Emotionally intelligent performance

The leadership gurus who teach about emotional intelligence talk about the emotional open loop, and how we “catch” each others emotions.  This is nothing new to those of us in the music profession, in fact it has always been a goal for performance.

The choirs I direct at Pierce College just had a wonderful experience in our end-of-quarter concert.  We performed the Faure Requiem and other music related to grief and loss.  We had the good fortune of being able to bring in a professional orchestra, Northwest Sinfonietta, to perform with us, and soloists Charles Robert Stevens, and Erin Guinup.

After reading Tom Carter’s Choral Charisma recently, I decided to start putting more emphasis on the emotional content of the music and what we want to communicate with it starting much earlier in the quarter.  The students had translations of the Requiem before they knew the notes, and discussions of grief, mourning, and consolation were frequent as we worked on the music.  We emphasized the goal to “express rather than impress,” a quote taken from my professor Dr. Ron Staheli at BYU.  The connection was made stronger by the fact that members of the choir and recent alumni had just lost family members – some of them particularly tragically.

The result was a performance in which the students were no longer thinking about technique, but were genuinely expressing the feelings they had that correlated with  Faure’s Requiem.  This then connected with the audience and, from what I could tell from the feedback we received, left the audience having felt something and had an experience.  As an example, the soprano soloist herself wrote a touching blog post about her experience in the performance and how the music helped her to ponder losses in her own life.  To me, there is no better tribute to a performance.

I hope to build on this experience by keeping focus on the goal of emotional expression and connecting with our audience from early in the quarter.  At an ACDA workshop, Timothy Seeligtalked about connecting with the choir in each rehearsal with this kind of emotional experience.  He said each rehearsal should include laughter, goose bumps and a tear or two.  Whether he know it or not, he was trying to teach what the leadership gurus are now proving with research – that leaders who connect emotionally with the people in their organizations (choirs) are much more successful.

Spring break vision


Spring break has just started for my college.  Its a wonderful time to sit and take the time to formulate or refine the vision for the upcoming quarter (short -term) and the next school year (long term).  This may seem obvious, but sometimes we get in the crazy busy rush and forget the basics.  It is good to remind ourselves.

What is the mission of our ensemble?

How are the next year’s tours, the next quarter’s concert, and the next weeks first rehearsal going to work towards that mission?

How does the repertoire choice, fundraising efforts, marketing, recruiting, etc., fit into that mission?

What are all of those pieces (concerts, tours, rehearsals, supporting activities) going to look like when they are working successfully.

Thinking about these things is what makes visionary leaders the most successful.  Without vision, the people perish (because the choir sounds bad).

When the gesture really does matter more than anything else

Just a note today on the actual gesture of conducting and the importance of clarity.

I enjoyed the NW ACDA conference this weekend and I had the opportunity to help out by playing the piano for some of the reading sessions.  Realize this is a situation where the singers are all sight reading and I, as the accompanist, have only had the music long enough to look through it once or twice.  The point of the session is to give those attending a feel for the piece on a once-through sight read.  Clarity rules supreme in a situation like this and flowery expressive conducting won’t go far.  Of the three conductors I played for in one of the sessions, there was one whose conducting pattern was vague, which caused more than one train wreck (which isn’t really a big deal in a sight-reading session like this, but still it could have been avoided.)  The issue was that in some places where he was slowing down – ends of phrases, transitions, etc. – I would be slowing down with him, but then I’d see what looked like a huge down beat so I played the downbeat.  More than once it ended up that the big downbeat gesture he gave was actually his beat 3 (in ¾) or 4 (in 4/4) and the singers were just as lost as I was.  Remember, down = 1.  It’s that simple.

Oh and just as a side note for any composers or publishers who may chance to read this (yeah – right), as a pianist I have two words for you: PIANO REDUCTION.

traits of a leader

These are some ideas I found in Mark Miller’s The Heart of Leadership, that I think apply to the choral conductor.  Miller points out that leaders “see the world differently and they cultivate different character traits.” It emphasizes a leaders need to be honest, loyal, dependable, etc., and says that “leaders who don’t possess these traits and others like them, are disqualified before they start.”

The Heart of Leadership is built around five lessons:

Think Others First. “To think others first is not primarily about what you do—it is about how you think. It’s all about what’s in your heart. How can I Serve this person?” This is easily seen in much of the literature by James Jordan published by GIA for choral directors.  Because a choir’s instrument is their voice, it is true that they tend to do better when they feel the loyalty and concern of their director.

Expect the Best. “Many people in the world see events as they are; leaders are different in that they see things that could be. And the future they see is always a better version of the present. We believe we can make a difference; we think we can make the world, or at least our part of it, better. Leaders are generally more optimistic than non-leaders.” Visionary, passionate and optimistic leadership is often what draws singers to a particular choir and keeps them there.

Respond With Courage. “Practice taking action. As you go through your day, ask yourself what action would be appropriate here? Your missed opportunities are often no big deal in isolation. They are, however, cumulative.” It isn’t too hard to find directors of great musical skill who lack the leadership to move their group’s success beyond their own routine rehearsals and concerts.  It takes this kind of courage to extend the group further into the community in its music making.

Hunger for Wisdom. “A hunger for wisdom fueled by a commitment to lifelong learning will equip you for whatever lies ahead. Be open to input, new ideas, contrarian opinions, and views. Establish a network of counselors to call on for their advice and wisdom.” I have often admired this trait of commitment to lifelong improvement and learning from the conductors I think most highly of.

Accept Responsibility. “Assume responsibility for your actions and the action of those you lead. It is about being accountable for actions and outcomes—yours and others.”  This is another great difference I hear in discussions with different conductors.  There are those who tend to blame the situation, the demographics of the singers in their choir, or other factors as compared to other directors and their choirs; and there are those whose groups sound great no matter what the circumstances.

leadership style according to need

I follow Richard Sparks’ blog and enjoy reading about what he does with the high-level university choirs that he directs, but often his ideas aren’t very applicable to the community college choirs that I work with.  I should note that he often acknowledges in his posts that things will work differently depending on the level of your choir.

I was in a non-music meeting where leadership was being discussed that made me think back to this issue of working with choirs differently depending on their level.  The leader of the meeting I was in talked about people in two categories: by how committed they were to action, and by how competent they were.  This led to the following scenarios

High commitment level – low competence: This is often the kind of singer I get at a community college.  They are not required to be there, and they are only there because the love to sing; but many of them have little to no experience.  I imagine this can be true of many young choirs.  This requires a hands-on leadership style with a focus on basic vocal production, music reading, and ensemble skills.

Moderate commitment level – moderate competence: I have seen choirs from the above category migrate to this as they become more skilled, but grow tired of working on the same music for so long.  They would be more excited to learn something new rather than learn how to take the music they’ve spent so long learning past the correct-notes stage.  A successful of this group finds ways to inspire the choir with the vision of what the music could become at a higher level with more detailed work, and then coaches them into more independent musicianship to reach that shared goal.

low commitment level – high competence: I saw this as a graduate student were I sang with, and occasionally got to direct a choir made up mostly of graduate students and upperclassmen in vocal performance and choral conducting.  Many of them, especially those in vocal performance, were only there because singing in the choir was a requirement for their scholarship.  They had amazing voices and musical ability, but some also had egos the size of Texas.  This was a difficult group to lead, and finding a shared vision of excellent musicianship that they would believe in was the only way to move that group beyond barking out the music on auto-pilot.

And then, of course, there is…..

high commitment – high competence: A choir full of such singers is what all choir directors dream about.  It often only happens in highly competitively auditioned groups.  This group more easily engages in a shared vision and is more willing and ready to take responsibility for the music on their own.  I remember the first time I heard Pacific Lutheran University’s Choir of the West, directed by Richard Nance, after moving to Washington.  I found Richard after the concert and complimented him on the exquisite phrasing and expression of the concert.  In typically modest fashion, Richard replied that he couldn’t take the credit for that because that year’s group of students did that on their own and he hadn’t had to work on it with them very much.  I went home and tried to return from envious green to my normal color.  Still working on that.