The Lawrence Choral Department, headed by Assistant Professor and Co-Director of Choral Studies Stephen Sieck and Associate Professor and Co-Director of Choral Studies Phillip Swan, has implemented a new system of co-directorship of Concert Choir and Cantala this year.
The co-directorship involves splitting each group’s concert program and rehearsals roughly in half between the two directors, which is a new approach to the commonly practiced hierarchical conductorship of most choral programs. The new approach to directing is described by Swan as a “paradigm shift” and an “example for what can happen in other programs around the country.”
The idea for the new co-directorship was first discussed with the search committee that selected Sieck as the new co-director of choirs in 2010. Between preliminary discussions between Swan and Dean of the Conservatory of Music Brian Pertl, the idea for co-directorship was founded, and 2011 will mark the first year it has been practiced in a collegiate choir nationwide.
“[The department and Pertl] communicated a lot,” said Swan. “I think that because of that communication, we’ve opened up a lot of vision for other ideas with all of our choirs… We’ve looked at the whole program from a broader perspective.”
Traditional directorship, practiced by high school, collegiate, church and other choirs is a hierarchal approach with either one director, or several directors under the leadership of a department head.
“There is an established hierarchy [in these programs],” said Sieck. “The buck stops at the head of the program, and the associate or assistant conductors do their work in service of the head of choirs’ vision.”
“That’s not a bad thing, and it frequently works,” added Sieck, “but it has a very strong potential to weaken the ideas and skills of the other conductors in subordination to the head’s vision, which then often leads to resentment or disinterest or frequent staff changes.”
The co-directorship is also an education model that prepares a student for life as a professional musician. “Although Dr. Sieck and I have similar goals for outcomes in what we want for the choirs,” said Swan, “we have different procedural ways to get there. It’s going to be good for the students to see that there’s more than one way to accomplish the same goal.”
Added Sieck, “It works especially well here because Professor Swan and I come from different musical backgrounds and bring different sets of skills and approaches. We bring different Ideas A and B to the table — but we’re both after the Idea C sound!”
Along with the new system arise questions and concerns, but both directors remain optimistic and positive about the idea.
“It’s tricky to create enough flexibility for each of us to respond in the moment to our perception of the rehearsal process and enough structure for each of us to feel secure in the equal distribution of time and resources, said Sieck. “I think we’ve done that this fall, though if we find at the end of the term that we need to adjust it in one direction or another, we will work that out.”
“We don’t claim to have all the answers, but we think it’s going to be effective and workable,” said Swan. “The collaborative model provides opportunities for not only conductors, but students themselves.”