Can an Ensemble be Charismatic?

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choral_charisma_coverI’ve been thinking quite a lot recently about Tom Carter’s book Choral Charisma, and in particular about the accuracy of its title. For those who don’t know it, it’s practical guide to helping choirs (especially school- or college-age and amateur choirs) sing with greater expression, communicative power, and personal fulfilment. It is strongly and usefully informed by Tom’s background in drama as well as music, and is much to be recommended. The opening chapter on psychological safety in the rehearsal room is particularly insightful.

So, you get the idea: I like his approach.

Having said that, I’m not convinced that what he’s writing about is actually charisma. Indeed, I noticed recently that the word only appears in the title, not anywhere in the body of the book. The core elements he is concerned with – personal authenticity, openness of communication, emotional connectedness – are all features commonly associated with charismatic people of course. But there is a key ingredient missing here.

Charisma is a critical quality. Max Weber, whose analysis of charismatic authority is still the starting point for both sociological and leadership/management studies of the phenomenon, identified charisma as a form of leadership that stands outside of established power structures. The charismatic galvanises her followers not just through the articulation of vision, but by presenting that vision as the answer to some kind of crisis or problem in their lives.

Now, Tom Carter himself is a charismatic writer. (I’ve not yet seen him in action, but I should imagine he is also a charismatic coach.) He has a clear vision that promises its adherents rewards in terms of increased meaning, and he propounds it as a direct critique of choral methods that place control over emotion.

But the choral singers he helps are clearly in the role of disciples in this drama. They get the benefit of a deeper and more humane musical experience for themselves and their audiences, but they are not themselves necessarily galvanising others to action.

This in turn has got me thinking in more general terms about whether a collective of people can act as a charismatic agent. Charismatic encounters are usually understood to occur when a social group coheres around the vision of a single leader whom they experience as possessing extraordinary powers in some dimension or other. The idea of a group of people performing this role as lynch-pin of meaning is utterly alien to the literature on leadership.

But in music we are quite accustomed to thinking about groups of people in terms of a single identity: The Beatles, The Brodsky Quartet, Naturally 7. This is because we experience the musical work in performance as a single aggregate persona with its own story and point of view: Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony, ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’. It makes sense to talk about the Beatles having changed the course of music, and the sense of solidarity or communion they inspired in their fans likewise points to their acting corporately as that kind of charismatic agent.

So I think it may be possible for an ensemble to take on this function, but I suspect it is relatively rare. More often, it is a particular individual within the ensemble that galvanises its members into committing to a particular artistic vision: the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the Robert Shaw Chorale, the Swingle Singers. (Thinking about it, the Beatles played under names that suggest this kind of dynamic in their early days: "Johnny and the Moondogs", "Long John and The Beetles". Hmm.)

And it is perhaps in this sense that Tom’s book title makes more sense. It’s not so much that the choir is acting as a charismatic performer, but that the singers are the participants in a charismatic encounter, sparked by the vision of a more expressive and emotionally meaningful relationship with music. It isn’t a book about how to make the choir charismatic, but how to get them to experience their director as charismatic.

Very last sentence chimes with some things I was thinking about last night (for people who aren't me or Liz, this was at the Choral Spectacular)

Actually, since that page popped up an Eric Whitacre looking serious, it proposed me a new thought - that there's a difference between these two constructions of charisma: one which is politically meaningful, and one which is just a synonym for 'charm', and I think you can measure them by their outcomes. They're different intensities of the same quality, I think, the difference coming from the different sorts of vision the charismatic person has. Watching Whitacre, I think he's definitely well-liked, and charismatic in that sense. But I'm not sure he takes you very far. I'd probably like to see more of his conducting to see if my initial thoughts on that could be proven wrong.

That takes me back to what I was originally going to say though, because I think my perception of how (c/C)harismatic the director is is connected to how much there seems to be a visual synergy between director and choir. That's using visual cues as a measure of how far the choir and director's visions overlap. I don't mean that they're necessarily in the same kind of space of mien - as you say, you can have a very expressive choir vocally and bodily without the director having to flail madly to achieve that. It's not a direct mirror relationship. (In fact the channel between director and choir is [sometimes] a kind of megaphone arrangement... sorry, tangent!)

So, presence - how connected is one to the other? If either choir or director are basically doing their own thing, it doesn't speak very highly of director charisma. Then, ego - this is connected, but it adds a dimension of whether choir and director notice they're doing their own thing. If a director looks very chuffed at the end of a performance without seeming to have made a real connection with their ensemble, that makes me raise an eyebrow. For the charismatic relationship to be effective, it needs to be an open channel - the leader needs to be able to see whether their vision is actually having an effect, or just floating over people's heads. So, very slightly paradoxically, the significant dose of ego needed in leadership (believing you have something to communicate or achieve) needs some egolessness (being able to see how other people are experiencing your Brilliant Thing you're communicating or doing) to go with it. Now, I bet I can find that in the literature. Implicitly if not explicitly, at least.

Lastly, I think there's an aspect of charisma that can be very much a subtext - this sounds in fact like it might be more the focus of Carter's book. What I'm thinking of is the way an ensemble can have a high-trust-stakes relationship with their director, in terms of overall artistic vision and in every bit of performance. Reciprocally, I mean - an easy example is when a director with vision and openness recruits skilled and responsive singers, instils general principles of that vision, then trusts the singers to get on with it while remaining connected. You get the safe and productive communal space here made by a) the singers knowing what their goal is and b) having plenty expected of them, which experientially they discover they can and do achieve.

Balance, in short. I'm pretty sure it's something that can always be seen, even if it's rather difficult to explain the hows and whys, or the 'how could this be better?'s. The bonus conundrum I was teasing my brain with was wondering how much of all this could be heard if the visual experience were taken away! (More interestingly, the idea that it doesn't matter [for those of us who're sighted, anyway], because it's usually about the live experience.) someone who has spent most of my career thus far in church choral music, the idea of "choral charisma" seems very clear and accessible. (Accessible in theory--hard as hell in practice.) The idea that the ensemble as a whole tries to develop these qualities of authenticity, connection, and so forth as a way to reach out to and invite in those who are in the pews to join in the singing as well at some moments, or to be drawn in prayerfully in others, is pretty central to that kind of singing. Sometimes this mind-set is subtle, other times it is right out there as an evangelical tool, but it's almost always there in some form.

Or maybe what I'm talking about is something like a "cascade of charisma"--the group is drawn to the charisma of the leader who, rather than taking and using what they bring herself, seeks to infuse the members with some of the same charisma and use it to draw others? Is there a way to talk about the difference between charisma that says "come follow me, I'm the leader!" and charisma that says "You can be leaders too, here's how"?

Anyway--thank you for the title, now I have another book in my list of things to read--it looks fascinating.


Hi again, Liz.

I just reread your blog and think I misread it the first time. You weren't suggesting that directors needed to be charismatic in my sense of the word; rather, you were suggesting that they were charismatic in yours -- galvanizers of social change.



Hi Tom,

So glad you came over to respond!

I think you've realised by now that most of the time I am violently agreeing with you - the difference is primarily in the more specific way I'm using the term 'charisma'.

Can an ensemble be communicative, vibrant, energised and magnetic? Absolutely! Especially after using your methods :-)

And, yes, I would love to have the opportunity to work with you too.

all best,

Hi Liz,

RE Choral Charisma, I offer the following thoughts: You wrote that "It isn’t a book about how to make the choir charismatic, but how to get them to experience their director as charismatic."

1. I have to disagree, and strenuously so (:-)! The book has nothing to do with how directors can be charismatic, and EVERYTHING to do with empowering singers to be so.

If you check out my website's "Director's Face" page, you'll see specific thoughts about this, including the following in which I discuss how the choral charisma principles work regardless of the director's charisma. (But the book itself is all about the singer; I see the director's job in this regard as giving the singers basic tools enabling them to have charisma, regardless of the director's magnetism.)

From the website: "This includes, by the way, the director whose face is as deadpan as a corpse. I've worked with many choirs whose directors were thoroughly inexpressive (both physically and facially), yet the singers were not constrained or limited one iota. In fact, they were just as expressive as choirs with extremely charismatic directors."

2. As to my definition of "charisma" and whether a choir can have that quality, here's where I'm coming from. I took the title from the general sense of charisma meaning "presence" or "magnetism." While the other senses of charisma you mention in your blog are related, for me it's not about having power over people or galvanizing a social movement.

Most specifically, the charisma I'm referencing is about each and every singer being so vibrantly present that they evoke in the audience members a powerful experience of connection to their shared humanity.

And again, the director's charisma (or profound lack of same) has absolutely nothing to do with it.



PS: I'd love to work with you some time. Would you be interested in doing some shared workshops?

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