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Inspiration, Taking Risks, and Leadership

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Inspiration blog pic

There was a revealing moment in my recent session in Rio de Janeiro, my first time working with a Brazilian orchestra.  At one point I modeled a dysfunctional conductor whose preoccupation with the movements of his baton had eclipsed his connection to the actual sound the musicians were producing.  Of course the orchestra responded by playing with a dull, colorless tone.  When I stopped them, handed the microphone to one of the violinists, and asked her to describe the experience of playing with that conductor she observed, “With conducting like that it’s better not to watch.”

Her remark drew some chuckling from the audience of executives seated among the players.  Most non-musicians have no idea how often professional players decide that they’re better off ignoring the conductor.  Many executives are equally unaware of how often their own people reach the same conclusion about them – thus the nervous chuckling.  So I used this moment to shed some light on an important leadership lesson.

“Can you explain why you chose to look away?” I asked the musician.

“Because you didn’t inspire me,” she replied, giving voice to the complaint of generations of orchestral musicians.  I could see that the executives were listening with more than casual curiosity.  “I don’t get it,” I feigned.  “I hire you, I pay you, and now I’m supposed to inspire you, too?  You’re supposed to be fine artists,” I declared with pretended indignation.  “Why do you need the conductor to inspire you?”

Here was the opening for the leaders to understand exactly why inspiration really is their responsibility, not an optional add-on.

We musicians, sitting in the orchestra, have a lot to offer.  But how often will we put forward everything we have? Very seldom.  The reason is that really beautiful, inspired playing requires taking a lot of risk.  It’s only in going to the very edge of what’s comfortable that we find our most poignantly beautiful phrasing or our most sparkling articulation.  Maybe when we have an exposed solo we’ll feel empowered to take that risk. But when we’re part of an ensemble, above all, we don’t want to be the one sticking out.  So we’re waiting to get some indication from the leader about what kind of result we’re aiming for.  What kind of effort is asked of us?  We need a strong, unmistakable message of steadfast commitment to a goal we’re convinced is worth achieving.  Unless we get that, we’ll all default to the comfortable, routine, conventional way of going about our business and watch the clock until the rehearsal is over.


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