On Presence

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I recently received an email from Dr Carl Smith, a choral director based in El Paso, discussing among other things ideas from the book Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman. In particular, he was interested in the idea of ‘savoring’, and how that might intersect with the conductorly notion of charisma. He said:

To Seligman, "savoring" is is "...the awareness of pleasure and of the deliberate conscious attention to the experience of pleasure." Perhaps another way to describe the term is "being in the moment."

I have very recently learned (and am STILL learning!) to focus on what is happening right in front of me NOW and enoying the pleasure. In choral rehearsal at with the small church choir I conduct, it means to listen intently with a smile and with positive feedback to myself and the singers. IS THAT A PART OF "CHARISMA?"

My immediate response was: good question.

There’s clearly some connection here - we use the word ‘presence’ to describe both that sense of being fully here and now and that quality of personal magnetism that also gets labelled as ‘charisma’. The idea of authenticity is important too – the idea that the outer social persona is true to the inner experience and belief system.

Tom Carter develops these ideas in depth in his writing and coaching about choral charisma. Tom is in the business of helping choral singers connect more genuinely and meaningfully with the music they perform, with the goal of both enhancing their emotional response to the music and helping them produce much more compelling performances for their audiences. I am sure that he would be most willing to connect the sense of ‘being in the moment’ with charisma.

But I have a hunch that simply identifying this connection might not be terribly helpful for the conductor or singer wishing to be charismatic. As Oliver Burkeman writes about the dilemmas of insomniacs, trying to aim for the condition of being in the moment can be self-defeating, because aiming for a particular state triggers self-monitoring. And the whole point about being ‘present’ is that it is a state of unselfconsciousness – if you are fully in the here-and-now, you have no attention left over to check whether you are fully savouring the moment.

This could be a classic confusion between performance indicators and goals. We notice that charismatic people have the quality of living in the moment, and think therefore that if we can live in the moment ourselves, we will become more charismatic. Whereas it may be that the sense of ‘presence’ is actually a symptom of whatever it is that charismatic people do - such as having a strong sense of core values, and an obsessive commitment to their personal agendas.

Which is not to decry the value of making sure to relish the pleasures of your choir’s sound during rehearsal. I am sure that it is important for both director and singers to look up from their self-appointed tasks of learning and polishing music to notice that they are creating wonderful things. And indeed we will get better value from that experience if we don’t accompany it by checking to see if we’re charismatic yet.

Hi Liz!

How wonderful to read your blog, and to occasionally find you referencing "Choral Charisma." I couldn't be more flattered, as I respect what you do immensely.

RE the question of "being in the moment," and whether or not it would be helpful (for singers and conductors) to identify the connection between "presence" and "charisma," I would suggest the following:

It's my conviction that choral charisma is as you state -- "a strong sense of core values, and an obsessive commitment to their personal agendas." And while "being in the moment" relates, I think it ONLY relates if "the moment" means, "that physical/psychological 'place' where I know what I want, and I have a strong need to get it ... AND it's tied directly to the MEANING of the words and music I'm currently singing."

So, "being in the moment of intense focus on singing well" is hardly ever charismatic, no matter how important it is for the person to sing well. Nor is "being in the moment of trying to look like I'm connected to the emotional content of the song" charismatic -- those two examples are the antithesis of living congruently in the moment.

RE "savoring," I would suggest that it, alone, is not enough to yield consistent charisma. A person savoring the joys of singing is likely to be more engaging than someone trying to sing well, but savoring alone doesn't connect to Meaning or purpose enough to be truly compelling.

That's why I stress the objective, the story, the other, and high stakes when I work with choirs. Those are the elements that create the kind of charisma, presence, and being in the moment that engage both singer and audience.

And the good news is, one doesn't have to be a "charismatic" person to be a charismatic singer -- almost ANYONE can do it, and with relative ease.

The rare exceptions are the people with overwhelming personal issues that leave them constantly afraid to risk vulnerability ... or those with a director who fails to create a safe and supportive environment. Being overwhelming critical and/or perfectionistic is one way for a director to stifle charismatic expression. Shaming, angering, or allowing unsupportive behavior among choir members is another.

Thanks again for your work, and your blog.

Warm regards,


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