The High Performance Orchestra

There are many parallels that can be drawn between high performance sporting environments, other industries and life itself. All of these, to some extent, require a great deal of management to get the best out of an individual, or group of individuals.

However one parallel in the elite team environment is that of the orchestra.

“One analogy [for the manager] is the conductor of a symphony orchestra, through whose effort, vision and leadership, individual instrumental parts that are so much noise by themselves, become the living whole of music. But the conductor has the composer’s score: he is only interpreter. The manager is both composer and conductor”

Peter Drucker

In team sport there are clearly defined roles of others that make up the team and these are influential in the team’s success, and this is no different to the orchestra.

The coach of the team is the conductor of the orchestra.

The conductor doesn’t play an instrument but will have a great knowledge of many different instruments and it is the conductor is responsible for preparing the orchestra, through deep practice, to perform when necessary and ensure that each member is given every chance to achieve their collective goal of a stunning musical performance.

It is important that the conductor identifies not only the strengths of each member of the orchestra but also their weaknesses and defines the individual responsibilities as a team member. Every member of the orchestra should not only be prepared fully as an individual, but should also understand that they must work collectively at their very best to perform their flawless symphony. It is the conductor who ensures that every member of the orchestra understands their roles for them to perform effectively and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Conducting is the art of directing a musical performance, such as an orchestral or choral concert. It has been defined as “the art of directing the simultaneous performance of several players or singers by the use of gesture.”

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The conductor may also face many challenges in their career as it is the conductor who must make decisions on who stays and who goes. It is a tough task but an essential one, those who do not perform consistently well as an individual or as part of the team will be cut.

The conductor must ensure that the musical score is performed the way they hear it in their own head. The plan is ready, but the execution is crucial. The conductor must choose the works to be performed and study their scores and make any adjustments (e.g., regarding tempo, articulation, phrasing, repetitions of sections), work out their own interpretation, and relay their vision to the orchestra to play effortlessly.

The very best conductors attract the very best players. Average conductors attract average players. The best musician’s want to work for the very best conductors.

Every orchestra must have its leaders among the instrument groups. Every instrumental group has a principal who is generally responsible for leading the group and playing orchestral solos. For example, the principal first violin is called the concertmaster (or “leader” in the UK) and is not only considered the leader of the string section, but the trusted second-in-command of the entire orchestra, behind only the conductor.  Each of these leaders help to bring the composer and conductors visions to life with not only flair and style but with consistency and a stunning execution of the plan.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that in the orchestra every member has a very specific, individual role to play, to be a success though each member must play their role with absolute conviction to push the boundaries of performance for the good of the team.

But what can we take from the orchestra to the high performance team environment?

  1. Be clear with the roles and responsibilities of the team members
  2. Coach and teach but provide feedback to work on strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Lead from the front. Most musicians in the orchestra are much more talented than the conductor, but look to the conductor for leadership.
  4. Great conductors must inspire, create excitement and have a clear vision.
  5. Understand when to lead and when to allow others to lead.
  6. Without the orchestra the conductor is nothing.
  7. The conductor is aware of his gestures and how they will impact and influence others. A conductor can’t afford to make an unintentional gesture. Everything means something.
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