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The Conductor Never Leaves the Choir – A Leadership Allegory

I love to sing. Singing renews my soul on those hard fought days. Singing is my sanity home button. A little Gavin DeGraw at my piano, some Glee in the shower (true confessions – I make no apologies), and my personal favorite, rockin’ with Styx, circa 1980, in my mini-van, with the windows down. You remember Styx, right?…“The best of tiiiiiiiiimes…are when I’m alone with you…”  As an undergrad at Northwestern University, I discovered by divine accident late one night in my dorm hallway that the girl I was chasing (she was running the other direction) also loved to sing. She was humming Styx’s “Too Much Time On My Hands” and I plopped myself right down beside her. Together, we sang every lyric of every track on Styx’s “Paradise Theater” album into the wee hours of the morning. Cupid’s arrow found its mark. Our love for sappy music was not limited to Styx. While walking along Lake Michigan on campus one moonlit evening, we learned that we also shared a penchant for all things Amy Grant. Hot date.

I eventually married that girl, Gwen. Today, Gwen is a college professor of voice and a professional classical singer. During Gwen’s early years as a professor, she conducted a women’s choir. She loved each of the young ladies in that ensemble, and she was committed to being the very best conductor for them and the beautiful music they made. Each summer she buried herself in a mountain of music scores for days at a time in our living room, searching for a “just right” combination of choral pieces that would form the program for the “just right” concert. Her goal was to select music by diverse composers from varying eras and genres, and texts that conveyed an artistic conceptual theme that would uniquely fit the collective voices of her choir.

Gwen KNEW those individual voices, their unique colors, personalities, and timbres. As their leader, she was sensitive and scrupulous when combining the voices into one choir, understanding that the harmonies produced by the collection of those voices could only be as beautiful, as pleasing to the ear, as her own commitment to serving them. She made it her mission to first listen carefully and get to KNOW each individual voice and to ensure that the music and artistic expression capitalized on the unique quality each voice brought to the choir as an ensemble.

Getting the students to sing as one group rather than as 40 different voices required several rehearsals dedicated to learning to communicate by listening to each other carefully, matching pitch and singing in perfect harmony, and breathing together as a unit. In essence, they were building relationships as musicians. As a strategic conductor who had done her research, Gwen understood that voices blend and shine differently depending upon the physical placement of the individual singers within the choir. Before even distributing copies of the music to the choristers, countless rehearsals were filled by Gwen moving singers around like pieces on a chessboard while they sang scales and vocal exercises, and as she carefully listened for the “just right” collective sound that would set her choir apart from all others.

The singers themselves learned to listen and KNOW the individual voices of their choir, understanding that all of the voices needed to be respected, but blended, for the choir to ring true to their artistic message and true to the audience’s heart. Through listening to each other, they were empowered to sing collectively on their own without their conductor waving a baton in front of them. In fact, Gwen could often step down from the podium, walk to the wings of the stage, and the choir would continue to sing with extraordinary purpose and remarkable unity without skipping a beat. The individual members became so skilled at listening to each other, and breathing together, that their leader was not always needed at the podium. BUT, SHE NEVER LEFT THEM. She never strayed from the stage. She remained in close proximity, ready to assist, ready to pick up the baton if needed, ready to provide a leader’s perspective for the choir she served.

Strong family-school partnerships are like choirs. Parents and teachers talking together, and singing together, produce strong parent-teacher partnerships that ultimately benefit children, if their principal is committed to making it so. Parents and teachers may not need the school principal standing on the conductors’ podium at all times waving the baton at them to make sound decisions for the benefit of students. But, the school leader must always be present, in close proximity, ready to assist, ready to pick up the baton if needed, ready to provide a leader’s perspective for the parents and teachers. THE CONDUCTOR NEVER LEAVES HER CHOIR.

What if there is dissonance among the choir of parents and teachers? What if that dissonance stems not from disagreement, but instead grows from parents feeling intimidated by the teachers, or from the teachers feeling intimidated by the principal? Will the whole song fall apart? Should one of the voices in the choir be removed because of this dissonance? Should the conductor be removed from the performance? No. Dissonance propels music forward, and uncomfortable conversations drive communities forward. Dissonance can be a symptom of a healthy community that this growing. Dissonance, if treated properly, should not tear a choir or a school community apart.

Actually, composers intentionally weave dissonant chords into their compositions to create a tension that builds and builds, only to make the inevitable harmonious chord ring triumphantly, sweet to the ear, and a relief to the soul. It is at these moments that even the most skilled of choirs need the conductor the most. Fortunately, she is there, ready to pick up her baton and stand on the podium.

Dissonance in family-school partnerships stemming from unintended feelings of intimidation is never a time to remove a voice from the choir. All voices must always be heard, no matter how messy it may be. And, it is precisely at these times that the school conductor, the principal, is needed to provide context and support, to provide knowledge for empowering the singers, bringing down barriers of perceived intimidation. It is at these times that the conductor-principal must freely pick up the baton and lead his/her singers through the dissonant passage to the harmonious cadence. All voices – parents, teachers, principals – must be free to sing in times of harmony AND in times of dissonance. Singing is athletic, and singing through rough passages with the proper support builds endurance and stamina. Parents and teachers singing together, and building stamina with principal support through the rough passages is paramount for student achievement. Parents and teachers singing together with the principal present. She never leaves the choir.