Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Orchestra as a Metaphor for Business

Michael Hankinson, formerly Conductor Laureate & Composer-in-Residence - The Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, and Guest Conductor - Cape Town City Ballet & St. Petersburg City Ballet.

The Orchestra as a business
The job of orchestral conductor has sometimes been described as “the last outpost of total dictatorship” - which might have been true for some conductors in the 19th and early 20th century. With the rise of unions and self-governing orchestras it’s certainly not applicable today.

Today's conductor has to fulfill a much wider role in the running of an orchestra, one that is not only musical but often political, financial and managerial as well. With many orchestras running at a loss the financial constraints on programming, choice of soloists and amount of rehearsal time available, all become a key factor in the overall planning of schedules and budgets.

In many orchestras the conductor also holds the post of music director, which means he has overall responsibility for all aspects of the running of the orchestra. The conductor is held responsible for the success both financial and artistic of the work of the orchestra.

The similarities between the role of conductor and of the CEO of any company are thus apparent. In both cases results are everything. Judgment by a board of directors, shareholders and stakeholders can be harsh and swift if these results are not satisfactory. Public support or the lack thereof can lead to the disbandment of an orchestra just as easily as it can lead to the closure of a business.

I am often asked “what does a conductor actually do, and does anybody actually take any notice of him whilst playing?” Well the answer is that most of a conductor's work is done either before rehearsals begin or during the rehearsals. This is when the conductor transmits his ideas and overall vision for the interpretation of the music to the orchestra.

Key to the success of the conductors’ role is the ability to lead, inspire and build a team with a common goal, one that must be clear in the leaders’ head before he begins.
He has the musical score as his map of the journey ahead (the business plan). This may or may not contain detailed information on how he has to carry out his task - or it may require further research and study before he can envisage a successful end result (the product).

Having reached a decision on what he wants the performance to achieve (vision, outcome), he must then communicate this to the musicians who will look to him for leadership.

In order to lead well and achieve the vision, he must win the trust of the musicians. He must show that he has a thorough knowledge of the score, any historical performance practices that need to be considered, the abilities of his players to deliver what he demands (competence, accountability), and an ability to plan his rehearsal sessions in a way that all problems have been addressed and resolved before the actual performance. Sir Thomas Beecham to an orchestral player who had lost his place in the music: "We cannot expect you to be with us all the time, but perhaps you would be good enough to keep in touch now and again."

Time cannot be wasted on unnecessary talking or over - rehearsing sections of music that don’t need attention (focus).

The process of preparing a concert can take anything from three hours to three days – depending on the standard of the orchestra and the difficulty of the repertoire selected. My recent work with a top London orchestra had a schedule that meant I met the orchestra for the first time at 2.30 pm, rehearsed for three hours until 5.30 (with a twenty minute tea break) - and then presented a full concert programme at 7.30pm. All this with three opera soloists, a concert pianist and a full opera chorus – that's pressure!

Head, heart and hands work in unison to meet the challenge.

Teams/ Departments
An orchestra consists of several separate teams called sections. These comprise the strings, the woodwinds, the brass and the percussion with some additional players added such as the harp.

The string section is subdivided into first and second violins – usually about ten players in each sitting in pairs - the violas, the cellos and the doubles basses. A large symphony orchestra will have anything up to 45 string players. (Why the phrase “playing second fiddle” is used as a term of disparagement I don't know, because the first and second violins often have parts of equal importance).

The other sections of the orchestra are more settled in format – usually three trumpets, three trombones, one tuba in the brass section, four French horns (who provide a link between the brass and the woodwind), two each of flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon forming the woodwinds and then percussion consisting of timpani (kettle drums) and various assorted percussion instruments, some playing pitched notes and others just interesting sounds such as the triangle or the cymbals.

The overall authority over the orchestra starts with the conductor followed by the leader of the orchestra, always the first player of the first violins who sits to the conductors' left, and after that each of the other sections has a principal player (each of whom, being more senior, is paid more than the others – sound familiar?). Diverse musicians and roles, contributed talents, shared accountability are needed to achieve the overall purpose. Teamwork between the various sections is essential to success. The parts make up the whole but the whole is greater than the parts.

Here the conductor’s clarity of vision and ability to transmit it to the players is essential. As is his ability to persuade them that his concepts are valid and will bring credit to the orchestra through an outstanding performance. These are the attributes which will determine the success of the performance. Of course, once all the music has been thoroughly rehearsed the orchestra is confident and the conductor will have a lot less to do. By the time of the performance the interpretation will be set and agreed on by all concerned.

During the course of a concert there will be long sections of the music during which it will “look after itself” – that is until a new section or new tempo occurs – then the conductor must take charge and provide the leadership and guidance necessary for a smooth transition. When there is a deviation from the plan or things go wrong, the conductor’s split - second decision making is the difference between success and disaster.

In both rehearsal and performance there is a continual two-way communication between conductor and orchestra. When there is a concerto with a soloist such as a pianist or violinist, then there’s a third variable to be factored into the performance equation. In this case the conductor must lead the orchestra whilst following the soloist, with “give and take” from all three parties. Within limits of course! Of a soprano in a Wagner opera, Sir Thomas Beecham said that her singing reminded him “of a cart coming downhill with the brakes on”.
(In a ballet the conductor must also watch the dancer to provide a supportive musical accompaniment to the movement)

During all this the conductor is monitoring the quality of what is going on around him musically, constantly adjusting to the situation and collecting data from the musicians and the sounds around him and providing rapid feedback to the players.

Conductor Fritz Reiner summoned a cellist to his room after a concert because he had come in at the wrong place - too early. Reiner fired him on the spot.
The cellist begged for his job saying "It was only a tiny mistake".
“It's not the fact that you came in incorrectly” said Reiner, “anybody can do that. No, it's your playing. None of us had ever heard you play before”.

Successful Service Delivery
Passionate and competent leadership, teamwork, preparation and rehearsal, focus and nimbleness during execution result in the delivery of a performance that will inspire and satisfy the audience (the clients).

The similarities between an orchestra and a company go deep.

I wonder:

• How many CEO’s listen with the same degree of attention – to their clients or to their employees - and how many provide the sort of feedback – almost instantaneous, and absolutely clear - that a conductor must provide in order to lead his orchestra successfully?
• How many CEO’s have a totally clear and committed vision for their company that can be communicated to and shared by staff members and clients?
• And how many translate, execute, and consistently put into practice that which is needed to deliver the results necessary for sustainable and profitability?

Michael Hankinson is available to conduct a team-building event for your staff – a half-day spent with an orchestra and an exploration of the deep metaphor associated with ‘the business as orchestra.
Contact info@28vincent.co.za