Ramona M. Wis shares a common trait of leaders in all areas of academia and the arts. “Years ago, I started to really focus on how I could help my students achieve at the highest level,” says Wis, Mimi Rolland Professor in the Fine Arts and professor of music. “I wanted to involve my students, try collaborative rehearsals, ask for their input … instead of me making all the decisions.”
As conductor of the Women’s Chorale, Wis in recent years has devoted her research and writing to exploring the relationship of choral conducting and leadership. The topic has inspired articles, speaking engagements and her 2007 book, titled The Conductor As Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium.
It started when she took an interest in business books written about change and leadership. Wis began to see the parallel, between a CEO and conductor, corporation and ensemble. “At this point I really began to think about leadership and form some ideas that related to my role,” she says.
Her first published article was “The Conductor as Servant-Leader,” which resulted in an invitation to present at a conference of 600 people, none of whom were associated with the fine arts. “I had them rehearse ‘Amazing Grace’ and then we talked about what an ensemble needs to achieve a goal. The point I stressed is that conducting isn’t a dictatorship. The conductor leader is there to help achieve your goals.”
Wis started outlining her book in 2000 with the goal of examining several facets of leadership, from the physicality of a conductor’s motions to the collaborative dialog with her chorale members on how to achieve a successful performance.
“When students feel engaged, they feel respected,” she says. “There’s a freshness and spontaneity to rehearsals when you don’t know what’s going to happen.” Wis may pull out a small ensemble to perform or let someone else conduct while she listens. She stays open to new ideas and fresh approaches.
Wis has had to adapt to the expanding numbers in her ensemble, which began with 14 voices in 1994 and now is 55 strong. This expansion parallels the growth in all areas of the College’s fine arts programs, fueled by new facilities, expanded ensemble opportunities and leadership by Wis and her colleagues to raise the College’s profile in the arts. Just since 2005, the number of majors in art, music and theatre has doubled, from 109 to more than 200.
Wis also lent her leadership skills to the campaign to build the Wentz Concert Hall and Fine Arts Center, as she spoke with campus visitors, interviewed with the media and maintained her enthusiasm for the long-awaited project.
“Years before I began studying leadership I sensed that what life comes down to is using our influence in a positive way, making a change that will document we have been here.”
North Central Now Annual Report 2008