If you are unfamiliar with the Celtic musical phenomenon that is Transatlantic Sessions then you have been in the dark too long. It’s the collective title for a series of musical productions that began in 1995 as collaborative live performances by various leading folk, bluegrass and country musicians from both sides of the North Atlantic, playing music from Scotland, Ireland, England and North America.
They came together - and still do - under the musical direction of Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas. Initially the idea was to record and film a set of half-hour TV episodes and a form that quickly evolved was the idea of a core house band with different guests at each performance.
The title image shows a typical session stage.
Jerry Douglas and his ubiquitous dobro.
The popularity of the TV productions – and the obvious enjoyment of the performers – soon led to live concerts and these became a fixture of Glasgow’s winter festival Celtic Connections. Tours followed and 2020 saw the seventeenth annual live Transatlantic Sessions concert tour, which follows on from Celtic Connections.
Enough about history! Being at one of these live concerts is a feast of Celtic and fusion music. I’ve been fortunate to be at some of these concerts over the years and this year managed to experience it in the fantastic concert hall that is the Liverpool Philharmonic.
In a recent newsletter I was looking at leadership and expertise. Well the musical expertise on show at any Transatlantic Sessions event is staggering. The talent of the individual musicians who come together for this annual event is astonishing. The audience enjoy some of the world’s greatest musicians and experience an event that explores the very frontiers of Celtic music.
It is all the more amazing when you remember they have had only three days practice as a band, yet there is a flow and connectedness which belies some of the improvisation that is happening as the band immerse themselves in the fun of impromptu detours around a theme.
So what are the leadership lessons from a great night out enjoying some of the finest artists playing one of my favourite musical genres?
Each of the 15 musicians performing could be seen as one of the best in their field – anywhere. They are giants, and yet they seamlessly combine to produce an amazing sound. Calling them a band seems to significantly understate how well they blend together. Jerry Douglas sits in the middle of the stage and might loosely be called the director, but it is clear from watching how they all interact that each musician takes their turn - with no visible cue - to lead. And this is as true for the guest artists as it is for the house band members.
As I sat soaking up the atmosphere I found that I was almost enjoying how they worked together as much as I was appreciating the music. And I realised that this was distributed leadership par excellence. Distributed leadership theory holds that leadership is not held in one person, but is instead ‘distributed’ among multiple individuals, who have the tools and skills to contribute to success.
Sierra Hull, mandolin player extraordinaire
Developing others is another leadership attribute of these events. By my calculations there was an age span of almost five decades on stage. One of the youngest was Sierra Hull, in her late twenties now, but who first appeared on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry at the age of nine! She has been called a child prodigy but what was obvious from her performance was that she was soaking up the opportunity to be playing with some of the leaders in her field. She seemed not only to be studiously watching all the performers but having a ball as well.
Learning can be fun is an oft-used phrase, but for her and other band members it seemed to be central to their participation.
Each musician plays some of their own works with the rest of the band joining in. This is reciprocated across the performance so they are really opening themselves up - a transparency that most leaders would struggle with. There are some new works written for the tour and all have to learn these and bring them to the audience, live for the first time. This is putting your talent and willingness to learn right out into the public domain.
Given the size of the band – 15 – and the associated crew alongside all the other expenses, it seems that this is not being done for the money. My guess is that they earn little for their efforts touring across the UK and on the road for almost two weeks. But the way they interacted with each other and with the audience suggested that this was indeed a labour of love. A vocation, not a job. And perhaps this is the greatest leadership lesson of all.
"Choose a job you love and you will never work another day in your life."
Attributed to Confucius...and many others