September 2008

Work with what you have

Managers conduct a symphony orchestra - impressions

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Work with what you have

Managers conduct a symphony orchestra - impressions

by Nancy Chapple - Photos: Nancy Chapple

Together with a small group of managers, I had the opportunity to attend a pilot seminar: "How to conduct an orchestra - Managers conduct a symphony orchestra". Our instructor for two four-hour sessions (Friday afternoon and Saturday morning) was Gernot Schulz, timpanist in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for 30 years, now concentrating exclusively on conducting.

Conducting & Managing

Our reasons for attending and level of preparation varied greatly. One human resources manager from the Berliner Bank wanted to understand how the conducting seminar could be motivational for those she works with. She enjoyed listening to the CDs in the preparation package while driving to work, but found the sheet music overwhelming. Most participants could not read music ("well, only if I take a lot of time and count the lines") — their entry point was aural. A program director from the European School of Management and Technology was looking for methods and metaphors to discuss leadership, a hot topic in his programs, and thus was exploring conducting. He had played violin as a teenager, and has "dreamt of conducting for years, in front of the mirror, in the car …" An eager young management consultant had downloaded "Conducting in 10 Easy Lessons" from YouTube and retrieved the classical CDs from his collection (where they had apparently been languishing), yet still felt uneasy and excited about the seminar itself.

Personally, I had more reasons to be there than I could articulate: trained as a pianist, I've never conducted, and I wanted to experience that charismatic role. In twelve years in management consulting, I knew both good and bad managers; I wondered about connections between my musical roots and my subsequent business experience. I now run a company facilitating decision-making workshops for corporate clients ( — were there links between the roles of facilitator and conductor that I could exploit? As editor-in-chief of this website, I have a forum to present my observations.

An orchestra provides you with direct and immediate feedback: How am I leading? Do you understand where I want to take you? As we learned on Day Two, when we all had the opportunity to wave a baton at the RIAS Jugendorchester, it's not about technique. If you can give a clear, unambiguous signal, the orchestra will respond. A wishy-washy downbeat results in a fuzzy beginning. "An orchestra notices immediately if the conductor is not honest, if he is playing power games," Schulz told us. "In fact, from the moment he says good morning, the orchestra has a feeling for what he can do." A manager rarely has the opportunity to test so directly whether she is communicating the strategic objectives such that everyone understands.

A charismatic, centered personality can lead and inspire even without an in-depth command of the material. Schulz stressed that though a high level of all-round competence is expected, some wonderfully musical conductors were not technically impressive. We discussed whether that applied to managers as well, who cannot master all the details of the topics on which they have to decide — and yet who need to transmit clearly why the strategic decision is necessary.

Conducting & Managing

A test of this principle for the participants was the famous beginning of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: da da da DUM. How do you communicate to the orchestra what tempo you want? How do you get them all to start together? Individual expression by the musicians is not called for. Instead, they respond alertly to clarity of concept and execution. A senior manager from Deutsche Post World Net stood in front of the 50 musicians and told them, "I'm envisaging quite a fast tempo." Schulz said, "The orchestra is no doubt saying to themselves, 'So? What about it?'" The proof is in the doing, in what you get across non-verbally, not in the words you say to them!

An orchestra is unique in the physical closeness it imposes on its members: rehearsal and concert time is spent practically on top of others. You need to breathe together to begin a note at exactly the same moment. And yet your practicing process, your learning process, in fact your personal source of musical inspiration, are highly individualized. How do you as a conductor bring together all those individualists? Instead of them thinking, "No one hears me in the last stand anyway, so it doesn't matter what we do", you want them to say, "I'm part of something huge and exciting!" Company employees needn't work at the same level of physical intimacy, but they do need a shared sense of why they are exerting themselves, what they are working for. Although companies don't usually employ the democratic decision structure that the Philharmonic does, it is essential to create a sense that everyone's contribution is important.

You must be clear about your objective. Once you have a vision, you then need to find the best way to communicate it to others. The first step is the inner certainty. Schulz told us: "I need to win others for my interpretation by working with images. There will always be some members of the orchestra who have a completely different concept of how the piece should be played. I can only hope to convince them of my interpretation over time."

We worked a lot on providing an impulse, on triggering a reaction. The Friday session took place with just Maestro Schulz and a pianist. That intimate beginning was needed to get familiar with holding a baton, communicating with the musicians and (rarely) looking at the score. Schulz said, "I don't just give impulses so people will do something — I give them for a musical reason." Applied to life in a major company, the principle is not to break things down into too many small bits and bytes, but rather to provide the overall framework through clear occasional impulses.

We tested this musically by working on the slow movement of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony: a gently rocking movement between two harmonies in the lower strings creates a tapestry of sound on which the horn spins a long, yearning melody. She does not need four strict beats per measure; unless she is given the freedom to extend notes to increase the musical tension, her line can sound choppy. The task of the conductor — and thus by extension often management — is simply to provide the framework in which the hornist can flourish and express herself. Yet as most of us learned when we conducted the pianist or orchestra in Brahms' Fifth Hungarian Dance: each member of the orchestra will perceive an impulse differently based on their own personal musical experience. Thus it must be so clear that these slight variations form a unified whole! And as the consultant pointed out, unlike when you're at the bar bobbing in rhythm to music played over the speakers, the impulse for the orchestra has to come before the action desired.

We did a couple exercises that were very helpful. On the first day, the twelve of us stood in a circle, and each clapped two beats, building seamlessly on those before us. Interestingly, even in a uniform tempo, it was not equally easy for everyone to know just when to clap. We then tried increasing and decreasing the tempo and the volume, a lesson in listening and being in tune with the others, being part of a lively two-way communication.

Conducting & Managing

With the orchestra, we conducted a scale of one octave. And this provided the most important lesson for me, one I can indeed take on in my work as facilitator: it is crucial to create a frame of reference by communicating with your gestures and your presence where you are beginning. Although I had an inner sense of the tempo I wanted to play the scale in, and though I wanted to try evoking different sounds with varied hand motions — loud or soft, sustained or staccato — our work together didn't mesh because the beginning of the very first note was not crystal clear. And yet that's my job as facilitator: to create clarity across a large and diverse group as quickly as possible simply through the clarity of my vision and my charisma in communicating it to the group. Schulz told us this idea came from the great conductor Sergiu Celibidache, from whom I've now indirectly learned something I can apply in my professional life!

The managers seemed to envy an orchestra's sense of community: a functioning company lives to some extent from competition for a limited budget between departments or functions, from battles to dominate the strategic direction or manage a larger team. They wanted to know if there were hierarchical distinctions within the orchestra itself. And the answer was in fact negative: though each group may at times claim it works harder or is more essential to the whole than others, they are all quite well aware that only if they all contribute will the undertaking work.

Know your resources, and work with what you have! Pragmatically transpose an ideal concept into reality. This was another lesson for managers from working with an orchestra. And what about the range of different ways to deal with mistakes depending on their sources: Is the individual musician or employee doing something "wrong" because they are not able to do better? Because they're in bad shape that day? Or due to real reluctance to commit to that musical interpretation or that strategic direction?

We thought aloud about what orchestral conductors could in turn learn from effective managers. Maestro Schulz suggested that the ability to open up to new markets, in essence to reach out to new audiences, to adapt one's message or product depending on one's target group was an essential message for modern arts management — making one's product accessible to other groups by understanding their needs.

Maestro Schulz and the RIAS Jugendorchester management would be happy to discuss holding similar workshops within or across a mix of companies.