“I realized that my job is to awaken possibility in others.”

Leading From Any Chair

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BEN: A conductor can easily be seduced by the public’s extraordinary attention to his  unique offering and come to believe that he is personally superior. The near-mythical  maestro Herbert von Karajan was reputed to have jumped into a taxi outside the opera house and shouted to the driver, “Hurry, hurry!” “Very good sir,” said the driver, “Where to?” “It doesn’t matter –” said von Karajan impatiently, “they need me  everywhere!”

Orchestral players will forgive a great conductor — one who has a far-reaching  artistic vision — many personal transgressions in facilitation of the all important  performance, much the way a family will administer to the extraordinary needs of a  woman giving birth. Yet in the music business, as in all walks of life, a leader who  feels he is superior is likely to suppress the voices of the very people on whom he must  rely to deliver his vision alive and kicking. 

The conductor, a magical figure for the audience, enjoys a leadership mystique  of significant magnitude. It may seem strange to the orchestral musician that the  corporate world would be interested in hearing a conductor’s views on leadership, or  that the metaphor of the orchestra is so frequently used in the literature of leadership,  because in fact, the profession of conductor is one of the last true bastions of  totalitarianism in the civilized world!  

There is a famous tale of Toscanini, the great Italian maestro, whose temper and  blatantly autocratic ways — as much as his transcendent musicianship –- were the stuff  of legend. It is said that once in the middle of a rehearsal, in a fit of anger, he fired a  longstanding member of the double bass section, who now had to return home to tell his  wife that he was out of a job. As the bass player packed up his instrument, he  mentioned a few things that he had hitherto kept to himself, and as he left the hall for  the final time, he shouted at Toscanini, “You are a no good son-of-a-bitch!” So  oblivious was Toscanini to the notion that a player would dare to challenge his authority,  that he roared back: “It is too late to apologize!”

We find much less of the kind of domination of the orchestra by the conductor  in this day and age than was widespread, if not the norm, fifty years ago. But vanity  and tyranny are not uncommon in the music world even in these enlightened times, and  the picture of orchestral musicians as infantile and submissive, caught between willful  conductors, insensitive management, and hyper-vigilant unions, is not as rare as one  would hope. Perhaps that is part of the reason why a recent study of various professions  revealed that orchestral players, while not the most disaffected in the survey, experience  a job satisfaction level just below that of prison guards. 

I had been conducting for nearly twenty years when it suddenly dawned on me  that the conductor of an orchestra does not actually make a sound. His picture may  appear on the front of the CD box in various dramatic poses, but his actual power  derives from his ability to make other people powerful. I began to ask myself questions  like “What makes a group lively and engaged?” instead of “How good am I?” So  palpable was the difference in my approach to conducting as a result of this “silent  conductor” insight, that players in the orchestra started asking me, “What happened to  you?” Before that my main concern had been whether my interpretation was being  appreciated by the audience, and also, if the truth were known, whether the critics liked  it, because if they did it might lead to other opportunities and greater success. In order  to realize my interpretation of the work in question, it seemed all I had to do was to gain  sway over the players, teach them my interpretation and make them fulfill my musical  will. Now, in the light of my “discovery,” I began to shift my attention to how  effective I was at enabling the musicians to play each phrase as beautifully as they were  capable. This concern had rarely surfaced when my position appeared to give me  absolute power and I had cast the players as mere instruments of my will. 

But how, actually, could I know what the players were feeling about my  effectiveness in releasing their power? Certainly I could tell a lot by looking into their  eyes — the eyes never lie, after all – and to their posture, their whole demeanor, and I  could ask myself, “are they engaged?” But at some point, I found I wanted more  information, and more relationship. Our eyes meeting across a crowded room was  simply not enough; I wanted to hear what they had to say. It was completely  impractical to attempt to be on speaking terms with a hundred players at every rehearsal  however, and anyway, there was no precedent for it. Traditionally, all verbal  communication in an orchestral rehearsal is directed from the podium to the players and  almost never the other way around. Any communication back to the conductor is  through a few leading players, especially the concert master, and then almost invariably in the form of a question, usually preceded by a semi-diffident, often secretly mocking,  “Maestro.” 

“Virtually every communication from the musicians to a conductor in a  rehearsal is phrased as a question, even when it is really a statement of fact or belief,”  wrote Seymour and Robert Levine in an article in Harmony Magazine. “One of us once  heard the principal clarinetist of a major American orchestra ask the conductor whether  he wanted the notes with dots over them ‘short, or like the brass were playing them?’  (A dot over a note indicates that it is to be played short.) This rather complex statement, masquerading as a question, conveyed both the musicians’ lack of respect for the brass players in question, and scorn for the conductor’s failure to notice the problem. But to fit the myth of the omniscient conductor, the comment had to be phrased as a question,  for how could a musician possibly inform an omniscient being? The myth dictates that a  musician can only tap into that well of knowledge, not add to it.”  

One time, as we were rehearsing Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, I made a seemingly  routine apology to the players of the Philharmonia Orchestra of London. You see, I had  shouted out after one passage “Cowbells, you didn’t come in!” A few minutes later I  realized that the cowbells weren’t supposed to play at that moment, so I called out to the  percussion section, “I’m so sorry, I was wrong about that entrance. I realize you don’t  play there.” After the rehearsal, I was amazed that no less than three musicians came to me separately and in private to say that they couldn’t remember the last time they had  heard a conductor admit his own mistake. One player commented on how dispiriting it  is for players when a conductor, as often happens, gets angry and blames the orchestra  when he himself made the mistake, in the vain hope that nobody will have noticed.  Many corporate heads and managers I have spoken to have since let me know that the  orchestra is not the only hierarchical setting where this dynamic occurs.  

With the intention of providing a conduit for orchestra members to be heard, I  initiated a practice of putting a blank sheet of paper on every stand in each rehearsal,  and also in each class. The players are invited to note down any observation or coaching  for me that might enable me to empower them to play the music more beautifully. At first I braced myself for criticism, but surprisingly the responses on “the white sheets,”  as they have come to be called, virtually never appeared in that form.  

Initially, out of habit, players confined their remarks to practical issues, such as  the agreement between the parts and the score. Gradually, when they trusted that I was  genuinely interested in what they had to say, they began to support me, not by  bolstering my authority, nor my ego, but by giving recognition to my role as an  essential conduit for the full realization of the possibility of the music. Now that the  “white sheet” practice is familiar and accepted with all the orchestras that I regularly  conduct, the comments, which are usually signed to facilitate further discussion, are  most often practical ones about my conducting or about the interpretation of the music. 

Musicians do not hesitate to ask me, for instance, to conduct a certain passage in two  rather than in four, so they can better fulfill the sense of the musical line.   

Frequently I receive comments that are deeply insightful about the interpretation,  comments that I almost always take on board and that affect the performance. An  orchestra of a hundred musicians will invariably contain great artists, some with an  intimate or specialized knowledge of the work being performed, others with insight  about the tempo or structure or relationships within the piece, a subject about which no  one has ever asked them to communicate. 

Whenever I take on an idea from a member of the orchestra, I always try to  make some eye-contact with them at the moment the passage is played, sometimes  several times during the rehearsals and even at the concert. Magically, that moment  becomes their moment. “You did my crescendo!” said a cellist with a mixture of  disbelief, pride and delight after the concert, when she had written on her white sheet  only that morning at the dress rehearsal that we weren’t doing justice to one of  Bruckner’s majestic climaxes. 

One of the most supremely gifted and accomplished artists I have known sat for  decades as a modest member of the viola section of one of America’s leading orchestras.  Eugene Lehner had been the violist of the legendary Kolisch Quartet, and had coached  the distinguished Julliard Quartet, as well as innumerable other famous ensembles.  Many of Boston’s finest musicians considered Lehner to be a seminal, formative  influence on their musical lives. How often I have consulted him on thorny points of  interpretation — to have the scales removed from my eyes by his incandescent insight  into the music!  

Yet, had any conductor visiting the Boston Symphony ever consulted him, or  called on his profound knowledge and understanding of the particular piece they were  performing together? Indeed, I believe such a notion is almost unthinkable. One day,  when he was a guest coach at my Friday Interpretation class, I raised this issue, and for  the benefit of the class I asked him, “How can you bear to play day after day in an  orchestra led by conductors many of whom must know so much less than you?” In his  habitual humility, he sidestepped the compliment, and then indicated that he did indeed  have something to say on the subject:

One day, during my very first year playing with the orchestra, I remember an occasion when Koussevitsky was conducting a Bach piece and he  seemed to be having some difficulty getting the results he wanted — it simply wasn’t going right. Fortunately, his friend, the great French pedagogue and conductor Nadia Boulanger, happened to be in town and sitting in on the rehearsal, so Koussevitsky took the opportunity to extricate himself from an  awkward and embarrassing situation, by calling out to her, “Nadia, please, will  you come up here and conduct? I want to go to the back of the hall to see how it  sounds.” Mlle. Boulanger stepped up, made a few comments to the musicians,  and conducted the orchestra through the passage without a hitch. Ever since  that time, in every rehearsal, I have been waiting for the conductor to say,  “Lehner, you come up here and conduct, I want to go to the back of the hall to  hear how it sounds.” It is now forty-three years since this happened, and it is  less and less likely that I will be asked. However, in the meantime, I haven’t had  a single dull moment in a rehearsal, as I sit wondering what I would say to the  orchestra should I suddenly be called upon to lead. 

During a recent stint guest conducting the orchestra at the Royal College of  Music in London, I told, as I often do, the story of Lehner, as a way of encouraging the  greatest possible attentiveness and participation of all the players. Then, in the middle  of a rehearsal, I suddenly turned to one of the violinists sitting in the fourth stand of the  second violins, whose passion had been evident to me from the very first rehearsal, and  said, “John, you come up here and conduct, I want to go to the back to hear how it  sounds.” That day on his white sheet he wrote that I had enabled him to realize a  lifelong dream. Suddenly, the full extent of the resources of the orchestra presented  itself to my view, and I leapt to offer some of the other musicians the same gift. One  wrote, “I have been so critical of conductors, and now I see that what you have to do is  as demanding as playing an instrument.” Some others commented that this exercise  shifted the whole experience of playing in an orchestra from a passive one to one in  which, like Lehner, they took on an active participation

 

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How Much Greatness Are We Willing To Grant?

 

The conductor decides who is playing in his orchestra. Even when he comes in  fresh to guest conduct players who are already in their seats, he determines who is there.  When he sees instrumentalists who look listless, he can decide that they are bored and  resigned, or he can greet in them the original spark that bought them into music, now  dimmed to a splutter. He can say, “Of course! They have had to go against their  passionate natures, and interrupt the long line of their commitment on account of the  many competing demands of the music profession. They want to be recognized as the  true artists they really are.” He can see, sitting before him, the jaded and the  disaffected — or the tender and glorious lover of music. 

A monumental question for leaders in any organization to consider is: how much  greatness are we willing to grant people? Because it makes all the difference at every  level who it is we decide we are leading. The activity of leadership is not limited to  conductors, presidents, and CEO’s, of course — the player who energizes the orchestra  by communicating his new-found appreciation for the tasks of the conductor, or a parent  who fashions in her own mind that her children desire to contribute, is exercising  leadership of the most profound kind.  

 

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Listening for passion and commitment is the practice of the silent conductor whether the players are sitting in the orchestra, on the management team, or on the  nursery floor. How can this leader know how well he is fulfilling his intention? He can  look in the eyes of the players, and prepare to ask himself, “Who am I being that they  are not shining?” He can invite information and expression. He can speak to their  passion. He can look for an opportunity to hand them the baton.  

“Today was exceptional in that I learned leadership is not a responsibility – nobody  has to lead. It’s a gift, shining silver, that reminds people huddled nearby why  each shimmering moment matters. It’s in the eyes, the voice, this swelling song  that warms up from the toes and tingles with endless possibilities. Things change  when you care enough to grab whatever you love, and give it everything.”’– Amanda Burr, student at the Walnut Hill School 

 

Leaders Everywhere

 

BEN: On our 1999 tour to Cuba with the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, we decided to  begin a concert in Havana with two pieces to be performed in combination with the  National Youth Orchestra of Cuba, a Cuban and an American sitting at each stand. The  first piece to be played was written by the outstanding conductor of the Cuban orchestra.  It was colorful and brilliant, and contained many complicated Cuban rhythms. I had  decided not to prepare our orchestra in advance, because I thought it was a rare  opportunity to start work on a piece under the direction of the composer himself. 

Maestro Guido Lopez Gavillan began rehearsing his work, but it soon seemed  evident that the complex Cuban rhythms were so unfamiliar to the American kids that  the piece was beyond them. They simply couldn’t play it. The maestro became  concerned, frustrated, and then resigned himself to failure. He declared from the  podium, “I’m afraid this is not going to work. We have to cancel the performance.” 

This outcome was completely unacceptable to me. It was one of the  cornerstones of this trip that our young musicians be able to perform with their  counterparts. Without thinking, I leapt to the stage and said to the young Cuban players  through an interpreter, “Your job is to teach these rhythms to your stand partner.” And  to the American players I said, “just give yourselves over to the leaders sitting next to  you. You will get the support you need.” I asked the maestro to try again.  

What happened next startled us all. The focus shifted away from the maestro,  toward the stand partners. Already more expressive than most young players I had  seen, the Cubans became fantastically energized, exuberantly conducting with their  instruments, each leading along his American stand partner enthusiastically. The  American kids, basking in the lavish attention, gave themselves over to the process and began to play the rhythms the way they were intended to be played. Maestro Gavillan,  who appeared as surprised and as pleased as I was, nodded to me that everything would be fine.  

Then it was my turn, and I rose to conduct the other piece that was to open the  program: Bernstein’s fiendishly difficult little masterpiece, his overture to Candide.  This piece was so tricky to play that we had sent the parts down to Havana three months  earlier to make sure that the Cuban orchestra would have the opportunity to prepare. As  we were getting ready to rehearse, I asked their leader in passing whether they had  enjoyed working on the overture. “But, we’ve never seen it,” he said, obviously  perplexed. It turned out that the music had been languishing in the Cuban post office  for all that time.  

I could feel the blood drain from my face. I felt panic overcoming me, realizing  the impossibility of performing this piece under these conditions. Our youth orchestra  had taken months to master the overture! Then, I looked at the players and saw many of  them smiling. Of course! We had only to reverse the process that had been so  successful earlier in the rehearsal! The American kids now sprang to life, energetically  leading their stand partners through the bar lines — and it went off perfectly. Again, the  attention shifted away from the conductor on the podium to the partnership in the pit.  The energy level of each local “conductor” rose dramatically. No less remarkable was  the willingness of the young Cuban players to be supported and led by their close  companions — and how much more effectively than by the distant figure on the podium.

 

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Like Lehner’s tale, the story of these young people highlights another meaning  of the phrase silent conductor. A leader does not need a podium; he can be sitting  quietly on the edge of any chair, listening passionately and with commitment, fully  prepared to take up the baton. In fact, to make reference to the rabbi’s gift, the leader  may be any one of us.  

Mr. Zander,  

This is my first white sheet. Sitting at the back of the cello section, when I have  always sat at the front, was the hardest thing I’ve done in a long while. But over the  nine days of our work together I began to discover what playing in an orchestra  was really about. Your shine has inspired me to believe that I have the force of  personality to power the section from wherever I sit and I believe that I led that  concert from the 11th chair. Thank you for helping me know that. From this day I  will be leading every section in which I sit – whichever seat.  

– Georgina cellist in the New Zealand National Youth Orchestra 

Here is a final story of an entirely committed and passionate man, a colleague of  Eugene Lehner’s, who led as a peer from the edge of his chair with so little fanfare that  no one actually noticed him. They just heard the remarkable result. 

The legendary Kolisch Quartet had the singular distinction of playing its entire  repertoire from memory, including the impossibly complex modern works of  Schoenberg, Webern, Bartok and Berg. Eugene Lehner was the violist for the  quartet in the 1930’s. Lehner’s stories about their remarkable performances often  included a hair-raising moment when one player or another had a memory slip.  Although he relished the rapport that developed between them without the  encumbrance of a music stand, he admits there was hardly a concert in which some  mistake did not mar the performance. The alertness, presence, and attention  required of the players in every performance is hard to fathom, but in one concert  an event occurred that surpassed their ordinary brinkmanship. 

In the middle of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Opus 95 String Quartet, just  before his big solo, Lehner suddenly had an inexplicable memory lapse, in a place  where his memory had never failed him before. He literally blacked out. But the audience heard Opus 95 as it was meant to be played, the viola solo sounding in all  its richness. Even the first violinist, Rudolph Kolisch and cellist Bennar Heifetz,  both with their eyes closed and deeply absorbed in the music, were unaware that  Lehner had dropped out. The second violinist, Felix Khuner, was playing Lehner’s  melody, coming in without missing a beat at the viola’s designated entrance, the  notes perfectly in tune and voiced like a viola on an instrument tuned a fifth higher.  Lehner was completely stunned, and offstage after the performance asked Khuner  how he could have possibly known to play. Khuner answered with a shrug: “I  could see that your third finger was poised over the wrong string, so I knew you  must have forgotten what came next.”  

 

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“Unhappy is the land that has no heroes,” sighs Andrea in Bertolt Brecht’s Life  of Galileo. “No,” contradicts the astronomer, “unhappy is the land that needs heroes.”

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