Creating a Charismatic Encounter: LABBS Directors Weekend, Part 2

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Cause and Crisis

My last blog post for 2014 was about Facing Our Demons, which was eventually what became the central theme for the LABBS Directors Weekend in July. Looking back at it reminds me of how daunted I felt about putting that weekend together - it was the biggest and scariest thing in my Too-Hard Tray at that point.

Now, I’m not saying that the thought process behind making this the theme for the weekend was, ‘Well if I’m going to be terrified out of my wits I’m going to make sure that everyone else is too’ - though that thought did pass through my head at more than one point. But there was a definite and deliberate sense that I wanted everyone to extend themselves: to stretch beyond their comfort zone, to expand their boundaries. And that included both delegates and faculty.

At an educational level, this was to make sure people didn’t waste the weekend practising what they’re already good at. But at an emotional level, it was also about ignition. I wanted people to go home feeling so lit up by the experience that they felt the glow in their rehearsals for months after, if not years.

Too early to tell if that’s happened yet of course, but I was drawing on my memory of the intensity of two of my own learning experiences, one led by Bill Rashleigh in 1998, the other by Steve Hall in 2000 or 2001, and how I can still feel the resonance of how those events changed me. So I know it’s possible.

Key to both those experiences was a sense of a raised emotional temperature. The stakes were high as the participants put themselves on the line. You couldn’t just coast through the activities; they were structured so you had no real option but to rise to the challenge.

The theory of charisma gives us a means to achieve this in the dyad of Cause and Crisis. The cause is the sense of abstract or moral good that will motivate people, a promise at a level of principle that people can believe in: justice, self-determination, pride. The crisis is the threat to that cause that motivates people to act now. You only get out to campaign for justice if you feel justice is not currently been done.

Both Cause and Crisis were articulated in the delegate packs that went out a month ahead of the event. The cause wasn’t quite labelled as such, but it was placed so prominently that it could not be mistaken:

Purpose of the weekend
The purpose of the event is ultimately to deliver better performances by LABBS choruses to their audiences. Developing current and future chorus directors is the most efficient way to achieve this, since these are the people who have the greatest influence on our choruses’ achievements.

This was deliberately framed so as to say, ‘It’s not about you, dear directors; it’s not even about your singers. It’s about the people out there in the world to whom your choruses sing.’ This framing was intended both to hold up a desirable end (who doesn’t want their chorus to produce better performances?) and to turn people’s attention outwards away from themselves and towards the difference they can make in the world.

The crisis was articulated through a core class that all delegates took over the weekend:

Facing Your Demons
As Walt Kelly, creator of the comic strip “Pogo” famously wrote, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” The demons we face as directors are our own and unique to us. These personal impediments to success range from breaches in our skill set to the far more difficult to conquer psychological blockades we have built for ourselves since childhood. This session will fix everything. (OK, it probably won't really fix everything, but it'll help.)

I asked Jim Henry to take these sessions; I gave him the class title, but asked him to develop the description.

The Crisis thus framed us, the directors, as the threat to the Cause of better performances. It is our inability or unwillingness to deal with our own lacks that holds our choruses back. So, straight to the jugular there, really.

And the reason I asked Jim to take these classes was in order to raise the stakes. As the hero-figure guest educator, everyone would be more invested in his classes than anything presented by the rest of us. And if he was taking the class, that showed it was really important. Also, it has to be said, I thought it would be easier for people to share their fears with someone from outside, whom they wouldn’t have to keep facing after they had confessed. I knew they would be able to trust him, too; the celebrity effect is sometimes misleading, but Jim’s reputation is rooted in his personal integrity and sincerity as much as in his vocal and musical prowess.

The Facing Our Demons theme also lay behind the task I set for everyone to learn not just their usual part for the song we were to sing as a delegate chorus, but also the part they would find most challenging. This had a specific musical/educational rationale (it is good to live the music from a different perspective from your usual one), but it was also a metaphor for the general theme. We couldn’t know as we prepared what each individual had been grappling with in their development as a director, but we could give everyone the experience of taking on something they’d find more challenging than usual together.

And the moment during the Friday evening plenary session when, after working the delegate chorus on their original parts for getting on an hour, Jim switched them over mid-song was quite magical. There was a moment of wobble, and then the sound cleared. And not only did it clear, but the qualities he had been developing in the sound over the previous hour persisted into the new parts.

I know quite a lot of people had been mildly to moderately daunted by this particular challenge, and by tackling it head-on in our first plenary session, we established the principle that we could all stretch ourselves and succeed. My hope was that that would give everyone courage to embrace the challenges that awaited during the rest of the weekend. And there was certainly no shortage of gumption and straight-in-there-ness over the days that followed.

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