Follow Me

“Just follow me,” I said to a choir who would be singing for Evensong at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Minneapolis this past winter.  We were visitors, and I had asked how the choir should process in, so I confidently set off into the nave and up the side aisle as instructed. Halfway back I noted that it was strangely silent behind me.  I glanced quickly over my shoulder and worst fears were realized. The choir had shot straight into the crossing and were already up in the choir stalls. I made an abrupt – yet dignified – turn and joined them, testily whispering as I passed the sopranos that I hoped the choir would follow me better in singing than in processing. The Cathedral’s Dean made his lonely way up the center aisle to begin the service and the choir sang beautifully, so my story has a happy ending, but I would have preferred not to so ably demonstrate the idea that you cannot lead if no one is following.

Errant choirs notwithstanding, within the church we are supposed to think of ourselves as followers.  A noble goal, of course, when we’re talking about following the teachings of Jesus.  In various parts of our lives we’re sometimes called to be a leader though.  Certainly as a parent, in our work places, as part of a community organization, or in a crisis, there are times, no matter how introverted, humble, or inept we think we are, when we will be called to lead.

The mechanics, psychology and effects of leadership are very interesting to me, and considering that part of my work is leading various groups to do something – it isn’t surprising that an article titled “What Do Conductors Do?” would catch my eye. If you’ve never sung or played an instrument under a conductor it would be easy to wonder what’s actually going on up there. All that arm waving, sometimes to the point of histrionics – what does it all mean? What effect does that gesturing really have on the music itself? The article’s author studied the work of esteemed conductor Bernard Haitink in a master class setting, and saw up close just how much effect a great conductor does have on the music.

What Do Conductors Do?

The observation made in the article which was closest to my heart was not about the intellect that a conductor brings to the work – though there’s no denying that a thorough understanding of the music and its history are very important when guiding tens or hundreds of people towards an understanding of what you’re trying to do with a piece of music. For me, it was the role of “dance”, for lack of a better word, involved in conducting. How much can you show with your body language?  Too much talk gets in the way of the “deeply primitive and instinctual” way that a great conductor – or leader of any kind – has in herding a group of people to “breathe, move and feel as one.  It’s a gift:  you’ve either got it or you haven’t,” so states the article’s author.

I’m finally getting to a book that a friend gave me for Christmas, Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting by John Mauceri. Lots of great anecdotes and insights into the personalities and styles of famous conductors. I highly recommend it if you’re at all interested in understanding more about what might be going on up there on stage. In the opening chapter, a brief history of the role of conductors reminds us that it was only as music became more complicated in the mid-19th century, with larger ensembles and more freedom of phrasing and tempo, that orchestral and choral conductors became obligatory. (There’s a big difference between orchestral and choral conductors, by the way, but that’s a subject for another day.)  Before then, simple cues came from someone within the performing ensemble.

Just for fun, in this centenary year celebrating Leonard Bernstein, here is a clip demonstrating a rather unusual conducting technique – something you could only get away with if you are Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic: L.B. “conducting”

Words matter, and I should probably have used a few more in explaining to a choir how to walk into a Cathedral for Evensong… but moving people into new and meaningful directions requires something more than words. Courage of conviction perhaps? Clarity of vision? Walking the walk? I don’t know, but I find the questions and search for answers continually fascinating.


More?  Here is one of my favorite TED talks: Lead like the great conductors

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

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