Friday Fable: Krylov’s “The Musicians”*

Posted by jlubans on May 13, 2016

Caption: Musical critic as bird-in-the-tree.

“THE tricksy monkey, the goat, the ass, and bandy-legged Mishka, the bear, determined to play a quartet. They provided themselves with the necessary instruments — two fiddles, an alto, and a bass. Then they all settled down under a large tree, with the object of dazzling the world by their artistic performance. They fiddled away lustily for some time, but only succeeded in making a noise, and no more.
‘Stop, my friends!’ said the monkey, ‘this will not do; our music does not sound as it ought. It is plain that we are in the wrong positions. You, Mishka, take your bass and face the alto; I will go opposite the second fiddle, Then we shall play altogether differently, so that the very hills and forests will dance.
So they changed places, and began over again. But they produced only discords, as before.
‘Wait a moment!’ exclaimed the ass; ‘I know what the matter is. We must get in a row, and then we shall play in tune.’
The advice was acted upon. The four animals placed themselves in a straight line, and struck up once more.
The quarter was as unmusical as ever. Then they stopped again, and began squabbling and wrangling about the proper positions to be taken. It happened that a nightingale came flying by that way, attracted by their din. They begged the nightingale to solve their difficulty for them.
‘Pray be so kind,’ they said, ‘as to stay a moment, so that we may get our quartet in order. We have music and we have instruments; only tell us how to place ourselves.’
To which the nightingale replied:
‘To be a musician, one must have a better ear and more intelligence than any of you. Place yourselves any way you like; it will make no difference. You will never become musicians.’” (emphasis added)

You may have noted who’s first violin (the erstwhile boss): the monkey!
In my business, we’d go through disruptive episodes; these were termed, euphemistically, “re-organizations”. Unlike the candid nightingale, the participants in these administrative shuffles were reluctant to speak the truth, so we would re-arrange ourselves in hopes of some ineffable improvement in “communication” – our “music”.
The telltale clue in most of these re-groupings was the lack of any objective measures to gauge the improvement. Did we sound better? Did we listen to each other to inform our music? Was our music sweeter post-reorganization? Did we interpret the score the way the composer meant it to be?
If anyone within the organization spoke up like the nightingale they’d be portrayed as overly harsh and too blunt, destroying the group’s esteem and obstructing efforts to improve.
The re-grouping did have one positive aspect: the illusion that something was changing, somehow for the better.
On the other hand, I can say unlike Krylov’s talentless and tone deaf quartet the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra** – which plays famously without a conductor (a nightingale?) - does not hesitate to self-correct. In concert hall rehearsals, one or more musicians will go out into the middle of the hall, listen, and then report back as to the sound and ways to improve. I have long wondered if we in the workplace could not emulate this practice to improve our group efforts.
The nightingale, far from being a heartless critic, is what most organizations (and individuals) desperately need: someone to speak the truth.

*Source: The World’s Wit and Humor, Vol. XIV, Russian, Scandinavian, and Miscellaneous Wit and Humor; The Review of Reviews Company; New York; 1906; pp. 19-21.

**Search this blog for Orpheus and get a dozen or more essays.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016
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