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The disproportionate body of LEADERSHIP

It is late October. The presidential campaign in the America is in full speed. The current boss of the New World is making leadership look like a combination of Borat and Larry David. He is not curbing his enthusiasm but is causing a permanent damage to leadership.

Is it just him or the entire world has shifted to a singular mode. There were times when even the Kings spoke in plural. “We”used to be a big word once upon a time. Surely the leaders of the world should be aiming towards collective benefit rather than individual grandeur. Respectful, carrying and speaking in plural orchestral leaders is what this world needs. And a symphony orchestra for a ruling party.

But what do I know! I am a dreamer.

Let me see what the rational people out there have to say. I am opening my LinkedIn. For the few who do not know what Linked In is, it is the social media of the level headed. For the people who mean business. In Linkedin people do not post their toes on a beach, but instead display their professional achievements. And wisdom.

It has been a while since I have browsed this page. Not that I don’t need to be linked in. I do, but sometimes I wonder if there are any meaningful contributions musicians can make to the world of business?

Ok, let’s have a look. Oh! There are many important people here! A CEO. Another CEO. An Owner and a CEO. An Owner and a President. A Global Chief of Operations. This one is just a President. C’mon, man! You can do better than that! A mere President?? Add something! Next one: Head of Operations. Head of Marketing. Head of The World and President of the Universe. Hm... So many Heads! Where are the legs? Where are the bodies and the arms? The broad shoulders? Who carries the weight of these big heads? It seems that there are no longer people who are not executives. Maybe, the ones who are not that high in the hierarchy never sign up for Linked In. They just hang out on Instagram and waste their precious time dancing rather than climbing the corporate world’s title ladder. Well, it is paradoxical that these days a good corporate position - somewhere around the legs of the company - is not enough. Even the waste line is too low. Turns out we live in a world of ... leaders.

Ah, voila, I am thinking! Here is where the musicians will make a meaningful contribution! We will give a lesson in Leadership and what it really means as we understand how harmony often leads to triumph. And triumph, is where ultimately every Napoleon is heading towards.

Harmony or not, we have hierarchy in music too. In the musical organisation called 'orchestra' there are several figures of importance. Some people think the Capo of the orchestra is the Conductor. Well, visually that is possibly true. However the conductors are often what a very important client is for a company. You have to agree with them and do what they want (or at least pretend you do), but they are not really part of the team.

The most important person in the team is the Leader or the Concertmaster.

The Concertmaster is the first violinist, the person who shakes hands with the Conductor and signs the Peace Treaties.

Further down the line are the Principals of the sections - they are the regional managers. The sectional players who are just the regular employees - busy and often frustrated, and then come the extras - the contractors, who do not have a say in anything.

Just as in every organisation there are many conflicts, love stories, negotiations and agreements which a group of different people inevitably encounters. So that the Leader, the person who is essentially the elected captain of that messy football team, will have to set the tone (quite literally in our case) and lead the band to the final applause.

We asked some of the most prominent orchestral leaders in the world four questions that summarise some of the most difficult aspects a leader faces on a regular basis. Their answers will surely give many of you a good idea how the head relates to the other parts of the body so that there is a successful forward movement.

The questions are:

  1. What is the best and worst part of being a Leader?

  2. How do you deal with “troublemakers”?

  3. What makes a great conductor?

  4. What makes a great team?

And this is what they said:

Kay Stern - Concertmaster of San Francisco Opera

1. Being a leader of an orchestra is, at times, a complicated job. My goal is to best serve the conductor, and all of my colleagues in the orchestra. While I prepare the music for the string sections, I study the score, listen to recordings, consult with the conductor prior to rehearsals, and during breaks etc. Preparing the music is simply a start to the rehearsal process. It shows the notes, I may add various markings that tell us how long or short to play, and the levels of dynamics, which can affect phrase lengths, pacing, etc….  and this is the starting point. The character of the music, what it is trying to express is then held in all of our hands. When the music indicates for us to play “very loud”, we, as a group, hopefully will see from the conductor and me, whether this “loud” music is joyful, angry, triumphant, warm, brittle etc. So, it can be a bit tedious gathering all of the details and changes, the “busy work” while we work together to tell a great operatic story.  My job as leader is to help show what the conductor is trying to draw from us, and if it is not shown, I need to provide leadership for the unity of sound, ensemble and character/drama all across the orchestra. This can be wonderfully satisfying. And, sometimes it involves taking some risks during split-second decision making. 2. Troublemakers??  Ha. Well, when I first became leader of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in 1994, there were some older gentlemen in the orchestra who had some issues because I was a young woman. After a threat or two from them, I was able to stay strong with the support of the Music Director, and from so many of my colleagues who wanted to make our orchestra the finest it could possibly be. Every person is truly important. We can only be as good as the group is willing to be. When we are truly listening to each other it is like a murmuration of birds, the expanse of the sound and nuance is occurring as one, if someone plays a bit too loud or long, they quickly tuck back into the group. And when something isn’t quite so, hopefully the conductor will address it, or I will.  3. A great conductor is someone who listens deeply. In order to shape, pace and mould our sounds, a conductor needs to start with what she hears, learning to understand how each section of the orchestra reacts to her body language, observes what our sound is when we see “dolce” or “loud”written. An artist/conductor can shape the lines and harmonies and balances by sort of editing what she hears… A conductor receives what they give. We are sort of playing the depth or lack of depth of their souls.  Some conductors may come in and “perform”…. then the conductor is just a boss, ignoring or erasing the gifts that all of the musicians of the orchestra can bring..  It is fascinating as a leader, to observe when and how a conductor starts losing the trust of the players. Sometimes minute by minute, sometimes from act to act, or week to week. 4. Good question! In our orchestra, it seems that we are all there to help make everyone sound the best they can. We have a gift with flexibility, listening, and teamwork. As leader, I know what to do because I can hear and see what others are doing. I rely on what I see and hear from each leader of a section. All of us understand each other’s body language, and the emotion and intention in our movements. And, there is intense teamwork going on at all times. For example, if we are playing something that is very thick and loud, and I can’t hear the triplets in the horns from across the pit , I will make sure I am with the leader of the celli or violas because I know that they can hear the horns. There is a great deal of choices for everyone at any moment. As a group we know how those around us will respond, and we sort of work as one big organism. 

Thomas Gould - Soloist and Leader of Britten Sinfonia

1. The best thing about being a Leader is that you get your own dressing room and get to be the last on stage and the first off! The worst thing is that you cannot switch off even for a second, and the consequences of making a counting mistake can be disastrous.

On troublemakers:

I am trying to empathise with people and to see the situation from their point of view. It’s easy to feel overlooked and under-appreciated in a rank-and-file seat, yet it’s the quality of playing here that makes or breaks the string sound, not the ‘hotshots’ at the front.

3. I’ve met so few good conductors. Dedication to their art is obviously very important, high intelligence and people skills, but also that indefinable quality of charisma.

4. Trusting in your colleagues and respecting and liking each other is what makes a great team. And you can’t have individual players thinking that they’re better than the rest. Some things come to us easier than others, but in a great section everyone’s complementary skills add up to a greater whole than the sum of the parts.

Simon Blendis - Leader of London Mozart Players

1. I’ve been leading orchestras now for about 20 years, and I’m often asked what the leader actually does. It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer! In many ways, leading is not a conscious effort – leadership is a quality, more of a character trait than a learned behaviour, and it’s certainly possible to over-think what’s needed when sitting in that chair. Leaders can be many things - different people and different situations make quite different demands on what might be required from the person in that role, but above all the leader should connect, inspire and enable those around him or her to achieve great performances.

In some ways the best and worst things about being the leader are the same thing! There is always a surprising amount of pressure that comes with that seat: being completely on top of the music, playing solos, dealing with issues that spring up both within the first violin section and the orchestra as a whole, acting as a diplomatic channel between the conductor and players, staying calm and unflappable… Sometimes the pressure can be stressful, but it’s also that pressure that provides excitement, provokes the kind of adrenalin rush that makes the job slightly addictive. It’s also fun being at the sharp end of the action, sitting right next to the soloist and right in front of the conductor, interacting and communicating with them both and really making music together.

2. I like to believe that no-one takes a job in music with the intention of causing trouble – we all come to music because we love it, and even after 20 years or 30 years that remains at the heart of why we are there, even if the passion might get a bit jaded over the years. So when someone in the orchestra starts ‘making trouble’ I remind myself that, hopefully, deep down, they just want to enjoy the process of making music together, and I try to imagine what the problem is from their perspective. That usually makes a solution much easier to find. If everyone feels they have a stake in what’s happening, if everyone feels valued and that their contribution matters, that’s an important starting point in collectively creating a great performance together.

3. One of the slightly obscure functions of a leader is to ‘interpret’ the conductor’s gestures for the rest of the orchestra, but this only becomes really necessary when a conductor is not clear, when their beat is difficult to follow. When that happens, the players’ eyes instinctively swivel to the leader’s bow and when that hits the string, that’s when you play! So for me, a great conductor is one who makes that unnecessary for me, whose beat and musicianship is so unambiguous that I don’t even have to think about amplifying my gestures for the rest of the orchestra – I can just be a part of the machine and play with him or her.

Conductors also need to inspire trust in the orchestra – a conductor may have a perfect technique, but if the orchestra doesn’t respect their ideas, then the relationship won’t work. So the conductor needs that magic quality of charisma, that will inspire people to follow their vision and feel excited about working with them. Great musicianship, a flawless technique and charisma – not too much to ask is it?

4. ‘Team spirit’ is a term that often comes up in discussion about sport, but it applies just as importantly to an orchestra. Orchestras need to be happy places, where all the members of the team feel empowered, valued and important to the success of the whole. A good orchestra is like a family, where we all care for each other and look after each other through good times and bad. In a concert, it’s important that all the players, wherever they sit, feel invested in the performance and give 100%. When this happens, it’s a tremendous feeling to be a part of that team, riding the crest of a wave and delivering a memorable and inspiring performance.

Jackie Shave - Leader of Britten Sinfonia

1. There are many positive things that come with the job of leading a group of musicians. For me the best thing is being able to influence and be a conduit for the music. I am also the bridge between conductor and the orchestra. If a conductor isn’t clear it’s my job to be absolutely clear about the speed and articulation of the music. As a leader I am often able to direct the orchestra without a conductor and I love this: to physically shape and demonstrate the intimacy of a phrase or the power of gigantic chord in a Beethoven Symphony for example is utterly thrilling.

2. Dealing with the politics of an orchestra is difficult and not a part of the job that I enjoy. Luckily I haven’t had to deal with too many difficult situations but I think a combination of clarity of aspirations and fairness and demonstrating how much I care for the whole group is very important. For instance there is an inherent hierarchy in an orchestra, where people sit, first or second violin, for example, can be very sensitive issue. This is why I like the rotation system where people be sometimes sitting at the back and sometimes sitting at the front. Not everyone likes this and feel unhappy sitting at the back. So being as inclusive as possible is incredibly important.

3 There are very few great conductors. There are some good ones and many mediocre ones. It becomes clear very quickly how much bacon saving needs to be done from the orchestra. A great conductor puts the music first and not their own ego, can express an inspirational vision that brings us all together and enables the musicians to express the music with confidence. A bad conductor can create a very bad atmosphere and produce anxiety and frustration . It’s the leaders job to make up for this as much as possible by staying calm, putting the music first, and to not let the audience be aware of any of this.....the show goes on and we all smile.

4 A great team needs all the ingredients to be working at their best, for everyone to be on board. The relationship between the office, the orchestral manager ,the fixer and the musicians is very important. An inspirational director in the office with vision helps a lot. Then we need to be able to make music with inspirational people all around us: a member of the woodwind might play a phrase that utterly inspires us or there might be a viola solo and we all are supporting each other. So being relaxed and having confidence in each other and our abilities makes a good team . On stage we need to express a huge range of emotions and be without fear, akin to a Wembley final, so it’s so so important to be part of and feel secure within the team.

John Mills - Leader of John Wilson Orchestra and First Violin of Tippet Quartet

1. I think the best thing is the level of creative involvement. It’s lovely to often be included in the creative process by the conductor or if you’re directing, then it is your job to get the best out of everyone around you.

The worst thing would be bowings! (writing directions for unified bow movement)

2. I’ve been lucky not to have to deal with many! I think most of the time these days there isn’t the time to make trouble as we’re always on such tight schedules and everyone understands that. Most of the time it is just honest questions or concerns. If it does occur then the rehearsal isn’t the place to deal with it. It’s best to shut it down and deal with it afterwards. Confrontations are rarely productive in rehearsals.

3. I think there are different kinds of great conductor. The common denominator though would be a clear vision of what they want to achieve and the ability to communicate it either with the baton or verbally. I’ve seen good technicians who don’t really know what they want, and people who can hardly use a baton who have a fantastic vision of how a piece should be, how we should play and have a great turn of phrase. Those moments when a conductor describes something in a certain way and you can feel the lightbulb switch on for everyone. Ideally they can do it all!

4. For the string section, my opinion has changed on this over the years. I used to think you needed a uniformity of approach from your players so that you don’t need to be asking them to change the way they play all the time to ‘fit’, but I think you actuallly need a bit of variety in section. It’s easy to try and blend ‘down’ all the time in an orchestra when I think what’s needed is to blend ‘up’. If you’ve got great players in lots of seats they’ll know how to play together. It’s important to have strength right through the section. I also like getting suggestions and questions. I’d much rather have a section that gives me good ideas than one that quietly does what it’s told. The main quality you need though is a desire to be there and work towards the same goal, then as a leader, your job is easy.

Peter Hanson - Leader of Orchestra Revolutionaire et Romantique

1.Best is the joy of knowing you had big a part to play in a great orchestral performance.

Worst is the stress of dealing with both conductor and orchestra when things go astray.

2. I hardly ever intervene; because I work in the freelance world, there are no jobs to defend and people usually find their place. If they are not right for a particular position, it usually becomes obvious with time even to them.

3. Someone who is dedicated to music and all the disciplines within.

4. Usually good leadership creates a good team. Choosing the right people is important; people who are strong yet flexible. These people are rare.

So here we are. Head and shoulders, knees and toes. A full body structure of different important parts.

What is the wisdom behind this? Leadership requires more than titles and self-importance. Leadership is not a placebo for fragile self - esteem and control is not happiness.

In fact, the most successful companies in the world are taking an approach in which every member of the team is as important as the most important company client and the results are impressive. Acknowledging the employees in an organisation and listening to what they have to say, greatly increase the chances for world dominance.

Then there, on that utopian island, there will be harmony.

"Being a good listener is absolutely crucial to being a good leader."

Richard Branson


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