Doing by Not Doing

Posted by jlubans on December 16, 2018

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Caption: Who’s in charge?

A recent TED Talk,Lead Like the Great Conductors” by Itay Talgam claims, rightly so, that the way conductors lead is relevant to non-musical bosses.
Talgam, a former conductor, is now a self-professed “conductor of people in business.”
I’ve long been interested in the topic, e.g. my articles about how Simone Young led her orchestras when she was in Sydney, Australia and then in Hamburg, Germany. My book, Leading from the Middle, has a chapter on Simone.
I found her to be a splendid example of a collaborative conductor: her’s was a partnership with the musicians. I never observed her browbeating anyone or refusing to see an opposing view.
While she may well have been the brightest person in the room, I never got the sense that she would reject other musical views simply because she knew best.
Talgam, in the TED talk, shows via video well known successful conductors. The first is Carlos Kleiber who with his body language appears to invite the musicians’ continuous involvement in making the music. How hands off is he? Hard to tell but he does seem to enjoy very much the sound he is hearing and the musicians do see his enjoyment.
Perhaps they build on that.
I might call Kleiber’s leadership style laissez faire. If you have very good people in your organization who want freedom and accept responsibility the hands-off approach might get very good results.
In counter point, Talgam is not so impressed with conductors like the controlling Ricardo Muti, nor the distant Richard Strauss nor Herbert von Karajan, who we see with eyes closed simply enjoying the music and expecting the musicians to keep at it with zero intervention from the podium.
Muti is unquestionably an autocrat. I am not sure how to characterize in management talk the other two. But, before we dismiss the command and control conductor type, remember there are people (many or few depending on the organization) who want to be told what to do. They do not want to think for themselves - it's not in their job description, as they will remind you.
And, rehearsals would likely see a very different – versus the actual performance - musical leadership from Strauss and von Karajan. I like to think that neither conducted rehearsals with their eyes closed.
Also, I am certain Muti laid down the law as to what the sound and tempo were going to be. Any problem with that?
Talgam’s ideal conductor is “Lenny” – his nickname for his mentor - Leonard Bernstein.
Indeed Mr. Bernstein does empower his musicians so that they apparently do achieve very good music. Possibly, Mr. Bernstein is a democratic leader.
Talgam’s TED talk features a video of Lenny letting go completely, we are led to believe. He puts down his baton and simply uses facial expressions to show his delight with what he is hearing. This we are told is a perfect example of “Doing by Not Doing”, the Taoist paradox.
Talgam fails to mention the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (depicted above). There’s a relevant quote from Herbert von Karajan :
"The worst damage I can do to my orchestra is to give them a clear instruction. Because that would prevent the 'ensemble', the listening to each other that is needed for an orchestra."
Listening to each other is wha the egalitarian Orpheus does better than any other orchestra.
At one Orpheus rehearsal I met a student conductor. He told me that observing an Orpheus rehearsal taught him more about conducting than his classes did!
The Talgam tape of Mr. Bernstein letting go of the reins, so to speak, reminded me of something that happened when the violinist Itzhak Perlman guested one night with Orpheus at Lincoln Center.
Most guest artists enjoy playing with Orpheus since doing so gives them unprecedented freedom of expression. If there’s a conductor involved, regardless of who, there will be constraints.
Unlike Mr. Bernstein and his facial expressions, when Perlman sat out a piece - telling the audience that Orpheus was fully capable in DIY mode - he sat there, fiddled with the sheet music, pulled up his socks all the while simply enjoying the music. This was really doing by not doing!
When I show the Lincoln Center tape, some of my students fail to see this, and criticize Perlman for being a distraction. Hardly, he truly lets go and Orpheus fails him not.
Perlman looks truly apart from the music, leading by not leading at all. He sees the musicians as they are – no pandering or patronizing or permission giving.

© Copyright John Lubans 2018


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