You probably did a double take at the title of this article. One thing? Only one? Surely a great choir leader needs a bundle of skill and talents: leadership, diplomacy, musicianship for a start. Well, yes. There are any number of skills that contribute to your choir leadership, but I want to argue in this article that there’s really only one attribute that you absolutely cannot do without.
The ability to put yourself in the place of another and feel how they feel. As choir leaders, we need it in spades. If we want to lead, we have to inspire trust, and people trust us when they feel that we understand them. That’s empathy – an understanding of another’s experience.
Empathy for our singers
What are people looking for when they come to a choir? It’s not just a place to sing. If they simply wanted to sing, they could do it anywhere and they wouldn’t need anyone else present. So let’s look deeper. What need is being fulfilled when people sing in a choir? It’s the need for connection – to work as a team. When we engage in a shared endeavour, we experience a powerful sense of belonging.
We also need to feel that we are learning and achieving; that our lives have meaning. A choir that stretches us and develops our musicianship can help us to satisfy that need.
Empathy for our audience
When we stand in front of an audience, ready to perform with our choirs, what is the audience expecting of us? What do they need? Some, perhaps many of them will be there to watch a family member or friend who is part of the choir. They might not even be that interested in the content of the performance! They are there to connect with someone they love; to show support and devotion. Others will be there because they get real enjoyment from hearing live music. When we witness a live performance, we become part of it. That performance never happens again exactly as we experience it on that occasion. From that perspective, the audience is part of the collective creative event with the choir. They contribute their attention and applause; the choir contributes the music. It’s an essential trade – imagine how unpleasant it would be to perform to a hostile audience.
So when we perform, we must put ourselves in the place of our audience and really think about what they want and need from the occasion.
Empathy for composers
When we perform music, we are giving voice to someone else’s creative endeavour and emotional journey. What were they trying to say? What emotional message is the music giving and how can we bring that to life?
We don’t need to know the circumstances in which the work was written to access its emotional core (although it can add to the experience) but we do need to take the time to prepare our interpretation of the music with empathy. What is it really about? What human experience is it conveying?
When we employ empathy, we begin to create a wonderful virtuous circle in which our empathy for the music feeds our singers, who in turn are able to access the emotional centre of a piece and convey it to an audience, whose appreciation bolsters the choir.