October 2011

How to be Charismatic when you're not even there

A lot of the advice you get about how to be charismatic is about presence. It covers things you should do in real time to create an aura of magnetism. Henrik Edberg, for instance, tells us to focus on things that will make other people feel good: smile, be confident, be interested in them. Andrew Leigh's book, meanwhile, counsels us to put energy into making eye contact and to act more deliberately.

Now, a lot of this is good advice for improving our social skills. Confidence, warmth, positivity, fluency are all things that are welcome in social interactions, and are frequently in evidence in people with a charismatic reputation. But they are not the same as charisma. Not all socially confident people come over as charismatic; not all charismatic people are positive or charming.

I can hear your ‘yes, buts’ bubbling up already. You want to tell me about X conductor or Y civil rights leader who had the most remarkable presence. And I believe you. But I would also contend that that aura is not the source of their charismatic power; it is at most a by-product of it. Charisma does not inherently require presence because it can work even when you are absent.

LABBS at Harrogate

Harrogate International Centre: viewed from aboveHarrogate International Centre: viewed from aboveLast weekend saw the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers return to their favourite venue for their annual convention. It was a week earlier than its usual spot in the calendar this year, so it overlapped with the Sweet Adelines International Convention in Houston, where LABBS 2005 and 2009 champions Finesse were making history as the first British quartet to reach an international top-10 placing.

Harold Taylor on Talent and Coordination

taylorcoverI recently re-read Harold Taylor’s short but classic book called The Pianist’s Talent. I last read it in back 1999, before I had either studied Alexander Technique or learned about Taylor from people who know him. (I’ve never actually met him or heard him play, but I have heard his daughter, Marie-Louise, perform and would recommend the experience to anyone who gets the chance.) So it was interesting to re-visit it with all kinds of new perspectives.

Soapbox: Excellence, Inclusion and Repertoire

soapboxIn my posts earlier this year responding to my correspondent interested in “Music for All” I was very restrained in not getting side-tracked onto a question about repertoire and choral ideology that he didn’t ask about directly, but chimed with various questions that used to float about when I was working at Birmingham Conservatoire. This is about how the vexed question of ‘elitism’ versus ‘inclusion’ relates to repertoire.

The stereotypical critique of so-called high-art traditions is that they are elitist, and in a number of different ways. The music was produced for the ruling classes to enjoy; to a significant extent, participation is still limited to those with the means for private education (private music lessons if not a fee-paying school); its beauty and meaning is not necessarily accessible to people who haven’t been introduced to it while young; its culturally privileged position has unreasonably maligned other (popular, commercial, participative, ethnically diverse) forms of music and treated them as less valid.

Workshopping in Lichfield

The Lichfield SingersThe Lichfield Singers

I had a happy and productive afternoon on Saturday with the Lichfield Singers, doing a workshop on the theme of Rethinking Choral Musicianship. One of the benefits of customising these workshops to individual choirs is that not only do they get the workshop time focused on the music they are currently working on, but the things we learn together are also specific to that occasion. I love that sense of knowledge arising from a particular context, and the feeling that we all go home slightly changed from when we arrived after the experience of working together.

Barbershop in Ireland

Note-Orious 8: International silver medallists Note-Orious sing with National silver medallists Note-Orious 4 in the afterglowNote-Orious 8: International silver medallists Note-Orious sing with National silver medallists Note-Orious 4 in the afterglowI spent last weekend in Galway as a judge for the Irish Association of Barbershop Singers’ convention. The association is one of the world’s smallest at around 250 members, but proportionately to the population of Ireland, this is as at least as high a participation rate as in other countries, and the convention sees an impressively high proportion of them attending.

The event punches above its weight in the barbershop calendar. This is because in addition to its national contests for quartets and choruses, it has an international dimension. Many new but ambitious quartets from Europe dip their toes into the water of contest for the first time over there, so people have learned to keep an eye on the Irish Convention for the coming new talent.

What Musicians can Learn from Steve Jobs about Charisma

As my musical charisma project has been developing, I have been making a collection of public figures who provide good case studies for some the processes my research has identified. Steve Jobs was pretty high on the list right from the start, and in the light of his premature passing last week, I’d like to share my notes with you. Most tributes have been about how he changed the way we listen to music; I’d like to suggest that by studying him we can also learn some useful lessons for how we make music.

Conducting Gesture: The Choir as Co-Author

gesture_voice.JPGThe title of this post is a parody of the title of a paper by Jürgen Streeck about how people use gestures in conversation. The substance of his study was to show that gestures are not merely part of the way we broadcast our ideas as we express them to others, but are influenced by the way our interlocutors are responding. If you only look at the person talking, he suggests, you won’t fully understand why they use the gestures they do. The gestures are the result of the listener’s need to comprehend as much as the speaker’s need to communicate.

This thesis has significant implications for conducting pedagogy.

Outsourcing the Faculty of Memory

There was an interesting report on the BBC News site a while back telling of a study that suggests the internet is changing the way people use their memories. Apparently, people are increasingly treating the internet as a kind of external hard drive to store facts rather than keeping them in their own heads.

The study showed this in several ways. It found evidence (a) that when people are faced with difficult questions, they are likely to think of the internet as the place to go to answer them, (b) that people remember facts better if they know they won’t subsequently have access to reference material to remind them, and (c) that people who have the chance to store information on a computer are better at remembering where they stored it than the actual content.

Simultaneity and Coordination

legosquishBack in February when I was coaching NoteOrious, I had one of those penny-drop moments where an idea pops out that you instantly recognise needs some thinking about. In this case it was the sentence: ‘Simultaneous isn’t necessarily the same as well-coordinated’.

We often think of the concept of ensemble in primarily terms of synchronisation. Singing (or playing) at the same time is central to our perception of the ‘tightness’ of a group, and a lack of synchronisation is often the most audible symptom of slightly (or endemically) dysfunctional relationships within the group.

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