Leader as conductor

Many leaders use a musical analogy to describe leadership: the leader is like a conductor. I wonder how many of them have actually been part of an orchestra or a choir member? I have been in HIT management for 30 years and I have sung in church choirs for over 20 years.

When I walk into our weekly choir rehearsal, I am just one of about 50 voices ready to take direction from our leader – an extraordinary young man, Glen Thomas Rideout, who just completed his PhD in Musical Arts in Conducting. Regardless of the job we hold or the day we had, we are there to take direction from him, to listen to one another and to make music.

He has us do some vocal warm ups and then we start right in on sight reading new pieces. He teaches us certain chants by rote – a challenge for someone like me who learned to read music at a very young age and took 8 years of piano lessons. He has us refine phrasing and inflections on pieces we’ve been working on for weeks.

Our first night included sight reading a very familiar Christmas carol in a 4 part arrangement that ended up sounding very little like the carol we all know. It was not pretty. In fact it was humbling! Good thing the Christmas service is almost 4 months away.

Next we learned an African chant by rote…. I didn’t think I could do it when we started since I am so much a sight reader, but I did. He brings out the best in us with various teaching methods.

Then we moved on to a piece we will sing in just a few weeks. We have some refining to do but it sounded surprisingly good at this stage of rehearsal. My opinion, but not necessarily his.

We sang a piece from last year. All of the returning singers had the benefit of our own copies from last year, marked with all our notes about additional rests, breathing, special pronunciation, and inflections.

The rehearsal ended by sight reading a piece with Norwegian words. It was impossible to follow without counting every single beat. By page 3, the 4 sections were no longer on the same measure, so he stopped us and started over.  Norwegian! I’ve sung plenty of Latin and German in my years of choir but this was new to me.

Depending on my day and what I have due the next day, it can be hard to focus and be in the moment when we start rehearsal. After all, I could be at home doing email or prepping for tomorrow’s meetings. But the sheer wonder of the music we create under our music director’s leadership keeps me coming back, committed to another year of church choir.

What I see at rehearsal that can be translated to leadership at work:

  • There are common rules and policies on regular attendance and punctuality that apply to everyone.
  • Everyone has an organized folder or music assigned to them at the start of the year. We can make the specific notations we need to do the best we can.
  • The bar is very high, with the same expectations for each of us.
  • During rehearsal we are expected to focus and bring our best. A line we hear often from him, “bring out your inner music major”.
  • He reminds us to listen to each other to create something greater than any single part – blend our voices as part of the whole.
  • We practice, practice, and practice some more. There are 37 weekly rehearsals in the coming church year and we will sing on 15 occasions. That ratio tells you something.
  • At the end of each weekly rehearsal, we reflect together on the experience – what methods helped us learn and what challenged us.
  • When it’s time to sing at church service, he makes us feel appreciated — only we know what mistakes we made.
  • At the next rehearsal, we reflect on what we did well the previous Sunday and any major mistakes. Always learning and improving.

Glen Thomas Rideout takes us at whatever starting point we are at, brings us into one cohesive group, directs us toward a common goal, and achieves incredible results. Yes, that’s leadership at its best.

8 thoughts on “Leader as conductor

  1. Karen Hollingsworth on said:

    As a leader and a member of the team and in the past a choir member as well – this struck home. Many years in my past a hospital I worked for ran an ad campaign in which every speciality in the hospital was assigned a different insturment in the orchestra. I was then a CV Clinical Specialist and Cardiac Servcies were represented by the kettle drum (which happens to be a favorite of mine). I thought it was particularly effective in demonstrating that we all have roles to play and each single role was important in contributing to the whole experience and outcome. That ad campaign informed my actions and beliefs as a team member and leader that I strive to remember each and every day.

  2. Husnu Kaplan on said:

    Good points to to take away, Sue. Thanks.
    I also want to mention the shared leadership approach which I learned from a dedicated session at UM Management Conference in 2014. Here is a blog article about leadership principles of Orpheus, the conductor-less chamber orchestra:
    Collaborative leadership style may not be suitable for every kind of business but nevertheless it is an interesting model to consider for businesses that need to be more creative and innovative.

  3. Kate Gamble on said:

    Excellent blog, Sue! I have so much respect for people who devote time to perfecting any craft, especially music. It truly is an art. I can’t carry a tune, which makes me appreciate even more those who can! I really like how you express what it’s like both to be a leader, and to be led.

    This line really struck a chord (sorry, I had to!) with me:

    “The sheer wonder of the music we create under our music director’s leadership keeps me coming back committed to another year of church choir.”

    Love it.

    • Sue Schade on said:

      Kate, thanks for the feedback. Just back from this week’s choir rehearsal and great chat afterwards with our music director on leadership styles.

  4. Marian Mueller on said:

    I’m a reed player myself, clarinet and saxophone through college. I’m now a tenor in our church choir. I love harmony of all kinds. There’s nothing like a band that is working in harmony at the right tempo through a difficult patch with a good “Bravo” at the end.

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