Music Directing and Leadership. Two topics I have, at various stages of my life, given considerable time, thought and work. The other day I stumbled upon a podcast from the Art Works Podcast series from the National Endowment for the Arts. The interview featured Alan Gilbert, Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. During the interview, he was asked, “What is it that a conductor does?” His answer resonated with me, demonstrating how good conducting is analogous to good leadership. I found the transcript online, and here is the excerpt that most interested me.
Jo Reed: I want to ask you a very obvious question, which is: I’d like you to explain what it is that a conductor does?
Alan Gilbert: I wish that were an obvious question. At least the answer is not obvious to me. How can I answer this? Well, let me approach it this way: what I like about conducting is that it calls on so many different faculties and different capacities.
It’s challenging in such a myriad of ways. It’s obviously a physical activity. When you watch a conductor, you’re aware of the movements, the gesture. And the gestures ideally should have something very, very strongly and closely to do with how the music goes. I would say that on a very basic level, the conductor decides the tempo and indicates the tempo in a way that everybody in the orchestra can read it so they can play together. If you can imagine a group of people in a room, if you tell them, “Okay, everyone say the word ‘stop’ at the same time,” it would be very hard to do. If someone gives a signal and says, “Okay, I’m going to move my hand up, and then I’ll move it down, and when my hand comes back down to where it started, that’s when you say stop,” there’s a reasonable chance that it’ll be pretty close together. That’s more or less what a conductor does in terms of showing time. “This is where this beat happens. This is where this beat happens.” Musicians have music in front of them that shows where their notes fall in relation to the beat. If the conductor shows that beat, then they should be able to play in a way that actually coordinates with what everybody else has to do.
But it’s a lot more than that. That’s just the first layer of what a conductor does. There’s the idea of interpretation. I mean, that’s not an obvious question, but in part, it’s a very important part of what a conductor does, is to have an interpretation. What does that mean? That means, I think more than anything, to have a point of view about how the music feels. A lot is suggested by the music, and there’s an inherent spiritual quality to music—certainly the best music—but all music is conceived by humans, and is informed by human emotion and spiritual sense. And the character that is conveyed by the orchestra is a highly complex element, but it is clearly influenced by the point of view that the conductor brings to it. So if the conductor wants to emphasize—and this is a very elusive thing—and call it, at one moment, the optimistic side of things, or the depressed side of things, or the happy side of things, or the elusive, searching side of things. These things can be transmitted, and something in the way the conductor deals with the orchestra can highlight or create an atmosphere for the music-making.
It’s a two-way street though, because the conductor is also influenced by the orchestra, and the moments that I’ve found the most successful and gratifying and exciting in conducting are those in which I couldn’t really say where the spirit is coming from, only that it’s extremely vivid. It’s a question of one side influencing and inspiring the other. And ultimately, when it really clicks, when it really works, there’s a true synergy, and the music takes over, and it’s as if suddenly everyone is really tapping into the infinite possibilities and the infinite potential of the music.
How the conductor deals with the orchestra can make that more or less likely to happen, and that includes the rehearsal, how you talk about the music, how you tap into the energy and enthusiasm of the orchestra. It’s all a very complicated process. The conductor tends to lead the rehearsals and say, “Okay, here we’re going to go for this. Let’s not play too loud here. If you could play this with a slightly more spirited articulation, it would help the character. If you could play this in a way that doesn’t give it away just yet, just save your energy so that we can really go for it five measures later.” There’s a way of setting it up so that finally when it takes its course, when it runs, it kind of can go in the most natural way. That means conducting well in the moment, but also setting it up so that there’s the possibility of it really taking off.
I’m kind of talking around the subject, because it’s very difficult, even though it’s something I do all the time and something I’ve thought about for many, many years, to really pinpoint how it works. But I think that’s why it’s an exciting profession.
Effective conductors like Alan Gilbert may be worth listening to when thinking about effective leadership. Conductors must approach their work with a vision and be able to communicate both the obvious as well as the subtleties of achieving the vision for a work of art. But it’s not all about the leader. Music making and leadership are synergistic activities. “It’s a question of one side influencing and inspiring the other.” If you aren’t working with the right people, it can be a drag. But when you are, it can be an “exciting profession.” Vision and synergy are both qualities of effective leadership, no matter what the domain.
I am reminded of the TED talk from Itay Talgam – Lead Like the Great Conductors. In the talk, Talgam also highlights the similarities between conducting and leadership, taking us on a “tour” of sorts through many famous conductors and their “leadership” styles. The TED talk as well as the Gilbert interview are worth spending time with especially if you are interested in leadership.
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