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Working together in harmony

Almost any book on any subject will have a nugget or two within its pages, often quite tangential to the main subject. While reading Ken Auletta’s Googled on my morning commute I found a fascinating page or so on the unexpected subject of orchestral conducting.

This describes a presentation made by the Israeli conductor Itay Talgam on how a conductor “make[s] a large group of people work in harmony”. He picked on five great conductors, the first three of whom he dismissed – Riccardo Muti (a stern and joyless micromanager), Richard Strauss (no authority, no inspiration) and Herbert von Karajan (uninspiring – surprisingly given his reputation). He then moved on to Carlos Kleiber, suggesting that his more emotional style gave a feeling of freedom to the orchestra but also conveyed authority.

Auletta then devotes a long paragraph to Talgam’s opinion of his favourite conductor, Leonard Bernstein and a clip of him directing a makeshift orchestra formed from students from around the world to play Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Inevitably, the first day of practice was discordant

but Bernstein did not wield his baton as a symbol of his “authority,” Talgam noted. Instead, he stopped the music and spoke of the feelings Stravinsky sought to evoke, of the smell of spring grass, of waking animals. “He empowers people,” Talgam said, “by telling them that their world is larger than they think.” Cut to a week later, and the high school orchestra sat attentively before Bernstein who looked on with obvious satisfaction as an assembly of young strangers achieved musical harmony. Without a baton, arms folded, Bernstein conducted only with facial expressions… Bernstein was the boss, but he was not an autocrat. He managed to coax the best out of his orchestra, to make them part of a community. (p.285)

This led me to reflect for the last few minutes of my journey into work and the role of a conductor and how he can inspire his group of musicians, and drawing parallels with any other kind of manager or team leader trying to get a group to work together harmoniously.

I last played in an orchestra at university, but I have sung in choirs a lot since then under many different choirmasters, and it’s true how the better ones are able to give the choir the confidence to interpret the music for themselves. They also make it just so much more enjoyable. Ideally, a confident choir (or orchestra) ought to be able to perform a piece without a conductor at all, by listening to each other and being able to rely on each other. The conductor can then add finesse to the performance, rather than just having to keep everything together.

On the other hand I have sung in choirs where there has been a lot of hesitancy, where some of the singers have held back for fear of criticism of making a mistake; this makes it no fun at all. Sometimes the lead from the conductor is unclear and it goes off the rails easily – I’ve even seen some cases where the conductor follows the group, not the other way round.

As with a project team, so much depends on the style and authority of the leader (in this case the conductor). However, one thing that is so much more obvious is how an inspirational conductor can get a better performance out of the same group of musicians as one who fails to inspire, even if the latter is more knowledgeable. The success or failure of a conductor may be very much more public than most IT projects but in many ways the challenge is the same.


Ken Auletta (2009), Googled, Virgin Books, London, paperback edition

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  1. October 5, 2011 at 3:52 pm

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