Teamwork tips from two world-class orchestras

Few pieces of music have had the enduring impact of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. In recent years, The Tokyo Philharmonic and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestras performed a special joint concert of this remarkable piece of music to celebrate historical friendship ties between Japan and South Korea. It also got us thinking about how orchestras work and what we can learn from them.

About the Ninth

Premiered on May 7, 1824, in Vienna, the Ninth Symphony involved the largest orchestra ever assembled by Beethoven. The Ninth is rooted in the theme of friendship, thanks to a legendary concert celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 performed by musicians from many nationalities conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Also, according to legend the compact disc was deliberately designed to have a 74-minute play time to accommodate the 1951 Bayreuther Festspiele recording conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler.

Lessons from an orchestra

The symphony orchestra is functionally and hierarchically organized, although there is more local decision-making and responsibility resting on each individual than meets the casual eye.

Performing music, such as a symphony, is an exposed kind of service delivery. Everyone — from the individual instrumentalist to the first chairs (the middle managers) to the conductor (the manager) — meets the patron (customer), who scrutinizes and evaluates their actions and performance.

Team efforts of 100 or more people are not unusual in business, but it is rather rare that the “moment of truth” encompasses the whole team, and as transparently as it does on the stage. Each orchestra member must know what the big picture is, they must know the atmosphere they want to evoke and what needs to be done in order to get everyone there. Conductors must be constantly aware of the end result and leverage all of the strengths of individual orchestra members to achieve as a group a shared purpose — in this case, to bring the most authentic interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth.

1. Conductors don’t make a sound

The conductor of an orchestra is the leader of the team and yet they don’t make any sound. The success of their role depends on their ability to make other people powerful. Their job, like that of any leader, is to awaken possibility in other people.

Maestro Myung-Whun Chung conducting the Tokyo Philharmonic and Seoul Philharmonic Orchestras to celebrate 50 years of friendship between Japan and South Korea.
Maestro Myung-Whun Chung conducting the Tokyo Philharmonic and Seoul Philharmonic Orchestras to celebrate 50 years of friendship between Japan and South Korea.

The conductor may give instructions by gesturing during a performance, but to a large extent, must explain verbally during rehearsals. These explanations are general ideas about expression and emphasis or direct instructions. Each orchestra develops its own tradition on when to play in relation to the conductor’s baton — just as a culture develops in a business organization on paying heed to the leader’s cues.

2. Rehearsals

The German word for rehearsal — Sitzprobe — means to focus on integrating different groups taking part in a performance. The purpose of rehearsing is not to learn the music, but to make the final adjustments needed to be able to play the music together. During rehearsals, the orchestra grows into the performance. This is where the conductor and the musicians constantly dialogue and fine-tune, all the while respecting one another’s area of expertise.

In management-speak: They are setting up the terms of the service agreement. The lesson here is that some dialogue and adjustment upfront is crucial to create a common understanding about priorities, abilities and responsibilities.

3. Reaching landmarks as a team

The most important thing about playing together in an orchestra though, is the fact that both conductor and musician are reaching landmarks in the music score together at the same time. This can be very difficult, and so, while every musician is expected to know their parts, they must provide constant feedback to one another to make teamwork happen. In this way, members of the orchestra must also be masters of communication and teamwork.

The better you know your part (expertise) and the more you have played in an orchestra (experience) the more you can listen to others and adjust your own playing accordingly. Musicians don’t stop communicating when they perform. They look up from their scores to exchange cues and create resonance among the team and the audience.

4. Playing to an audience

Conductors, orchestras and artists must all understand their audiences. By understanding what will resonate with the audience, they can impact their emotions at a very deep level.

From a business perspective, to understand your audience is core to knowing how to navigate feelings, conflicts and discussions. Similarly, give your customers an experience to speak about ⁠— good products and services that solve a problem is now table stakes.

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