I had a wonderful opportunity this week to participate in an event at the Houston Grand Opera. A select group of opera fans were invited to spend an hour sitting with the HGO Orchestra as Artistic Director Patrick Summers walked us through a rehearsal, playing through two pieces from “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro”. My husband and I sat with the violin section for the first half hour, and then behind the percussion for the second half. Maestro Summers conducted the musicians, stopping them for corrections on tempo, suggestions on phrasing, and in the latter number, an aria, worked with an amazing soloist from the HGO Studio as she sang through a beautiful piece.
In addition to the amazing experience of sitting next to instrumentalists during the hour listening to wonderful music, there were important leadership lessons to be gleaned from his comments -- suggestions and lessons that can be easily applied to those who work in the business world.
Timing must be anticipated
Observation: Those musicians sitting in the rear of the orchestra, and therefore at a distance from the conductor, run the danger of having their sound reach the audience at a slight delay because of how much farther back they sit. Therefore, they need to “anticipate” entrances, and adjust their timing accordingly.
Lesson: Leaders need to anticipate how messages are received, and not assume that the words that are spoken reach the receiver at the right time or contain the right meaning. Considering the “placement” of the recipient, be it physical or mental, is imperative for how a message needs to be constructed and delivered. Understand what they may hear first, which might contribute to their conscious or unconscious biases. Time your messages wisely.
Understand the importance of vantage point
Observation: Musicians sitting in the horn section often cannot hear the strings. Similarly, those sitting in the orchestra pit might not even be able to hear the singers. Those singing in an ensemble might not hear the instruments. The only person who can hear everything in a balance is the conductor, and he/she will need to adjust the performers’ inputs accordingly.
Lesson: Leaders need to realize they may not always be in the best position to call the shots. Sometimes, because of our environment, our observations can be skewed and mistaken. We need to question ourselves about whether others might have a “better view” or whether they can offer a valuable perspective. Just because you have the title doesn’t necessarily mean you should call the shots. You might be sitting next to some loud horns!
Know with whom you have to collaborate
Observation: The timpanist made a wonderful comment when asked about timing. He said that sometimes, he plays with the horns, so he has to adjust his volume and timing to them. Sometimes he has to play with strings, and needs to adjust his volume accordingly. His message was that he needs to remember who he’s playing with, so as not to overpower or underplay.
Lesson: Understanding who we are working with – whether they are experienced or a novice, whether they share our cultural norms, and whether they are confident or shy, calls for a leader’s ability to adjust and modify to create the most ideal working environment for best results. We all have the ability to adjust our approach and impact.
Plan, but adjust
Observation: A question was asked of the concertmaster whether how the violins bowed was something that was decided ahead of time, or on the fly. His answer was great: Both. For the most part, bowing decisions are made ahead of time, so that strings play in unison and create a consistent sound. But from time to time, adjustments have to be made, and it is his job to lead in any changes. In the production of an opera, the performance can change nightly, depending on subtleties on stage as well as in the orchestra. It is essential for both the conductor and the concertmaster to read those differences, and adjust accordingly.
Lesson: Leaders should to plan as much as possible, seeking the advice of their experts and colleagues. But from time to time, an organization needs to adjust, and it is up to the leader to guide the others. Maintaining flexibility is essential to an optimal result. One’s ability to be successful in making those real-time changes depends on their ability to gain the respect of the organization, and having the track record of having called the right shots in the past.
Listen, listen, and listen
Observation: I consider myself pretty well-versed in classical music, but sitting through this rehearsal and hearing the conductor stop and make even slight suggestions to shading and musical line made me realize how much of the musical intricacies I don’t always hear. The difference between whether an eighth note was dotted or not made a discernable, incredible difference when a few measures were replayed.
Lesson: It’s too easy for leaders to gloss over things that seem trivial, but catching the minutia can make a huge difference. Forgetting to mind the details can make a tremendous difference in how well a message is received, whether we’ve built or damaged a person’s confidence, or whether someone can be motivated to take a small innovative chance on a big idea. Active listening is something that all great leaders do well and a skill they continue to hone.
Pick the right time for feedback
Observation: When asked the question of whether an opera conductor gives much constructive feedback to singers, Maestro Summers commented that, for the most part, that is done “in private” and not in front of a group. Given that the artistic integrity of opera often resides in the interpretation of a character by a solo vocalist, discussions around different interpretations can be serious points of contention between a conductor, coach, and a singer. Those are best taken “offline” in a rehearsal room where lengthy (and potentially difficult!) dialogue can take place.
Lesson: Having uncomfortable conversations is something that all leaders have to do. Choosing the right time and place to have such conversations is imperative to not only achieve the right outcome, but to leave the conversation with a better understanding of two different perspectives, and greater mutual respect. A wonderful message can get lost in how and where that message is delivered. Great leaders deliberate on how it’s best done.
Sometimes the best leadership lessons are learned in what you’d consider a very unlikely place. I went into the evening thinking I’d just be listening to fabulous musicians playing great music. What could I possibly learn by watching a conductor work with his orchestra? I suppose that’s the final lesson of this post.