Visions of New Leadership: Lessons from Five Artistic Director Searches

Several choral music organizations find themselves seeking or transitioning to new artistic leaders at a time when shifting circumstances call on them to consider challenging new directions, not the least of which is the COVID-19 pandemic. In light of these challenges, what are choruses in transition thinking about the kind of leadership they need? How do they manage to find it? How will they and their new artistic directors define and achieve success next season, not to mention seasons beyond?

What does it take to find someone equipped to be the artistic leader of a chorus in the 21st century? Any chorus conducting a search seeks an outstanding musician, of course, not to mention an inspiring team builder, a skilled conductor, an imaginative programmer…the list goes on. Choruses that are looking afresh at their roles in their communities or intensifying efforts toward diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are seeking capable artistic directors who share the vision. And now, in the face of COVID-19, these leaders will be called on to imagine their organization’s future beyond the pandemic.

In light of all that, what’s needed is “an artistic leader with a strong vision and strong values that permeate the musical process,” says Alysia Lee, who is both a consultant and artistic director of Sister Cities Girlchoir, based in Philadelphia and Baltimore. “Your artistic director guides the soul of your organization.”

Conversations with key players in several recent artistic director searches, some of them still ongoing, reveal that identifying the right leader requires clarity about the values of their choruses—whether they relate to artistic excellence, community engagement, DEI, or a combination of all of them. 


Connecting Process to Values

Kara Morrisey has been part of three leadership searches at the Washington Chorus (TWC), but its recent artistic director hire was different, she says, because the process was designed around organizational values—beginning with the writing of the position description. “We really wanted to make our position description, the first thing that we put out, to be an inclusive document,” she says. DEI was the value most important to the chorus and, by extension, the search committee, which Morrissey headed as incoming board director. Guided by Lee, the group captured other values important to the chorus’s community by polling stakeholders to ask what they were hoping for in a new artistic director. “Key words came out of that,” says Morrissey: “conductor, leader, community partner, collaborator, teacher. So from those words, we sort of built our position description.” Lee encourages organizations seeking new leadership to let values and vision be their guide because that strategy “yields employees who are better connected around the most important part of what makes your organization run.”

The Trenton Children’s Chorus (TCC) and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (TMC) took similar approaches. The TCC interviewed alums “to find out what they will carry with them, what makes the organization special,” says executive director Kate Mulligan. The Toronto approach began with a committee that drafted a position profile and then circulated it to choristers, board members, and others “to make sure that we hadn’t forgotten anything and we're putting the emphasis in the right places,” says board director and search committee chair Dick Freeborough. They established that their main focus for the position would be artistic excellence. “This is probably the preeminent choir in Canada and serious business for us,” Freeborough says, “so we have to shoot for the stars.”

Artistic excellence is also the top priority for the Peninsula Women’s Chorus, based in Palo Alto, California. But as an ensemble that specializes in treble repertoire and adventurous programming, the PWC wants someone with a similar calling. “We do have a long history of what we have sung,” says executive director Tricia Baldwin, “and we also want someone who appreciates our sense of community.”

Unusual position requirements have shaped searches for the Bach Choir of Bethlehem and the TCC as well. Beyond someone steeped in Bach and other baroque repertoire, the new artistic director of the 125-year-old Bach Choir will need to be someone ready for a purview that includes three large ensembles: a volunteer choir, a professional orchestra, and a children’s choir, not to mention an extensive educational outreach program. At the TCC, Mulligan notes that in addition to an emphasis on musicality, “there also is a very strong element of youth development because of the population that we serve. We wanted to find somebody that also wanted to work with a lot of at-risk kids and really had a passion for that.”

If the position description you advertise is centered on your goals, the resulting candidate pool will more than likely reflect those efforts, says Lee. Maintain your focus on goals through the interview process, she advises. In preparing for that stage, Baldwin says her team at PWC spent considerable time brainstorming the most important qualities they were seeking—the must-haves vs. the nice-to-haves—and “then we tailored questions to get at what we’re looking for.” It’s not enough to ask whether a candidate holds a particular belief or value, says Lee. “Really, the question is, ‘And what have you done about it?’ If you're an artist living in the 21st century that values something, you should be able to share some examples of some action or a community connection that are really guided by your ideas.”  


Involving the Community

Choruses consult their communities to help them focus their values because honoring community is a value baked into choral culture. The success of any chorus depends on “a grand consensus,” as Lee puts it. So when a hiring decision is made,” she says, “everyone in the stakeholder group should feel like, ‘You know what, I may have really liked Person B, but I see why Person A is the best,’ because all of the criteria are laid out for everyone.”

Freeborough has served on numerous corporate boards, where, in leadership searches, “senior people typically approach senior people.” But his first experience with a nonprofit search—for a new president of the University of Guelph—introduced him to a different model, one that the TMC is applying in its current effort. “In developing the position description, we talked to lots of people. Having choir people on the committee, having outsiders on the committee, and having real music experts on the committee enabled us to get lots of different perspectives and to get to the right place.”

Applying that same approach, the Bach Choir of Bethlehem created a search committee carefully chosen to span the organization’s constituencies, says committee co-chair and board president Hal Black: “from the professional side to the amateur side, from the grizzled veterans who have been around the choir for a long time to relatively young members. And what I have found is that the interplay and the way these various individuals counterbalance each other has been really a wonderful plus to the whole process.”

Once the search committee winnows the candidate list down—first to semifinalists interviewed by phone or video, and then to a handful of finalists invited for in-person visits—singers often come into the picture. The PWC, for instance, plans to have two or three candidates who will lead full rehearsals that will include a song familiar to the chorus and then one or two songs the conductor wants to teach them. “We're hoping in that to see the chemistry between the accompanist and the conductor, the chemistry between the conductor and the chorus,” says Baldwin. After these get-acquainted rehearsals, chorus members sometimes have the chance to rate their experience in a survey—even the kids in Trenton’s intermediate choir. “We wanted them to feel like this was this was going to be their person and they were excited about it,” says Mulligan.

For some choruses, auditions include public performances. The Phoenix Chorale received widespread attention when it promoted its 2018-19 season as a chance for followers to get to know its four artistic director finalists, each of whom led a weekend of concerts in addition to meeting with the board, staff, and community members. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is having its two remaining contenders lead public concerts, one this past February and the other still to come. Freeborough says they are being billed simply as guest conductors, although he is sure many audience members will know there’s more to the story.

That kind of approach has paid off for conductor Eugene Rogers in that “I already feel a sense of connection to the community, which I think is not always typical right away.” Hired in February, Rogers hasn’t yet officially started his new job as artistic director of the Washington Chorus, but he says “I already feel like I have people that I plan to interact with, engage, ask questions. Seeing their commitment to broadening the vision of the organization makes me comfortable with bringing new ideas to the fore immediately.”


Emphasizing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Why should a chorus emphasize DEI in its hiring process? This is Alysia Lee’s answer: “It's not healthy for an organization just to be composed of a bunch of people who talk, think, look, dress, and are alike in so many ways. We know that that does not allow your organization to move forward, to propel itself into the future.”

Aligning themselves with that belief, choruses represented in this story made committed efforts to attract a diverse pool of applicants, perhaps none more so than the Washington Chorus. In addition to networking, “where we posted the job description was a big piece,” says Morrissey. “I think that went a long way in reaching into places where I don't know if the Washington Chorus had searched before.” Along with the likely suspects—Chorus America, ACDA, the Conductor’s Guild, the League of American Orchestras, Musical America, and LinkedIn—TWC promoted its opening via SphinxConnect, the annual convening of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, and Insight into Diversity, which bills itself as “the oldest and largest diversity magazine and website in higher education today.”

The stakeholder survey that guided TWC’s search told Morrissey and her colleagues that they were on the right track. “People kept saying, ‘I want to experience something a little bit different.’ I mean, our world is changing, and we know that choral music and singing together brings us together.” The committee brought in Lee because “she's known as a leader in terms of making diversity, equity, and inclusion an integral part of what you're doing, not just a box that you check.”

“Because of the way our beautiful human minds work, we like to see things that are familiar to us and latch on to them,” Lee says. This tendency, known as “unintentional bias,” became an important takeaway for Morrissey. Through listening to Lee and reading several case studies, Morrissey found new words to call out the inclination we all have toward ideas and people we’ve grown most comfortable with, and the preparation helped her “check my own gut reaction” during interviews. Afterward, she says, the committee used a candidate evaluation rubric based “on our [value-centered] interview questions and not on that sort of gut feeling in the room.”

Of the 80 applications the Washington Chorus received, 40 percent came from identifiably diverse candidates, according to Morrissey. “Our community really has responded so favorably and excitedly about Eugene and about the process that we went through. It was really exciting to see excellent candidates that were also a diverse group of people.”


Hiring Amid COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all of these choruses to make major adjustments in their searches and transition plans. Video conferencing, already fairly common for first-round interviews pre-COVID-19, has become the only option since March. Being forced to use the technology produced an unexpected benefit for the Bach Choir. Black says its geographically dispersed search committee is able to meet more frequently via video, which has allowed the group to gel into a stronger unit. But, like the other choruses still searching, the Bach Choir wants final interviews and auditions to be in person, so the process is on hold. Executive director Bridget George, initially scheduled to retire in December, has agreed to stay on until artistic director Greg Funfgeld’s departure in June 2021. Even though the timetable is unclear, the committee is moving toward the selection of finalists, Black says, but he fears a lengthening crisis will increase the odds that they’ll see some candidates withdraw.

The Peninsula Women’s Chorus had hoped to name a replacement for longtime artistic director Martín Benvenuto in July, following its return from a now-cancelled tour of Spain. Baldwin says she is excited about the candidates she’s meeting via Zoom, but once two or three finalists are chosen, decision-making will have to wait till in-person auditions are possible. Baldwin says the candidates she’s talked to are saying that’s the way they want it too. “It's obviously not in our control, and so I think everybody understands that we're just going to have to wait and see.” After a first round of 12 video interviews, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir named its three finalists last August and held its first in-person audition in February. One candidate dropped out, and the pandemic forced postponement of the third finalist’s audition. “We have a contingency plan that if things open up, we could do something in maybe September or October,” says Freeborough. “And so that's the position we're in today—of waiting and watching when we can reactivate our search program.”


Leading Amid COVID-19

Although no one is certain how long we will have to watch and wait before we can gather in person to sing again, choruses in transition are bound to have an acute perspective on the kind of leadership it will take to get singers back together safely and fulfillingly. Over and over, we hear the challenge of COVID-19 described as unprecedented. If we let the meaning of that adjective sink in, we’re reminded of the magnitude of the challenge and the perhaps unprecedented degree of ingenuity, fortitude, and flexibility it will require of our leaders—especially those just getting to know new organizations.

The crisis also contains an opportunity, says Lee—one that choral leaders can use “to forge new pathways to take the lessons we learned from COVID forward with us. What does that look like in terms of what reenters with us after the crisis, and what do we leave behind?”

While no one considers video conferencing a satisfactory tool for auditioning conductors, these choruses and many others have been using Zoom to rehearse, after a fashion, and just chat with each other. The fact that Rogers will continue in his longstanding role as director of choral activities at the University of Michigan is fortunate for TWC, says Morrissey, “in that I think they'll be also thinking about the forefront of technology and rehearsals, and he might have some things to bring to us that would allow us to do more virtual work together.” When he takes over the chorus on August 1 (a date that has been pushed back once and remains tentative), Rogers says “I want to hear every chorister sing,” which might mean that they audition for him live over Zoom or send him an audio recording “so I can just hear them and get to know them.” As a child, he was taught “you start at home, and then you go out to the world. I think even more than any other time, with COVID-19 we've got to do that. We've got to really connect with our folks at home.”

For rehearsing, Rogers has several scenarios in mind. In one, he imagines running practices with each section of the chorus in separate rooms, connected by a Zoom-like setup. “They wouldn't be singing back to me with their microphones on, but they would still be practicing.” Another would temporarily reconfigure what is now a large symphonic chorus into a “multi-ensemble community of artists” with separate chamber choirs rehearsing on different days and perhaps shifting repertoire and performing in small, presumably safer, concert venues. Rogers cautions that these are not plans set in stone, but he believes “we have to rethink choirs, especially symphonic choirs. It might be a year and a half before we’re back to normal.”

A number of possible scenarios are on the table at the Trenton Children’s Chorus as well. New artistic director Vinroy Brown hasn’t started yet, but Mulligan says planning for a response to the pandemic has them spending a lot more time collaborating than they would have otherwise. Brown is in his mid to late 20s, she points out, “and he has a lot of good ideas about how we can stay connected with the latest apps” and create virtual choir-style videos. Even though the singers won’t be able to gather in person next September, and maybe not at all next school year, Mulligan remains committed to holding regular meetings during the regular rehearsal time twice a week. Since March they’ve been conference calls, accessible to some of the kids only in audio, but in spite of the obstacles, the chorus has been trying out collaborative virtual musicmaking. The chorus is applying for grants that would enable an upgrade to Chromebooks with portable wi-fi hotspots and make it possible to share the technology with families that need it. “We’re learning a lot, and if we have to go to a virtual choir, we’ll be able to do it,” says Mulligan. “It’s not choral singing in the traditional sense, she admits, but “as long as we keep them interested in music, we’re still fulfilling our mission.” Despite the current technical limitations, “we have 80-90 percent of our kids enthusiastically joining,” she notes. “They’re thirsty for a sense of community because they’re feeling very isolated.”

As they advance toward new leadership, these choruses have found success by using their values as a compass—a lesson, perhaps, for navigating through a pandemic. In Alysia Lee’s mind, the value of community feels especially important right now, as we head toward a post-COVID-19 world. “We have to do it together,” she says. And, she adds, the community needs “strong leaders that have a big vision to guide us. We're looking for people who have a deep well of knowledge about music, of course, but also have a deep well of knowledge about the human experience.” In the midst of a pandemic, the leadership changes she sees taking place in the choral field give Lee hope. “It's going to be really exciting for new folks to be stepping into these roles and making shifts and greeting 21st-century audiences with something new. That's what we want to see.”

Don Lee is the managing editor of the Voice, as well as a media producer, editor, writer, and amateur choral singer who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. At NPR in Washington DC, he was the executive producer of Performance Today.