Charisma Workshop no. 2

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charismaparticipants2Saturday saw choral directors from around the UK brave the winds the floods of the previous few days to come to Birmingham for the second iteration of my Conduct with Charisma workshop. As I remarked after the last one, this kind of event brings with it that wonderful ensemble quality that you learn things together that you wouldn't learn exploring the subject by yourself. Filtering the material through the different perspectives, backgrounds and assumptions that the different participants bring with them gives everyone a rounder and more nuanced understanding than would otherwise be available. The social dimension of learning is about what you can learn as well as how

One of the things that came into focus in a new way for me was during our discussion of the situational aspect of charisma. This is the subjective, experiential side of the crisis that gives impetus to your cause: people are more ready to follow if they are in circumstances that are unstable or uncertain. When people feel a need for clarity, they will feel grateful to someone who comes along and offers them a sense of direction. (This, of course, is why cults recruit amongst the recently bereaved.)

flipchartNow, as we talked about this from the perspective of choir members, identifying the times when they are more likely to be feeling uncertain, and therefore more easily galvanised into a charismatic encounter, it became very clear that these are the moments when things are most likely to go wrong. A change of director, an unfamiliar performance venue (especially where logistical information for the occasion is incomplete), the introduction of new and/or challenging music are all risky moments.

By contrast, times when everyone is in their comfort zone of business-as-usual - familiar repertoire, led by people in well-established power structures, using habitual patterns of interaction on your home patch - are when very little is likely to go awry. And it is commensurately more difficult to spark people in these snug patterns of thought, feeling and action into that heightened emotional state that is the characteristic experience of charisma.

Talking through these examples together brought into focus the way that this subjective dimension of crisis is linked with the more ideological critique through the sense of danger. An ideological crisis emerges when your cause is under threat, a subjective crisis emerges when your practical knowledge of how to behave is under threat. A charismatic encounter can ensue when the values that drive the cause provide the solution to both.

Another moment of clarification emerged in my preparation for the day. I have been reflecting ever since my days of working with postgraduate performers at the Birmingham Conservatoire on stagecraft about that moment before the music begins. The framing of a performance gives so many clues as to what the experience may be like (the publicity that brings the audience in, the programme notes, the stage set-up, the dress and demeanour of the performers), but there are still a host of unanswered questions about what the actual musical experience will be.

In L.B. Meyer's conception of musical meaning as information theory, this is the moment of maximum uncertainty, as there are the greatest number of different possibilities open as to what will happen next. As soon as the first musical event happens - the first note, or the conductor's preparatory beat - the number of possibilities is suddenly and radically reduced. There are still a lot of things that could happen next, of course, and it is the unfolding of these in dialogue with our expectations that creates the narrative drama of a piece, but once the music starts, we have a clear and concrete starting point on which to base those expectations.

While putting together my final preparations for the workshop, it occurred to me to name that moment of maximum ambiguity the 'Shrödinger moment'. And having done so, it gives it a particular power within the drama of a musical act - whether that be in performance or rehearsal. It is a truism that if you count your singers in they lose the reason to actually watch you conduct, but naming this moment draws attention to the way it is possible to throw away the moment of greatest potential musical meaning without noticing.

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