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Tiffany Chang conductor 


Here are some of my favorite posts:

What's your mission? - I examined mission statements from 71 U.S. orchestras

Empathy in relationships - we know empathy is hard, and we should also know what it is not

Why don't we talk about it? - how organizations may encourage performers to be advocates

Note: New and existing posts will be hosted at

Below you'll only find archived posts from before June 24, 2021.


Liability of charisma

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 10 June, 2021 at 8:00

When you make decisions or take actions, are they determined by whether they would be deemed acceptable by the leader, teacher, or other authority figure? 


I answered yes numerous times throughout my own conducting training and while watching others teach conducting.


I find it interesting that conductor training usually involves scenarios driven by 1) pleasing the personality that is in the position of authority (the teacher), 2) being attracted to that person's charisma and using it as a lens through which we make decisions, and 3) viewing that person's artistic purpose or interpretation as the one and only. The more famous and established the teacher, the more normalized and motivating are these status drivers. 


Here are two common scenarios:  

      1. When teaching score study, the teacher often gives a play-by-play prescription on how to navigate the score - such as go faster here, conduct in 4 in this bar, and then in 2 the next bar. This is the way it's done; it's the way they were taught themselves by their teachers. There is not often discussion about what led to these decisions or about how to develop one's own interpretation. To defy or question these handed-down interpretations means defying the teacher, their teachers, and tradition. There is no space for rethinking nor discovery. 

      2. When teaching rehearsal techniques, what often happens is the teacher gets on the podium and does a "let me show you how it's done" demonstration by rehearsing the ensemble themselves - doing all the work for the student, while the student is supposed to learn from osmosis. Yes, it is intended as teaching via demonstration, but imitation is no substitute for actual experience. 


The student ends up with copious notes on the page and lots of rehearsal phrases to pull out of their toolbox, but the student lacks the decision-making know-how and practice that would have led them to making those decisions and gaining those rehearsal phrases - therefore, they lack true ownership. 


The understanding of the score becomes quite hollow, and the student often does not have compelling reasons to justify choices -- after all, these were not their choices to begin with. And rehearsal skills are lacking since the student didn't get the actual experience of reacting to circumstances in real-time. The creativity of identifying the problem, failing to solve it, and rethinking solutions are all missing in this process. Instead, what they simply have are out-of-context comments to throw at musicians.


I have seen these strategies celebrated as the norm, especially in professional training programs, and I remain unconvinced that these methods result in the most self-sufficient, fulfilled artists.

The scenarios above result in a kind of learning based on 1) passing information from teacher to student and 2) valuing a teacher's charisma and personality as the driver for decisions and actions.


It's much easier to say, "Tell me what I need to know, how I could fix this problem, or what I need to do to make myself credible," than to say, "I'm going to try and solve this problem or answer this complex question on my own." 


Examining the information on the score as clues to be pieced together takes effort. Making mistakes and discovering alternative solutions in rehearsals take time. But both result in a sense of purpose and ownership. We might miss a clue, fail at making sense, or make ineffective choices, but every step of the way hones and solidifies the responsibility of ownership, integrity of thought, and personal purpose. With their own sense of responsibility, integrity, and purpose, they can act with confidence, conviction, and (well) purpose. There is no desperate attempt to see things through the lens of someone in the position of authority or to gain approval from those higher up in status.

When we are conditioned to value personality and charisma for why we make decisions, we should be careful of its liability. 


Author Jim Collins talks about the "liability of charisma." He explains that charismatic leaders lead the group to focus on the facts through the lens of the leader, which may prevent the group from seeing the "brutal facts" (Collins' term) as they truly are. Non-charismatic leaders help the group focus on the facts as they are perceived by the outside world. In the latter case, there is more objective clarity for the group to make sound decisions.


In addition, the liabilities of charisma include 1) people doing things to please the leader and not to serve the purpose of the organization, 2) everyone allowing the leader to be the only person with ideas, and 3) the organization becoming too dependent on the leader and wouldn't know what to do when the leader leaves.


Collins states, "A company's long-term health requires a leader who can infuse the company with its own sense of purpose, instead of his or hers, and who can translate that purpose into action through mechanisms, not force of personality."

In the field of music, we often worship those in authority, especially those who have strong charisma. They define our rights and wrongs. They tell us what to think. They impose their sense of purpose onto us, sometimes even in a well-meaning manner. 


Considering that we may be victims to the liabilities of charisma, we can ask ourselves: 


      • Are we making decisions to please the leader?

      • Do we feel internal conviction about why we are doing something?

      • When's the last time we had an idea of our own? And shared it with the leader or someone else in the organization?

      • If the leader were to leave, would we have the same sense of purpose?


Thinking about the answer to these questions may reveal that we are indeed victims of the liabilities of charisma.

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