Several times a year, I co-lead workshops where participants learn to teach and lead songs without the use of paper. Typically, half of the attendees arrive with little or no formal musical training and have never led singing in any setting. Leading others in song feels almost impossible to them. Yet by the end of the two-and-a-half day workshop, all of them have learned to lead songs; even those with no prior musical background can do it well. (They can also learn to improvise and compose songs of their own.) They return home better able to lead their congregations and community choirs in song, and with new confidence in their abilities.
What does it take to lead others in song? A few months ago, I had an insight: for most people the biggest barrier is embarrassment. Many cringe at the sound of their own voice, or at their uncertainty about how to sing and give instructions to others, who are counting on them. That self-conscious emotion makes it very difficult to take risks. And modest risk-taking is exactly what is required.
With this in mind, I give participants a series of charades-like actions on slips of paper, handing them out in a sequence that builds a vocabulary of gesture. Thus, the first workshop participant is given this instruction: “Get everyone to drone on a pitch. Get them to continue. Get them to end.”
The second is given a slightly different instruction: “Get everyone to sing “la la la” together. Get them to continue. Get them to end.”
The third participant has this one: “Get everyone to drone on a pitch. Get them to lower their volume. Get them to continue. Get them to end.”
They must accomplish these tasks entirely through gesture, and in this way the participants spontaneously create a shared set of efficient signals that they can use as song leaders. They are learning how to use eye contact and body movement to invite participation and at key moments, to share authority with the group. All the while, whether they know it or not, they are learning how to overcome their self-consciousness, and finding that their willingness to do so can immediately benefit others around them.
By the time we get to the eighth participant, the instructions have become more complex: “Get one half of the room to drone on a pitch. Get the other half to drone on a different pitch. Get the first half to fade out and end. Get the second half to fade out and end.”
After twenty to thirty minutes of these brief exercises, all that remains is to add actual songs to the mix. And though some of the participants still gulp at the thought of singing a song in front of others, they have by now learned all of the gestures necessary to accomplish that task. We’ve separated the emotional workload of singing a song in front of others, from the cognitive workload of communicating and improvising through gesture. By breaking down the mechanics of leading a group into small tasks, we help them indirectly to master their emotions. Embarrassment is slowly replaced by the cautious exhilaration of hearing people create something together that had not been possible before.
Participants have told us this approach to learning about leadership really helps them. I offer it to anyone training or coaching leaders, regardless of context. Developing leaders means helping them master learning on two tracks. Leaders must develop new skills to expand their repertoire; but they must also master the emotional demands of practicing new roles, skills and behaviors as others are watching (and often depending on) them.
In high-stakes learning environments, my colleagues and I have found that working to master concrete tasks can help even the least confident people to feel more empowered, and to use their new confidence to empower and inspire creativity in others.
A coach, musician, and writer, Jacob Slichter has earned Platinum and Gold records in the US, UK, and Canada and appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and other popular programs. Author of the book So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star, he has contributed to the New York Times and NPR’s Morning Edition and been interviewed on CNN and ABC. He lives in New York, has taught and lectured in numerous settings, and holds a B.A from Harvard College.