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Creative sandbox

The former headmaster of the Sibelius Academy, Tuomas Auvinen, was interviewed last spring in a national newspaper on leadership in a creative organization. Dr. Auvinen is well qualified for his present consultant role in leadership both through his administrative past and his education in the field. Many of his thoughts felt relevant from a choral-conducting perspective.

His main thesis is that people cannot be creative if they are afraid, or if they feel they are not heard. Thinking back on what has been the norm in the arts world, and especially in music, I am not quite sure this is altogether true. But I am sure it is a necessity in the world we now live in. The world has changed radically, and denying this change is futile. I sense a more acute sensibility to power structures, and especially the misuse of power positions. This discussion is only in its initial phase and I believe it will lead to profound changes in how we view leadership.

Auvinen’s thesis leads to the main responsibility of the leader being the forming of an organisational culture in which everyone feels safe working. All the workers need to know what the values of the organisation are, what their roles are, and how things are done. Auvinen puts it like this: ‘The leader’s job is to create a sandbox into which everyone can safely bring their creativity for the common good.’

At the end of the interview Auvinen lists five tips:

  1. Create values, aims and procedures everyone can commit to
  2. Everyone is a star in their own field
  3. Trust each other
  4. Take responsibility and lead each other
  5. The role of the leader is to set boundaries to avoid anyone burning themselves out

I think all these points are worth considering. I have found that the choirs that discuss their values, aims and procedures openly are stronger and more at ease than the ones that just assume that these are clear to one and all. My suggestion is that you involve everyone in this process, not just the board or leadership group. The process is often more dynamic and it is much easier for everyone to commit to the result if they feel they have been a part of the process.

The better the choir, the easier it is to see point number two. I would love to conduct a choir where every singer is a better singer than I am. It can, at first, feel intimidating working with brilliant singers, but once you remember that your job is to co-ordinate and direct all this skill and you focus on this task, it all falls into place quite naturally. There is also another point here: I believe the conductor must remember to give room to these stars (as Auvinen puts it). Stand aside whenever you can and let them shine. You will get your rewards without being the focal point, perhaps even for the reason that you are not the focal point. The singers often seem to have a need to idolise the conductor, but I suggest it is better not to dwell in that sunshine too often. Turn the light on them. If, at the end of the day, they realize you have taken them to both musical and physical places they would not otherwise have got to, their gratitude and respect will be much deeper than if they admire you as a great pianist / singer / conductor / showperson. Let the real stars shine.

It is surprising how often choral singers do not trust each other. One central element of leadership in a choir is to create a culture of trust. There will always be stronger and weaker individuals, however good the choir is. One thing the singers have in common is that they operate better when they feel trusted and respected. Choral singers tend to be extremely critical of both themselves and their colleagues’ capabilities, even when there is no real reason for it. One way of combatting this is that the leader shows faith in every individual, not just the usual suspects. Whenever you have the chance to praise a non-usual-suspect, do it. Your trust will create trust in the choir.

Auvinen’s fourth point is in many ways a solution to problems in point three. When the best singers take responsibility for not only their own singing, but invest in the skills of their peers, good things happen. I becomes we, and the broader the we, the better. Instead of complaining about the shortcomings of their colleagues, they set about doing everything they can to allow them to improve. One of the most wonderful experiences of this attitude I remember was a session in which the Dale Warland Singers spoke of the way they work. Dale Warland, the conductor, hardly got a word in because the singers were so keen to describe the aims and the methods of the choir. The tenor section leader’s words stuck with me: ‘If we have a technical problem with a passage, it’s not Dale’s problem. We tell him to leave it to us and we work it out quickly during a break.’ Conductors do not need to be afraid of leadership being spread, they should delight in it.

In an amateur choir burnout might feel the least of our worries (excluding the conductor, of course), but I have seen several examples of choir-induced burnout. It can happen in the administration and it can happen to a singer. Perhaps, on a mild scale, it can even happen to the whole choir, if the schedule and / or repertoire is overblown.  One way of avoiding this is to keep changing the rhythm during the season – times that are really hectic should be followed by times when there is more time to concentrate on developing the choir; really tough programs should be followed by something a little easier to digest etc. I also try to remember not to place too much weight on any individual’s shoulders, even when it would be very natural to do so. On hearing about the absence of a really important singer, after a bout of initial panic, I try to remind myself that this is a great opportunity for the non-usual-suspects to step up to the plate. When this happens, even if the result is a little weaker than without the brightest stars, the choir has just taken a big step forward.

One comment on “Creative sandbox

  1. Nina Fogelberg says:

    Important and interesting things, pnce again! Thanks for bringing them up.
    I am especially moved and intrigued by that “me becomes we” thing. Taking with me as I go on…


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