Leadership in music

Life as choir director and conductor


This is not going to be the usual kind of post on project management or on leadership. I don’t run a company or manage projects worth many dollars. What I do lead and manage, though, I consider far more valuable. I lead a community choir.

Ottawa Celtic Choir

Are you curious? Okay. Let me explain some things.


I established a small community choir in 2008 and since then have been directing it, organizing all concerts and other events, and even arranging a lot of the music we sing. Some older and more established choirs have hired directors, while the choir itself is managed by a committee. Not so for little choirs like mine. Every concert we put on, every recording we make, every tour we go on, it’s all project management, and it’s all my responsibility as the director. I handle all the finances and make sure we have insurance, wrangle with venues and contractors, do all Public Relations and marketing for performances, maintain and update the choir’s online presence (website, YouTube account, Facebook page, etc.), seek out performance opportunities, book venues as well as sound and lighting when needed, and network with other choirs and directors in Canada and internationally to bring up the profile of the choir. I organize travel for the choir members when we perform out of town. I teach all the songs in rehearsal and make sure that the choir members have all the resources they need to practice, so that we can be successful.


 All like a business


Starting to sound familiar? It should. It’s a lot like starting a small business, isn’t it? As the entrepreneur, you come up with a great idea for a product or service, and then you need to put all the infrastructure in place to make sure the idea is a success in the marketplace. That means thinking about finances, marketing, patents and trademarks, insurance, etc. You need to think about manufacturing, packaging and distribution, as well as seeking new markets and looking for novel ways to get your product or service known. In this increasingly connected and global world, you function on different platforms, from online to meatspace. You are always looking for new opportunities, and as you build your brand, people join you in your endeavour to help you be more successful. Now you need to look after them too, bringing Human Resources considerations into the mix.


The need for leadership skills

Your goal, like mine, is to grow your business, to see it flourish and be successful. Maybe, like me, you need people’s cooperation to ensure that it is successful. Unlike me, however, you can probably fire an employee, or at least put the fear of God into them if they get out of line. That’s what bosses are expected do, right?


I can’t do that. The folks that join my choir do so for lots of reasons: because they love the style of music we perform, because they want some time for themselves to do something they enjoy, or because they enjoy the social aspect of the group. They don’t get paid; if I start yelling or intimidating them, most will just leave. Those that stay will be negatively affected by the experience, and their performance will suffer. And the more their performance suffers, the less motivated they will be to put the work in to make the whole endeavour successful.


So when things go off the rails, I need strategies to get people back on track and cooperating. Here is where leadership really becomes important, in my view, and I’ve been very lucky to have been inspired by some people I consider to be great leaders in my life. From them I have learned some successful strategies that I want to share with you.


Never blame, or point fingers. Just redirect the effort.

Your folks are trying hard, but maybe they aren’t getting it right. When this happens, I’ve watched many conductors (and bosses) lose their temper and start yelling, throwing pencils at people, and belittling people in front of the group. It might be cathartic for the conductor or the boss to indulge in their temper, but it’s deadly for the group morale. The best and most effective conductor I have ever met never lost his temper, never raised his voice, even when the ensemble was acting up and not performing to standard. He simply redirected the effort. He would say, “Okay, try it this way now”. Invariably, we would try it again and the results would be amazing. No-one felt belittled or singled out, but everyone understood what hadn’t worked.


Never take the spotlight. Always give credit to your people, even if you feel that it was you that did the heavy lifting.

Leading a group is hard work, let’s face it. And you might feel that you deserve recognition for your efforts. You know what, you probably do. But from other people’s perspective, you’re not doing it all alone, especially if you have a group of people responding to your every movement and instruction. In fact, if you’re a conductor, you have your back to the audience, while your choir is facing forward! In the wake of a successful performance, people are riding an adrenaline high, and are proud of what they’ve just accomplished. Setting your own adrenaline and ego aside in that moment and acknowledging their work goes a long way towards building trust and morale. And it makes you look good too!


Look for the silver lining, even if the effort wasn’t up to your standards.

Sometimes, the effort isn’t up to scratch, is it? We’ve all lived a disappointing result. The temptation is always to turn to blame, to find someone or something to point the finger at to deflect criticism away from ourselves. But blame isn’t productive at any time. And in a volunteer organization like the one I run, people don’t even want to hear how disappointed you are, either in the result, in them or in yourself. The truth is, they’re just as disappointed in themselves and in the result. The best way forward is to focus on what benefits the result gives you, in the most positive terms possible. Maybe it’s knowing something you didn’t know before. Or discovering a strength you didn’t know you had. Or in the case of one performance my choir undertook, a way forward to getting a better result from the choir.


Offer stretch goals.

No matter what the endeavour is, most people like to feel like they are progressing, learning, growing. If they feel they are progressing, they are more engaged and more likely to contribute. Offering a group opportunities to progress and grow as a group is one of the big responsibilities of a leader. As a leader, it’s necessary to find goals that push the group, but not so much that the desired result is unachievable. Finding just such a goal is one of the creative pleasures of the leader, and one I relish each year as I plan for the coming season.

You’re probably saying right now that you have someone in your group who isn’t performing, who doesn’t deserve a stretch goal until they can prove that they can meet the standard. But I’m suggesting looking at the situation another way. That person might not believe in themselves, and they need to know that someone does believe in them. I’ve had people show up at my choir not able to carry a note in a bucket. I never made any comment about it, but encouraged them to take part, to sing, to stretch themselves, to get better. And they did, and now they sing well and with confidence.


Keep the mood positive.

This one is one I am still learning, to be honest. But here’s what I am learning: groups work better together when the mood is positive. For singers in particular, the muscles you use to smile and laugh are the ones you use to sing. So keeping things positive is important for a good result with a choir.

I’m finding the same thing at work; if the mood in the office is positive, people are much more productive than if the mood is negative.

A lot of what determines the mood in an organization is the leader and the extent to which he or she cultivates that mood. The more people see a reason to be optimistic about their work situation, the more productive they will be and the more the morale in the office improves. It’s every bit as much an upward spiral as a negative mood is a downward one.

What if the situation is dire, you say. What if there’s no reason to stay positive? Don’t people deserve to be told the truth? Sure they do. But it’s all in how you frame things. Give people a reason to see the positive side, even if the situation isn’t a good one. Put forward a plan to solve the problem, and ask for their cooperation in setting the plan in motion. Keep people informed, and feeling like they are part of a team, and you have begun the first steps in the upward spiral towards success.



Ellen MacIsaac is the founder and director of the Ottawa Celtic Choir.



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