I hesitate to quote Mike Brewer these days, but I always felt he was onto something when he said, ‘If ever I find myself talking about tuning, I feel that I’ve lost’.

Anyway, that’s a tangent (sorry, just processing). The point is that these concrete elements of choral activity are framed in Jim’s rehearsal strategies not just as matters of technique, but matters of principle. They are clearly articulated, presented so as to galvanise people to action, and rich enough to organise lots of different aspects of choral craft in their service.

Finally, it’s worth giving a nod back to Mythology. Jim didn’t need to do much himself here, because barbershop has such excellent mechanisms for making and marking heros. But the stories that others told about him in the run-up and at the event itself are integral to creating the trust that people placed in him. Those who remembered the Gas House Gang coming to Bournemouth in 1991, those who had had their ‘gold medal moment’ bestowed by members of the Ambassadors of Harmony when competing at International, even those who had simply been blown away by a Crossroads CD, by sharing these experiences wove a web of connection that enabled those who had not previously met him to hand themselves over into his care. The stories told about this weekend will in turn add another layer to that mythology.

Having said that, there was one story Jim told of himself that I found especially interesting in the context of my analyses of charisma. It was the story of when he gave up directing for 2 1/2 years, having become frustrated and impatient at his chorus’s failure to win International gold. And of how that time out gave him space to realise that it’s not about winning, it’s about making music and touching people’s hearts. And that realisation both revived his desire to direct, and helped the chorus finally to win when they focused on the bigger picture rather than the concrete goal.

This is a classic narrative of the wilderness years, that phase in charismatic myth where the leader experiences failure, and goes away to face their own demons, and then comes back with a renewed clarity of purpose. Given our over-arching theme for the weekend, I was very glad he chose to share it.

* I should probably have clarified in that last post that the purpose articulated in the delegate pack goes back further and is embedded more deeply in the planning than just the month before the event when we distributed the pack. In fact, the principle that educating directors is ultimately about supporting choruses has been there since the early planning meetings last year, and was a touchstone multiple times when we faced tricky decisions en route. One of the reasons it was so effective as a cause was because it really did underlie everything we had planned.

But the focus even further outwards to the audiences was added for the delegate pack as a tactical move.

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