Advice and Observations on Transitioning Choral Leadership

Last time, I posted an account of the many, many choral transitions I’ve witnessed and in which I have participated.  Now, a few thoughts on what worked and what failed.

Of course, I don’t know.  Nobody knows.  Because this isn’t a thing an individual practices and gets good at.  Institutions do it many times over the long term, which is why colleges and churches have procedures in place to be followed by whatever individuals happen to be holding the relevant positions at the time, and I think it’s smart to pay attention to those procedures that have been developed through practice and consideration.  Policies are made not by individuals, but by groups, and shaped over time.  In my experience, the established procedures are definitely worth paying attention to–wisdom of the ages, ya know?  From Jane Eyre: “Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour… If at my convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?”  If you haven’t got established rules and procedures for a transition, find out what other organizations like yours do and set some.

Before the list of my observations, I’d like to mention why it feels like such a big deal.  Singers in choirs connect to conductors, just like band kids tend to worship their band directors.  It’s a team sport where bonding and group identity are part of the reason many of them are in it to begin with.  When the leader of the group leaves, it will hurt.  Professional choirs are different, but then, if there is an avid fan base, it could be the audience who needs transition space rather than the singers–like since Isaiah Shepherd died, Selected Shorts didn’t just throw some replacement on the air.  They have guest hosts–not because the performers need continuity, but because the audience has a connection not just to the content and performers of the organization, but also with the individual who represents it.

That said, there will be plenty of singers who are not emotionally invested in the process, who are going to look at the whole process objectively.  They’ll go with the flow and take what is offered, find the silver lining.  For them, the important thing about a transition is artistic integrity.  A good conductor makes herself unnecessary, so hopefully the person who is leaving has set up the ensemble with skills and strength to maintain themselves even through a gap in leadership.

So, first, administrators: When a conductor leaves, the administration of the organization has to bridge the gap between old and new conductors, organizations I’ve seen succeed do some things in common:

1. If you have the luxury of time, take it.  Hire an interim.  As in a romantic break-up, a rebound relationship buffers the space between serious partners and prepares us to love someone who isn’t the person whom we loved before.   This is built into the college hiring process in some places, and there’s a reason.  I work at a UCC church, where there is a system in place when a minister leaves, the church has an interim for about two years.  (Congregational churches call their own ministers, unlike, for example, Catholic churches where priests are assigned by the higher-ups.)  That’s a more drastic case, of course, since obviously a minister has an even closer relationship with the congregation than a conductor with the choir.  But my point is that a church, where this is a big deal, figured this out and came up with a system to protect congregations from calling a minister on the rebound.  UD and Westminster–the success stories I mentioned in my previous post–both had plenty of time and interim people to transition.  I expect community choirs and church choirs would benefit from the same thing.

2. Hire a conductor to replace a conductor.  Not a pianist.  Not a singer.  Look for training and artistry.  If the conductor who left was not primarily a conductor, hire a conductor anyway.  Someone with training and artistry will be better equipped to deal with the transition–all else being equal, a good conductor will always do better than a bad one.  The high school I burned out of replaced me and the band person with one individual who claimed to be comfortable with both, but who was not expert at either.  The result was a shrinking program and diminished returns.  When I was a kid, my junior high and high school hired first year teachers straight out of undergrad, and those were rough transitions, too.

3. Communicate with the new conductor.  Tell him or her what went on before, what was the repertoire, what were the traditions, how were rehearsals structured, what procedures and logistical elements should be followed in performances, etc.  Westminster has a well documented and highly public performance history, and clearly defined school of thought.  There were plenty of resources for Joe Miller.  Not many ensembles are that thorough, but you’ll have some kind of resource to provide.  Provide it.

4. Give the new person time.  There is going to be resistance to change, and there will be difficulties and awkwardnesses.  People will complain.  Let time pass and be supportive.  It’s not just that the new conductor will prove him- or herself, there’s also science!  Hedonic adaptation and habituation tell us that (eventually) people get comfortable as new things become old things.

Second, new conductors can help themselves:

1. Don’t assume anything.  Ask questions.  Ask about past rep, traditions, rehearsals, performance logistics.  Get facts.  This is the main thing I failed to do with the kid’s choir whose transition I have botched.  My wish for them is that I had found out who my predecessor was and what those rehearsals were like.  I wish someone had given me some background–I wish I had sought it out and not just assumed that everything was like what I already knew–so I could walk in with a better sense of their expectations.  This correlates with #3 of my ideas for administrators, above.  Hopefully with both sides working on communicating, something will come through.

2. Maintain sameness.  Consistency is good. Express your enthusiasm for the traditions and continuity of the past in addition to your vision for a better tomorrow.  Make sure that if people have specific expectations, you at least try to  meet them.  Did I mention: don’t assume anything; ask questions?  If you have perspective that differs widely from that of your predecessor, get the blessing of the administration as you institute changes.  Don’t judge; be open and flexible; and look for them to do likewise.   Take the opportunity to learn something new–that’s how conductors adapt to their ensembles and vice versa.

3. Find out how people felt about your predecessor and believe them.  Their feelings are facts.  They hated him and you can’t see why?  They’re celebrating his departure but you thought he was doing a lot of things right?  Or they loved her and you thought everything she did was trash?  They cry in rehearsal that she is gone, but you saw the videos of their last concert and you know they’re capable of much better if only she had been able to get it out of them?  What you think as an outside observer doesn’t matter.  Their feelings are right, true, and important.  You don’t have to understand, which is good because you probably never will.  And you can’t just be polite.  You have to empathize truly and passionately.  Believe them.  Care.  Then move forward.

4. Give it time.  There is going to be resistance to change, and there will be difficulties and awkwardnesses.  People will complain.  Be flexible and open to feedback, but be resilient; and don’t take it personally.  Keep moving forward  little at a time.

Training and artistry + flexibility, resilience, and persistence + communication


the smoothest possible transition, which will not be perfectly smooth. And that’s okay.

I have learned a lot from transitions and meeting all those interim conductors.  Bumps in the road are very educational and probably build character, etc.  But I definitely think that if the transitions I’ve seen had followed these things, some of the extra-bumpy ones would have been a little easier to navigate.

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One Response to Advice and Observations on Transitioning Choral Leadership

  1. Pingback: Should I Stay or Should I Go? | Helping You Harmonise

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