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Notes from the Rumble: What Symphonies Can Teach Us About Perspective

September 13, 2010
Roger Nierenberg
Roger Nierenberg: Super Conductor

Want to understand why there is so much confusion and misunderstanding between people who work together toward the same objectives? There’s an easy way. Just spend five minutes seated inside a symphony orchestra as it plays; then listen to the same music while standing on the podium. Instantly it will become unmistakably clear how the identical notes can sound both so similar and so totally different. From your chair your ear focuses on the instruments that are near you. Everything else is eclipsed by these foreground sounds.

But from the podium you see that the sonic world of your chair was just one part of a much bigger and more magnificent whole. Here all the instruments are both visible and audible. And their sounds fit together into a coherent ensemble that makes so much more sense than what you had thought was complete and sufficient from your chair.

So it is that the leader sees the strategic reality of the entire organization more clearly than those who take his or her direction. Their job descriptions don’t include tracking information that isn’t directly relevant to their own particular assignments. Yet the leader, in order to make those assignments and give directions, must see the strategic whole.

Leaders are always wishing that their people could better understand the whole organization. They long for employees to discover greater efficiencies and innovation by collaborating across boundaries. Executives wish that people could see that by optimizing their particular part they sometimes sub-optimize the whole. They wish that people, in designing their work processes, would be aware of how the information they produce will be used by others far downstream in the organization. These frustrations are familiar to anyone who takes the helm of an organization. Leaders are generally well aware of the blindness of those in the chairs.

But do they see that the podium itself has its own pitfalls? I learned this almost 25 years ago when I guest-conducted the St. Louis Symphony in the Rumble Scene from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.

The Rumble is tricky to play. I knew the Saint Louis Symphony to be a world-class orchestra, but still I was surprised at how much difficulty they had with this piece in the first rehearsal. I had to slow down the tempo and still there were many mistakes. By the end of a half hour they were playing it quite well. However, a few days later at the dress rehearsal the orchestra had forgotten everything we’d accomplished. It was a shambles. And worse, there was no time to rehearse it again – not even five minutes. Still worse, none of the musicians seems the slightest bit upset. I felt like I was the only one who cared.

Being a young conductor, I felt miserable at the prospect of a shoddy performance that would reflect badly on me. But on the night of the concert, when I raised my baton, out came a note-perfect performance – clean, accurate, full of character, thrillingly rhythmic and dynamic. When I walked off the stage I was dumbfounded at how I’d seemed to dodge a bullet. I couldn’t understand how it happened.

It wasn’t until two years later that I came to understand. With my own orchestra I was doing a performance of the full West Side Story, including the Rumble. I remembered my previous ordeal, and took some time to look at the parts the musicians read. Only then did I realize what a fantastic job the St. Louis Symphony had done. They were reading from photocopies of the original 1957 West Side Story parts. These were written in obvious haste by copyists, the way Broadway shows are often thrown together against a deadline. They were just about illegible! Finally it made sense to me – how the orchestra had struggled in the rehearsal. They were learning simply how to decipher of the notation. By the dress rehearsal, of course, they’d forgotten it. But having disgraced themselves in the dress, they all took the time at home to once again learn to read the music, and then delivered a smashing performance.

Then I clearly saw how blind I had been on the podium. Every musician in the orchestra knew exactly why they were struggling. They were calm because they knew that, with a little extra homework, they could play it perfectly. And they trusted their colleagues to do the same.

This experience showed me how easy it is for a leader, who stands apart on a podium, to lose touch with the reality of the work – how easy it is to misread and misinterpret what’s going on. I saw how you might ignorantly undermine the trust that underpins your people’s performance.

I resolved to never again draw quick and facile conclusions about my people’s effort and motivation without first making sure I had informed myself about the point of view from the chair.

Roger Nierenberg is a symphony orchestra conductor. He is creator of The Music Paradigm and author of Maestro: A Surprising Story About Leading By Listening.

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