So you recently graduated from a top-rated music program, landed your first Artistic Director job, and are eager to take the choral world by storm. What could be more exciting? You are ready for every situation that might come your way. After all, you can accurately perform a Roman numeral analysis on every choral work (even the ones by Igor Stravinsky), talk intelligently about every structure in the larynx, and know how to tune every chord tone of a Maj7(#11) chord to make it lock and ring.
Unfortunately, there are a few classes that haven’t made it into the standard curriculum at music schools that would have come in handy as you realize that being an Artistic Director of a community chorus is so much more than music. Here are a few things that you will soon learn are potentially more important than your conducting pattern:
Fundraising & Development
Even in the best-run organizations, and even with high levels of board and volunteer participation, raising money is always going to fall heavily on the Artistic Director. You must be the public face before, during, and after concerts and events. Every audience member is a patron and potential donor who can make that next big idea possible. Individuals who are inspired by music will always be the biggest arts supporters, so the first step in acting as the development director can be creating a musical product worth supporting. However, another important avenue to be aware of are grants and foundational support. A well-constructed project grant will lead to community buy-in from parties beyond your chorus membership.
Sales and Marketing
An Artistic Director must be a master marketer. Effective use of social media, radio, video/audio recordings, and one-to-one marketing will positively impact audience size, recruitment efforts, individual fundraising, and brand recognition in your community.
Learning How to Herd Cats
Good luck. No matter what age ranges you are leading, directing a chorus requires the impossible ability to control a group of people that are inherently uncontrollable. Managing every aspect of a concert with a group of 20-100 unique personalities while remaining totally calm and collected is a learned skill and takes it out of a person. Don’t believe me? See how much tension you have in your back, shoulders, and throat after your first dress rehearsal! Remain calm and herd on.
Being the “Team Mom”
Leading a chorus is leading PEOPLE. Take a lesson from the team soccer mom who always has an extra snack in her bag, an extra pair of socks when a player forgets theirs, or an extra word of encouragement when a player misses a shot. Singers get dehydrated, have low blood sugar, realize they forget the jacket of their performance uniform when they arrive at the performance call time (speaking from experience with my ADULT ensemble), and will get downtrodden when one of them sings through the rest in measure 37 that you have worked on in every rehearsal since September. Being an Artistic Director requires musical precision, leadership, and preparation for every possible situation mixed with unending grace and encouragement.
Unfortunately, this short list barely scratches the surface of what an Artistic Director is asked to do through the course of a season. At times you will also act as logistics coordinator, recording engineer, live sound technician, personal stylist, conflict resolution mediator, strategic planner, and expert in Board of Directors practices and policies. The key to wearing all these different hats without your neck getting tired is harnessing the time and talents of people surrounding you. Become an expert learner with the ability to lead with authority when necessary but also to follow and absorb knowledge from different sources until YOU become the expert in every area. Some well-timed beverages (caffeinated and non-caffeinated) are also key!
Erik Jacobson is the General Manager of VCM USA, the choral music foundation supporting the work of VOCES8. He directs the Kalamazoo Male Chorus and will soon begin work as the Executive Director of the Michigan School Vocal Music Association. Erik spent time as the Executive Artistic Director of Milwaukee Children's Choir and taught high school choir for five years.