Lessons from an orchestra conductor


In NPR’s TED Radio Hour podcast How Does Trust Happen in Music, Charles Hazelwood describes the “enormous miracle” of conducting an orchestra.

Hazelwood's comments are just as applicable to managing an event or managing a project: any activity where there are multiple people involved in delivering a result.

A symphony is a project

A symphony's delivery includes: first, (if a premier) the composition, including the conceptualization of the music, the acquisition and funding of the composer, and the actual creation of the music; then, the creation the performance event, including resourcing and scheduling the producers, venue, players, conductor, licensing and rights, scores, rehearsals, audience, program booklets; and then the actual performance. Someone such as an executive director is the overall project manager.

Hazelwood is talking about the conductor, not the executive director, so let’s focus on the performance itself as a project. The conductor lifts the baton and brings it down on a beat, and everyone plays on cue, right? Not necessarily. And every time a project manager raises their hand and says “go”, everyone on the team goes? Not always.

It’s all based on trust

The members of the orchestra must trust the conductor, just as the members of a team must trust their project manager or change leader. It’s not about authority. It starts with the conductor first learning to trust themselves, Hazelwood says. “I learned very early on that there was no other way they were going to trust me until I'd actually learned to walk under that podium with a real sense of value, that I was going to add value in the room within which every single member of that orchestra could bring their particular talents to the table.”

Plus, the conductor doesn’t tyrannically micromanage or make every decision for the orchestra. The result might be something very precise or accurate, but at an enormous expenditure of energy of the conductor and frankly a loss of any artistry from the orchestra. Instead, says Hazelwood, “I, as the conductor, have to come to the rehearsal with a cast-iron sense of the outer architecture of that music, within which there is then immense personal freedom for the members of the orchestra to shine.” The result is “the most extraordinary, magical, spiritual, life-affirming experience you could possibly have.”

Conduct your team

As a change leader, if you choose to coerce your team and impose your agenda and approach, then you risk losing anything your team might contribute creatively and you will likely encounter resistance from your team. Plus, you will be exhausted by the effort it takes to manage every task and make every decision. And on that day when you need your team to respond to the “downbeat of your baton”, how certain are you about what will happen?

On the other hand, if you choose to lead your team by providing structure and support based on values and mutual goals, then you stand to gain your team’s ideas and creativity and commitment. And on that day when you “conduct the downbeat”, you can trust that the music will be awesome.

“Conducting is like holding a small bird in your hand. If you hold it too tightly, you crush it. If you hold it too loosely, it flies away.”
- Charles Hazlewood quoting conductor Sir Colin Davis