Servant leadership – a model for choral direction, or the other way round…?

What comes into your mind when you hear the phrase ‘servant leadership?’ Would you consider a choral director – or any form of music ensemble director – to be a servant? The leader bit makes sense to most people. In fact, it makes sense to most musicians! And moreover, that seems to be even truer for music leaders in the church!

The fact of the matter is that the secular world has begun to recognise that there is such a thing as ‘servant leadership’ but there is plenty of distance between their invoking this concept and an actual grasp of the fact that the concept emerges straight out of the New Testament – the Sermon on the Mount, to be precise. In the very, very long time that has elapsed between my last post and this one – I have been training to be a (classical) choral conductor (amongst several other things). This has, without question been the steepest learning curve that I have ever embarked on as a musician. It has been a truly humbling experience to see how, in a conducting class, at a moment when the singers do fail spectacularly to be musical and botch some very simple music, we were not allowed to put all the blame on them. There was always a way in which we could have kept them on side and prevented them from themselves! And if we were not absolutely clear in gesture, intent, musical direction and technical awareness, we’d know about it…

We learned that the amount of work that goes into becoming a great conductor in the sacred European tradition is, quite frankly, phenomenal. We learnt that authority is earned, not freely given away. We learnt that singers and instrumentalists are looking for the conductor to know the music so well that they can give the best they can and experience the fulfilment of excellent music-making in community. And a conductor who puts being a nice person above being a good conductor may get further than one who is an excellent music leader but not such a good person to know – but that in the end, when the chips are down, an ensemble would rather be led by someone who can do the job.

A conductor is not the servant of people so much – they are the servant of MUSIC itself. And all the other interactions follow from that point.

So – how would this work for people who say that they believe in God, the Author of life, the Creator, the Holy One of Israel  – and the rest? If a conductor or music leader is a servant of the most High God, do they not have an express duty to be the best musician and the best leader of people that they can be?

Certainly within my own denomination, we have much to answer for. Having seen how hard people can and do work to lead others in music-making of real integrity that ultimately glorifies the composers/arrangers and the music leaders and the performers themselves, I find it unacceptable that I can have dedicated my talents to God and desire to conduct and direct to the highest possible standard to the glory of God only to be thwarted by my own church members.I have ranted, raved, raged, fumed, pontificated, and tried all that I can to help those around me who are serious about music that blesses God but who never had a chance to learn the things that I have studied, I have decided that I have gone round in circles for long enough.

This is a new year – 2011 – and a new epoch for me as a professional musician. I may not achieve the levels of genius musicianship that some may achieve, but I am determined to use my own musical gifts for the glory of God, and to be freed from ego and from badly-contrived expectations. I have been dreadfully disappointed by my fellow church musicians inside my own corner of the planet, and it is time to get ready to do something to help push matters to a higher standard. I stand with those church musicians from Bible-believing churches who have declared that they will go through the pain barriers to help bring their congregations to a greater knowledge and experience of God in music. I will serve God in music wherever I find myself.

To be a choral director may just be the highest calling in music, and I hereby would like to encourage all of my fellow Levites who have choral leadership responsibilities to make a pledge to park their egos at the door of their rehearsal and performance venues (not just the church services) and pledge to become servants of God, of music, and of their choir members. No one has to know how hard you are working to be easy and assured and calm in rehearsal. And when you have done your job as a musical leader, you may just find that God has called you to more than musical leadership…

…He may have called you to spiritual leadership – as a music leader in church!

Jesus Christ came to serve. How will we choral directors follow His example?

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