Imagine that you are running a large company. It is spring, and you are struck down by the flu. You are ill at home, worrying about how your business is doing in your absence, without your guidance. When you return two weeks later, nobody has missed you. Everything is running like clockwork. What does this say about your qualities as a leader? Are you superfluous, or are you actually a genius?
These questions came to mind as I was struggling with a piece I had been asked to compose. It was a beautiful project: different ensembles of students learning to play musical instruments were to perform an end of year climax on the outdoor stage at a festival. I had looked into the different groups of instruments, the levels and the styles and was already working on a daring concept, when I heard that there would be no time to rehearse. None. Everyone was busy, booked up, and they had tests, exam weeks and end of year assignments to hand in. Sight reading was not an option. What was I going to do?
I decided to do something terrifying. I put everyone on stage and started composing. Live, on the spot and in front of the audience. I looked at a musician, inviting them to play a note or a melody and then looked around the group confidently. There was always someone who could add a note, and a nod from me was enough to stop it again and in this way I wove all these threads together into an adventurous new piece. Afterwards, the musicians were elated: “we don’t need any sheet music!” “I’ve never been so alert” “I never thought I could do something like this” “we were amazing”.
This experiment has changed the way I work. When faced with a choir before, my question used to be: how are we going to perform my piece in the best way possible? Now I think: how can we make amazing music together? I would like to challenge every choir to send their conductor away for a week or so with the flu (yoga or quad biking is fine too) and to discover what you can do by yourselves. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to talk conductors out of a job. Coaching, stimulating and inspiring a choir is fascinating, exciting and meaningful work. Rather, I would say that it is so beautiful and challenging that occasionally you have to let go, and go hands free.
PS I would love to hear your views! Do you sometimes step back as a leader? Tell me about your experiences!