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Even the Podium Has Its Blindspots

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

In every Music Paradigm session I include some demonstration about how different the orchestra sounds when standing on the podium, compared to what the players hear in their chairs. From the podium the entire orchestra snaps into focus, like the pieces of a puzzle being assembled into one vibrant, coherent picture. To the session participant who moves from the chair to the podium, the first impression is that from the conductor’s vantage point, one could know everything. But it’s important to realize that even the podium has its blindspots. Misreading a situation from the podium can be much more destructive than the leader imagines.

I recently fell into just such a trap.

The rehearsal began badly. Traffic jams had caused many players to arrive in a flustered state of mind. Some arrived late.  We were playing in a noisy room – very hard to hear – and the orchestra struggled to play together. The players seemed very demoralized and apathetic. Fine and dandy for them, I thought, but I’m responsible for turning this chaos into a success. No panic, however. I’ve dealt with more challenging circumstances than this. So I methodically began addressing one problem after another and very gradually the orchestra woke up. One player, however, seemed particularly uninvolved and I decided to chide him about making the orchestra wait while he took his time to find the right measure to begin playing. It’s strong medicine when a conductor publicly expresses frustration with a musician, but I did it quickly and it seemed to get results, from everyone. By the end of my 60-minute rehearsal the orchestra was sounding lively and crisp. I thought it was a pretty good rehearsal.

As the musicians dispersed on their break the player in question approached me and demanded an apology. Of course, my knee-jerk reaction was to tell him that he’d brought it on himself. But I knew better since I’m aware that any podium has its blindspots.  So I asked him to describe what had happened. He was still very upset. “I didn’t come here,” he seethed, controlling his anger and pain, “to be humiliated in front of my colleagues.” Then he explained that there was a noisy room fan in his vicinity. Sitting far away from the podium he was struggling even to hear my directions. (The fan was completely inaudible from where I had been standing.) Then, when I imagined myself sitting in his chair, his actions suddenly made complete sense. So I gave him the apology he demanded and thanked him for helping me better understand why the orchestra had been so demoralized. But my learning was not over.

When I reflected on the incident I wondered why the player had not simply asked me to speak louder. Why had he not been proactive? That question led me to a really powerful insight: a workforce will default to passivity and grumbling unless a culture of empowerment is consistently cultivated from the top. You cannot expect an orchestra that assembles for the first time to have a take-charge attitude. Even an orchestra that works together regularly will not automatically feel accountable for anything other than the specific notes they play. The default behavior is to whisper complaints to each other, rather than voice their concerns directly to the leadership. So it falls on the conductor to understand this, and find many ways to compellingly encourage the same empowerment that leaders on the podium automatically feel.

The next time I see an apathetic musician I will probably ask the entire orchestra, not singling him out, if there is some difficulty with the circumstances. Of course I will insist that we do what’s necessary to overcome the problems. But I will be much more careful about wounding a musician who unwittingly sits in the podium’s blindspot.


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