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What You Can Learn About Collaboration and Leadership From a Chamber Orchestra

Orpheus 2
The members of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

“Great ideas don’t depend on hierarchy or seniority. They don’t depend on a pyramid; they really depend on a network of participants who are seeking something in response to the challenge of the moment."

by Jane Rubinsky

As organizations go, few are more autocratic in structure than the traditional symphony orchestra. While tyrants along the lines of Arturo Toscanini (who famously broke batons, hurled scores, and stormed offstage in rehearsals with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s) and Artur Rodzinski (who led the Cleveland Orchestra in the ’30s and the New York Philharmonic in the ’40s, reputedly conducting with a loaded revolver in his pocket) are a thing of the past; even present-day conductors wield a top-down power that surpasses that of any CEO of a major corporation.

Imagine a CEO who didn’t just oversee a team of vice-presidents, but was expected to micromanage every single employee.

What the public sees – an energetic or calmly focused, solitary figure on the podium cuing entrances, shaping tempo and dynamics, eliciting a cohesive and inspired performance from the sea of musicians surrounding him – is only part of the music director’s job. He (and it is usually a man, although things have been slowly changing) is also responsible for selecting the orchestra’s repertoire, planning concert programs, and deciding what will be recorded (as well as the terms of the recording contract). He hires and fires musicians (and determines who plays what parts in what performances). Studying the score, he develops his own take on the composer’s intention, shaping how each piece of music will be performed – and in rehearsals, he works tirelessly to ensure that each and every player understands and conveys all the details of his vision. These days, the conductor is also involved in fundraising and publicity as the “public face” of the orchestra. Imagine a CEO who didn’t just oversee a team of vice-presidents, but was expected to micromanage every single employee. 

Even under the most benign music director, the creative life of symphony orchestra players remains considerably constrained.

Is the Conductor’s Ego a Necessary Evil?

It’s a huge web of artistic and professional responsibilities, and perhaps a certain level of ego comes along with the territory of shaping a 100-member ensemble into a unified, finely honed artistic force. Conductors such as George Szell (who took over the Cleveland Orchestra in 1948, transforming a well-regarded regional orchestra into a top-tier one, on a par with America’s and Europe’s finest) and Eugene Ormandy (whose 44-year tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra, beginning in 1936, evolved the opulent sound established by Leopold Stokowski for which that orchestra is known) achieved their great legacies with an imperiousness that was still expected of the mostly European-born masters of the podium, when the end justified the means.

Intense concentration marks an opening-night rehearsal at Carnegie Hall.
Intense concentration marks an opening-night rehearsal at Carnegie Hall.

The strengthening of musicians’ unions and rise of collective bargaining gradually brought an end to outright mistreatment of orchestral musicians (rehearsing them for many hours without a break, for instance, or not paying them for recordings). Yet the role of the music director remains a bastion of totalitarianism that some still manage to abuse.  At least social media now quickly exposes any incident of conductors behaving badly, such as the furor over Roberto Minczuk’s firing of 33 musicians from the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra in 2011 when they refused to re-audition for their jobs – an unheard-of requirement. But conductors such as James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera, Michael Tilson Thomas at the San Francisco Symphony, and Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Los Angeles Philharmonic (wrote Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times in 2002) “have all proved that it’s possible to treat musicians as professional colleagues and achieve musical excellence.”

Nevertheless, even under the most benign music director, the creative life of symphony orchestra players remains considerably constrained. Despite years of professional training and a formidable store of knowledge, they must subsume their creative impulses to realize a conductor’s bidding and perform a relatively predictable range of symphonic repertoire. (The latter, fortunately, has been changing as orchestras draw from a wider and more contemporary range of repertoire and develop relationships with young composers.)

Only a handful of the thousands of supremely talented musicians turned out each year by the nation’s conservatories and music schools will become world-famous soloists.

Carving Out a Musical Career

For decades, many orchestral musicians have sought to keep their curiosity and artistic impulses fresh by performing chamber music together independently whenever they can.  An intimate repertoire generally involving two to six players affords an interpretive freedom and sharpens listening and collaborative skills that years of following a conductor may have dulled. Many orchestras also began sponsoring chamber concerts featuring their own principal players as they realized not only the value of keeping their best musicians happy, but also the potential for expanding their own audiences through the increasing popularity of this repertoire.

A groundbreaking study in 1996 by Harvard University revealed that orchestral musicians ranked below prison guards in job satisfaction.

Intense concentration marks an opening-night rehearsal at Carnegie Hall.
Timpanist Maya Gunji watches another orchestra member for a cue.

Only a handful of the thousands of supremely talented musicians turned out each year by the nation’s conservatories and music schools will become world-famous soloists. Another handful will be lucky enough to join prestigious chamber ensembles that perform and tour regularly. Some will win positions in orchestras large enough to provide something resembling steady employment. Others will choose a different career path altogether, and play music only for personal satisfaction. But most of them will weave a complicated and individual tapestry of a career that may include performing with several ensembles in local concerts, teaching, playing in pit orchestras for Broadway and touring shows, and playing in commercial recording studios. (These days, even Broadway and studio gigs have become imperiled by the rise of digital technology.)

When cellist Julian Fifer was about to graduate from Columbia University in 1972, the prospect of becoming another cog in the wheels of a symphony orchestra seemed depressing in the extreme. He was active in the anti-war movement of those counter-culture days and had enough of a taste of the freedom of playing chamber music to view the symphony orchestra as (in his words) “the equivalent of the military-industrial complex.” Fifer and several of his fellow students had a better idea, creating a co-operative 15-member ensemble that was small enough to perform without a conductor. They gave their first concert in a church, and their second at Co-Op City, a middle-income housing development in the Bronx. Over the years, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra grew in both size and repertoire as it attracted other talented like-minded musicians. By the time the group made its Carnegie Hall debut in 1978, Orpheus had long lost the novelty of being “that orchestra that miraculously stays together without a conductor” and was collaborating with leading soloists such as Emanuel Ax and Peter Serkin.

Orpheus devised a system of rotating leadership revolving around a “core” of musicians... If there is disagreement about something in particular, a vote is taken; if the vote is inconclusive, a decision is made by the concertmaster and the musicians move on.

Evolving a Method of Collaboration

Violinist Eriko Sato, a member of Orpheus since 1975.
Violinist Eriko Sato, a member of Orpheus since 1975.

It had also taken a good, hard look at its method of governing itself and began to impose some structure on what had basically been a free-for-all. Fifer and his colleagues had originally modeled their musical democracy on that of a chamber ensemble – let’s say, a string quartet or a piano quintet – whose members have an equal say in contributing ideas and making decisions. How fast does this movement go? Does a slight hesitation here increase the suspense or interrupt the momentum?  Should the viola line stand out a bit more in this passage?  Four or five people can easily discuss these matters, try something a couple different ways, arrive at a decision and move forward. Everyone has contributed something and has been heard, and the result is a merger of their musical interpretations.

Violinist Ronnie Bauch (with Orpheus since 1975).
Violinist Ronnie Bauch (with Orpheus since 1975).

But with more than 20 members, the process had become unwieldy and even a bit contentious. Every musician’s ideas were endlessly discussed and debated at each and every rehearsal – with the result that Orpheus needed at least 15 rehearsals to prepare for a concert. (The typical symphony orchestra gets between two and four rehearsals under a conductor.) “By the late 1970s, rehearsals threatened to crowd out the numerous performance opportunities that were beginning to come our way, and it grew increasingly difficult for our members to have a meaningful impact on the product in the midst of such chaos. The system was too costly, inefficient, and frustrating to sustain itself,” wrote Harvey Seifter (the group’s Executive Director from 1998 to 2002) in his book Leadership Ensemble: Lessons in Collaborative Management from the World's Only Conductorless Orchestra (2001, Holt/Times Books).

The core must lead by persuasion. That means being able to “take input, absorb criticism, and synthesize it to build consensus."

A new, more streamlined method that still remained true to the group’s democratic principles was needed. What they devised was a system of rotating leadership revolving around a “core” of musicians. Elected for each piece by the musicians themselves, the core consists of a rotating cast of principal players from each section (winds, strings, and brass), including the violinist serving as concertmaster for that piece.  Often, they are musicians who have additional outside experience in that particular style, whether it’s Classical, Baroque, or contemporary. As the half-dozen or so core musicians sit down to play through a work for the first time, they hash out ideas, identify trouble spots, try out different approaches, and offer feedback. The concertmaster (chosen for each piece by a committee of orchestra members) has special responsibilities, bringing focus and shape to the musical interpretation as the suggestions and comments fly back and forth in the room. If there is disagreement about something in particular, a vote is taken; if the vote is inconclusive, a decision is made by the concertmaster and the musicians move on.

Leadership In Action

By the time the entire orchestra meets for its first rehearsal together, the core has shaped its basic framework of how the piece will be played. Other musicians can certainly speak up and contribute. Some of their ideas might be incorporated into the still-evolving musical concept at this point. However, the core group is ultimately accountable for the successful interpretation of the work, and everyone in the orchestra understands that the core’s role sometimes includes making decisions for the entire group. (Everyone, after all, will also function within a core at some point.) But unlike the monolithic conductor of a traditional orchestra, the core must lead by persuasion. That means being able to “take input, absorb criticism, and synthesize it to build consensus,” as Seifter pointed out.

Those abilities wind up serving Orpheus members not just in analyzing and playing music, but also in taking on other roles. Some teams (such as the core) form and disband from project to project, but others are longer range and involve larger artistic and administrative duties. Rather than have a single artistic director, for example (as most organizations do), Orpheus has three coordinators (elected by the orchestra) – a personnel coordinator, a programming coordinator, and an artistic coordinator – who share specific parts of an artistic director’s responsibilities for a set term. Musicians also interact with management in other ways and attend board meetings. Within a single year, most Orpheus members will have rotated in and out of numerous positions and drawn on a wide range of their talents and interests, in addition to the highly specialized one of playing their instruments.

Even those who make superb leaders are just as comfortable being followers when required. “If one person is always in the leader role, that’s terribly stressful,” suggested violist Sarah Clarke, now an emeritus member of Orpheus. “It’s nice, when you’ve been sitting up here in the front, to fade to the back every now and then and just say, ‘Let them figure it out.’”

Within a single year, most Orpheus members will have rotated in and out of numerous positions and drawn on a wide range of their talents and interests.

A Surprising Study Sparks a New Direction

Not only was the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra winning critical acclaim, recording contracts, and increasingly wider audiences, but some important people outside the field of music began to take notice. A groundbreaking study of attitudes in the workforce conducted in 1996 by renowned organizational psychologist J. Richard Hackman at Harvard University revealed (among other things) that orchestral musicians ranked below prison guards in job satisfaction. How could that be? It turned out that musicians, like many other “knowledge workers,” experienced a disconnect between their passion for their chosen field and their creative impulses, and not having those things engaged within the fixed, subservient roles of their workplace. But Hackman, whose specialty was team dynamics was fascinated by the anomaly of Orpheus and began exploring how their particular brand of horizontal teamwork and “flat” organizational structure fostered such a tremendous artistic vitality largely absent from the rest of the orchestral field.

In 1998, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra began sharing its unique way of collaborating in rehearsal (dubbed the Orpheus Process) with educators and executives through the Orpheus Institute, which has since held workshops at the Manhattan School of Music and The Juilliard School. Orpheus has given on-the-spot demonstrations of their collaborative process in places as diverse as the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, DaimlerChrysler in Berlin, and Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. (These seminars were the subject of a 2005 documentary, The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Presents: Music Meets Business.) Not only do such activities bring in additional income as the ensemble has cut back somewhat on international touring in favor of a stronger home base, but they also exemplify the very adaptability Orpheus’s working methods are intended to foster. Who would have foreseen that a group of orchestral musicians could also serve as management consultants?

"Great ideas don't depend on hierarchy or seniority," observed Eric Best, who spent ten years as a global scenario strategist for Morgan Stanley. “They don’t depend on a pyramid; they really depend on a network of participants who are seeking something in response to the challenge of the moment. And Orpheus is saying, look, it doesn’t have to be the way you’ve always thought about things; it doesn’t have to depend on the guy in the front. We can draw more deeply on people’s talents by liberating them from that construct and saying, ‘No, tell me, what do you think? We’re listening.’”

Jerry MacArthur Hultin, who has been Dean of Wesley J. Howe School of Technology Management at Stevens Institute of Technology and President of the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, has certainly taught his share of executives. “They can be pretty willful people,” he said. “You have to do something that breaks them out of their mold and their environment. Bringing in something totally different like an orchestra and asking if they can run their meetings and their teams the way this orchestra runs –  you might actually get them to change the way they think.”

International Management Styles

How does Orpheus’s collaborative model translate across cultural borders? In Berlin, where the word “hierarchy” is still laden with negative connotations, given its context within German history, flat organizational structures are evident in many companies, drawing on a deep reservoir of experience and expertise. Even for corporations such as DaimlerChrysler, which require some hierarchy to reduce complexity and speed decision-making, “the process of an orchestra without a conductor producing wonderful music – something that’s innovative in its own field – offers a metaphor for us to gain some insights as to how we do our work and think about ways we might change some of that,” according to Shlomo Ben-Hur, who spent eight years in Berlin as DaimlerChrysler’s Chief Learning Officer.

In Japan, where Orpheus has visited the business school of Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo – created specifically to integrate new Western concepts with Japanese management – consensus and teamwork have long been the name of the game, but negotiation is a skill the Japanese are still working on mastering. “It’s slowly changing,” admitted Akio Katsuragi, managing director at Morgan Stanley in Tokyo from 1998 to 2001. “People have to get used to expressing their views without offending other people. And also, people who are listening have to learn not to be offended.”

Even for corporations such as DaimlerChrysler, “the process of an orchestra without a conductor producing wonderful music – something that’s innovative in its own field – offers a metaphor for us to gain some insights as to how we do our work and think about ways we might change some of that.”

Criticism With Respect

Resolving conflict tops the list of questions posed during many of Orpheus’s demonstrations for executives. “Is this process always as polished and civilized as we see here?” inquired one of them, observing that there had been no chairs thrown or fistfights.  (“We’ll show you the tapes from 20 years ago,” one musician joked, evoking laughter.) How do they handle disagreements without somebody at the top? It’s actually easier, according to several of the musicians. For one thing, you can’t criticize – or even offer a suggestion to – a conductor. Another thing is that musicians make a point of letting others know when they do something well, whether in their playing or in leadership. “If you do that on an ongoing basis, you establish that you have a tremendous amount of respect for someone as a person and as a player,” noted cellist Eric Bartlett, an Orpheus member since 1983. “And then, if you get in someone’s face one day and say something they’re doing is terrible, you don’t completely undermine that. You go ahead and have a fight, but you know you’re still friends. It’s okay to feel strongly about something; it doesn’t have to mean the end of the world.”

A respectful context keeps people honest, added violinist Eriko Sato, who has been with the ensemble since 1975. “If you show up not prepared, in other places you might get away with it – but you can’t get away with it here. People are nice about it, but you know you should have done better. And so you always strive for the best you can do.”

Curiosity often arises as to why the musicians are all playing from full scores rather than individual parts. “It’s our job to know what everyone else is doing at any given time – what the bassoon is doing, what the first violin is doing, so that you have this expanded consciousness,” explained violinist Ronnie Bauch, who has also been an Orpheus member since 1975. “Everybody has to have that. The degree of success is directly dependent on how well everybody sees the big picture.”

“It’s our job to know what everyone else is doing at any given time – what the bassoon is doing, what the first violin is doing, so that you have this expanded consciousness...The degree of success is directly dependent on how well everybody sees the big picture.”

What’s especially noteworthy about their model of shared and rotating leadership is that it has allowed for continual growth in both the complexity of their projects as well as the artistic quality of their performances. “At the beginning, there were probably only a couple of nuts in the orchestra who would consider that we could ever do a Beethoven symphony without a conductor,” recalled Bauch. “After 10 or 12 years, there may have been a few more people who thought we might have been able to tackle it.”  Since then, Orpheus has performed most of them, with an orchestra the size of one common in Beethoven’s day.  (His momentous 9th Symphony, as well as those of the Romantic composers, require larger forces than would be feasible without a conductor.)

"We never stop growing and we never stop challenging each other."

“Everything we do is a process, and we never stop growing and we never stop challenging each other,” Bauch said. “And we never stop learning and being passionate about the music that we’re involved with.”

That’s a worthy way of approaching one’s job, no matter what the size and focus of your workplace.

Jane Rubinsky, a journalist who writes regularly for The Five O’Clock Club, was the Senior Editor of The Juilliard Journal for 15 years.

2 comments

Nice article, i learned and enjoyed reading it..thank you for sharing.. 🙂

Thanks ... I enjoyed researching and writing it, and learned a number of things in the process, as well!

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