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Music Directors as Middle Managers: Six Important Skills

The concept of music directors as middle managers highlights the unique challenges and responsibilities these individuals face in music ministry. While often seen primarily as artistic leaders, music directors also navigate complex dynamics similar to those found in corporate management. Understanding this middle management role sheds light on the essential skills required to effectively lead music ministry and achieve meaningful community engagement.

While pursuing my undergraduate degree in business administration majoring in management, I imagined myself climbing the corporate ladder of some large business and meandering through different management positions until reaching the top. I was fascinated by different management theories and considered the many and different ways of motivating people. For the first 15 years of my career, I climbed that ladder, ultimately landing in an upper management position where I learned far more about human nature and motivating people than my college classes ever taught me! Then the unthinkable happened – I was offered a full-time director of music position at the church where I had volunteered for 20 years. Of course, I took the position and said goodbye to my career in management. At least that’s what I thought.

I was super excited to begin my work as music director. I started a traditional choir, expanded the contemporary ensemble, started a cantor ministry – things were moving along smoothly! As the first few months passed, I began noticing something rather profound. As the ministry grew and I worked with more people, I found myself dealing with many of the same issues I had dealt with in my corporate management position. I faced some challenges with communication issues, worked to motivate singers and instrumentalists, even dealt with some conflict between a few people. By the end of my first six months, it had become incredibly clear – as a music director, I had landed right back in a middle manager position. And, whether we realize it or not, that’s exactly what a music director is – a middle manager.

What makes middle management tough

A middle manager’s role is inherently difficult. While they have people who report directly to them, they also report to another higher-level manager. The “buck doesn’t stop with the middle manager – they have plenty of choir members and instrumentalists reporting to them, but they report to the pastor. An organizational chart would place the music director right in the middle, with people above and below them.

This difficult position can become even more difficult when working with volunteers. In the corporate world, a middle manager has leverage with motivating employees, including performance improvement plans and even a demotion or decrease in pay for someone not meeting performance standards. There’s far less leverage with a volunteer, as it’s rather difficult to reduce the pay of a volunteer. That can sometimes make it challenging to set high performance standards.

While it may be challenging, it is certainly possible to set high standards for people proclaiming sung prayer. Remember, we are proclaimers and not performers, and our goal is full, conscious, and active participation by the faithful through our ministry. It is every music director’s responsibility to provide the leadership to achieve that goal as completely as possible. To do that, directors must learn how to manage volunteers effectively.

Six critical skills for music directors as middle managers

Music directors as middle managers fulfill many different roles that require a wide range of skills. Because of the title they wear, it’s clear that music directors are in charge of the music ministry; but leadership and management are not the same. Leadership is about how the entire program operates – decisions about the number of different ministries, rehearsal days and times, communication channels, etc. Management is the full representation of the ministry’s leadership expressed through the music director within their daily/weekly interaction with members. To be effective in their managerial role, music directors need these six important skills.

Training and teaching

The music director’s entire role as the primary educator is filled with training and teaching. Training cantors, accompanists, and other instrumentalists; teaching vocal harmonies or new music to the choir; rehearsing the music selected for an upcoming liturgy – all of these are examples of the director’s role as primary educator, and they are also functions of managing. Directors should be aware of their own teaching styles versus the learning styles required by the members of the ministry. The best directors will alter their own teaching styles to better help their members learn.

Motivating others

Choirs and ensembles that are motivated to learn and improve are a true blessing to their communities. One of the greatest managerial skills of a music director is motivating their ministers. Music directors must learn effective ways of motivating people, which can be tricky when everyone is a volunteer. Still, the best choirs are formed by music directors who become experts at motivating others.

Communicating effectively

Communication is such a natural part of our lives, but it’s also a critical managerial skill. Consider how much of our work during liturgy is non-verbal and requires clear and effective communication without using words. Or think about how the director shares info with the entire ministry, as when a rehearsal is suddenly cancelled. And how many times do directors give directions, from music arrangements to dress code to the order in which music is reviewed – all of which barely scratch the surface as examples of communication. Directors are constantly communicating with their members; as such, they need to develop effective communication skills.

Offering feedback

One specific type of communication that directors use regularly is offering feedback. While directors may not think much about this, many ministry volunteers hunger for positive feedback from their director. At the same time, the feedback required is not always positive, and directors must learn how to deliver negative feedback constructively. Unfortunately, a great deal of toxic positivity exists in church ministry, which hinders authentic growth. The director’s word choices are critical when it comes to offering feedback.

Building relationships

As music directors, we must consider how we build relationships with the volunteers in our ministry. The ability to build relationships is critical to the success of a music ministry. In addition, the environment created within the ministry must allow for healthy relationships to grow amongst members as well. The healthier the relationships within the ministry, the better the music making can be.

Dealing with conflict

This is a big one that affects every group of people, regardless of the type of group. Whenever people are present, some level of conflict is inevitable. However, few people (understandably) actually want to deal with the conflict. Unresolved conflict will destroy any ministry, including music ministry. Gaining the courage and tools to manage conflict can have a tremendous impact on music ministry.

The importance of good management techniques

If studying music to become a music director is the goal, taking a course in management might be a wise decision. Musicians spend countless hours over many years honing their skill of playing an instrument – if they want to excel, they must practice. The same is true when it comes to music directors as middle managers. If a music director wants a successful program and a healthy music ministry, they must invest time into learning the world of managing people.

If the opportunity to take a course in management has passed you by, worry not, for we’ll be providing much more information down the road to help leaders of music programs become more aware of their managerial responsibilities. Good managerial strategies and techniques will help bring out the very best that music ensembles and choirs have to offer!

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Steve Petrunak is a founding board member of CLEF and director of music at St. Blase Catholic Church in Sterling Heights, Michigan. ˆHe has worked in music ministry for more than 40 years and is the co-author of “Managing Music Ministry: Beyond Notes and Chords.”

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