Inspiring Leadership Within Your Choirs
What would you consider the ideal student to teacher ratio to be? 20:1? Maybe 10:1? Even more altruistic…1:1? Dreams aside…now think about the average academic classroom (any subject). How many students are in the class? Now compare that number with your average class size in choir. I would venture to say that your student to teacher ratio far exceeds that of many of your peers. 30:1…50:1…even 80:1?
The common mantra reads: “with great power comes great responsibility.” Maybe it should read, “with many students comes much responsibility (or gray hair).” Let’s face it, the more students, the more grading to do, assessments to take, potential behavior problems to combat, music to order, uniforms to process, emails to write…the list could go on and on. With so many students, you not only have to learn how to wear many hats, you practically have to be Superman or Wonder Woman.
While you may or may not have reached superhero status, there is someone that can help you get there: your students. Many choir directors introduce their students to leadership through semi-democratic processes in hopes of expanding their own presence, finding a better balance, and creating future leaders. We sometimes start off “gung ho,” even having officer meetings to plan at the beginning of the year. When the going gets tough and the kids aren’t around, we go to default mode—do it ourselves.
Thus comes the secret of student leadership: the journey to creating better student leaders begins with examining how to be a better leader yourself. But what is a leader? Simply, a leader is a person or thing that leads. When examined through a more specific lens, it is a guiding or directing head, as of an army, movement, or political group. What is a leader in choral music? The true leader must engage in introspection and continued growth.
There are two types of leadership in choral music. The first is the traditional top-down conductor/ensemble dynamic as “a strong, charismatic, autocratic leader with great skill or knowledge (the conductor) maps out a plan (rehearsal of repertoire to be performed) for the organization (the ensemble) and then sets about making it work. Along the way the leader uses inspiration (motivational talk and incentives) side by side with coercion (sarcasm, punitive extra rehearsals, threats to take away prized chairs) to make sure the job is complete. Almost any means justifies the end of an excellent product (musical performance).”
Wis describes the other leadership style through a more hierarchical structure, “where followers (in our case, ensemble members) take on more responsibility and provide more input into many aspects of operations. The leader functions more as a coordinator of efforts, an expert guide who helps individuals achieve a mutually beneficial goal.”
It seems fair to say that the incorporation of student leaders embraces more of the hierarchical style of leadership; however, there are directors that lead through more of a top-down approach yet still empower student leadership in different ways.
Extend the thinking: How do you define a quality student leader? Someone who gets the job done? Someone you can rely on? Perhaps a “strong leader…with a plan…that sets about making it work,…takes on responsibility, provide[s] input…and achieves mutually beneficial goal[s]? More directly put, the parallels between outstanding leadership from a director and a student are numerous. Once you have a team established, it’s time to begin your journey of creating leaders together, both you and your students.
In determining what you want a leader to look like (both you and your student), you have, in turn, created a plan for leadership focused on the end product. Now, work backward to figure out how to get there. There are numerous prescribed curricula for student leadership, some of which are specific to music. Very few deal specifically with choral music, so transfers are necessary. I have listed a few music-specific curricula at the end of this article and I would highly recommend any of these. With my students, I have found a more eclectic approach to work for me, but any plan is better than no plan. In a typical year, there are 36 weeks of school. Because of testing, schedules, and other conflicts, I have found that 12 meetings throughout the year is a manageable goal. If I’m able to have more, I try to use situational leadership and expand on discussions or units where I feel would most benefit students. A typical 12-week plan in my choral program looks like this:
Week 1 – Intro to Leadership/Why Are We Here?
Week 2 – Creating a Common Mission/Developing Values/Branding the Program
Week 3 – Yearly Goal Setting/Designing an Action Plan
Week 4 – Developing Communication Skills
Week 5 – Refining Communication Skills
Week 6 – Building Trust and Relationships
Week 7 – Servant Leadership/Leading with Heart
Week 8 – Conflict Management
Week 9 – Taking the Next Steps in Leadership
Week 10 – Being a Reliable Leader
Week 11 – Enabling Others/Cooperation
Week 12 – Not the End, Just the Beginning
I will detail the topics in a future post, but I would encourage you to look at the resources below, as they are an invaluable tool to help not recreate the wheel. As you and your students continue to develop as leaders, strive every day to train, teach, delegate, and research. Your program will benefit exponentially.