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The Young Conductor IX - leadership 1

As I mentioned earlier in this series, it's rare that there's a place in any undergraduate music education curriculum, or even MM or DMA curricula in choral conducting on the topic of leadership. This is one of those things that's incredibly important, but rarely taught directly. It may be that your music ed or conducting teacher talks about this informally or in an open choral seminar, but most of us have to pick up ideas about leadership by ourselves.
 
And what do we mean by leadership? Martin Chemers, in his An Integrative Theory of Leadership, says leadership is, "a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task."
 
That is not a bad definition of leading a choir. Ask yourself how your mentors/conductors do (or don't) enlist the support of their choirs towards to common task we have of making music and presenting it to the public. When we discuss leadership, we aren't talking about "management," although our administrative skills are also important. For me, the leader is one who inspires, who gets her choir to achieve beyond the level that they (and perhaps others) thought was possible.
 
Of course, most of what we learn about leadership comes from observing and being part of choirs led by our own conductors/teachers/leaders. This kind of modeling, whether explicit (discussed directly) or implicit (observed by you, perhaps absorbed unconciously), is enormously powerful. This unconcious learning can be positive, but also negative. We all tend to emulate what our mentors do and how they do it, for good or ill. It's possible to pick up good leadership traits from our mentors, but also to absorb traits that might not be so positive.
 
For the young conductor, whether an undergraduate music education student or a graduate student with considerable experience, I believe that thinking about leadership directly is an important factor in your success. Ask yourself what you admire about your mentors or other conductors (All-State/Honor Choirs/Church Choirs/Community Choirs, etc.). What are the characteristics about them that inspire you and other members of the choir? How do they communicate their excitement about the music, the choir, you? Simply put, what makes them an inspiring leader?
 
Talk with your peers about these issues as well. Peer to peer learning is incredibly powerful. I always felt as a graduate student that I learned as much or more from my fellow students as I did from my teachers.
 
And, of course, we also learn from negative models. We've all had conductors who did not inspire. Or you may have a wonderful conductor who has an area or two which is ineffective. Sometimes we make mental notes to ourselves that we'll never do that particular thing when we have our own groups! That's valuable, too.
 
When you make more of what you observe of good models conscious, it allows you to work on particular aspects of leadership on your own. It may even make you aware of negative habits you've picked up from one of your models.
 
If you're already a conductor, ask yourself how you're doing in inspiring your choir to achieve--how are you doing as a leader? An important question!
 
Coming up: reading about leadership. We can learn from many leaders, from business to sports--my recent series on the basketball coach John Wooden is one example, but there are many more.