Conducting and Leadership: Lessons for Today’s Arts Entrepreneurs

Photo Credit: Grant Leighton

What lessons can today’s arts leaders glean from conducting and leadership?

Conducting is a terrific metaphor for leadership since you have a large number of highly-trained and gifted people (the musicians) who must come together to produce a great product (music) which they can only do with skilled leadership

Conducting and leadership provided the backdrop for a call that I recently had the privilege of leading with the members of the 2017 Opera American Leadership Intensive cohort. To prepare for our call, the participants watched the TED Talk by Itay Talgam, the Israeli conductor and leadership consultant, on how to lead like the great conductors.  Later that week, I attended a fascinating talk by the esteemed conductor Marin Alsop at the Yale School of Music who gave her own lessons on leadership development.

In this post, I delve into conducting and leadership to examine what two inspiring conductors can teach arts entrepreneurs about leadership. Next time, we will see how these lessons play out with the Leadership Intensive participants.

Conducting and Leadership Lessons from Itay Talgam and the Great 20th Century Conductors: Partner and Collaborate

In his highly entertaining and engaging TED Talk, Talgam gives us his views on conducting and leadership, showing 7 videos to illustrate the different styles of Ricardo Muti, Herbert von Karajan, Richard Strauss, Carlos Kleiber and Leonard Bernstein.

Three of these conductors do not effectively empower the musicians:

  • Ricardo Muti whose the controlling style stifled decision-making on the part of the musicians (and who was ultimately fired from La Scala after all of the musicians protested his autocratic style);
  • Richard Strauss, dryly technical and virtually on auto-pilot, with no interaction between the pit and the podium; and
  • Herbert von Karajan who exhibited a highly abstract style, conducting with his eyes closed and expecting the musicians to somehow understand what he was going for.

By contrast, Talgam admires Carlos Kleiber, whose body language of total unity with the players invites the musicians’ continuous involvement in making music. And above all, Talgam adores the transcendent style of his mentor Leonard Bernstein who celebrated the depth of meaning of the music and forged a powerful partnership with his musicians. Talgam’s point is that while all of the orchestras make beautiful music, the collaborative style is the most effective one in producing long-term, sustainable results.

Talgam went on to write a book called The Ignorant Maestro: How Great Leaders Inspire Unpredictable Brilliance (Penguin Books, 2015) where he expands on the TED talk to give us more insights on the analogies between orchestral conducting and business leadership. Indeed, as Talgam explains on his website, making music is an apt metaphor for business because both involve “ communication, listening, rhythm, technique, preparation, improvisation, interpretation, rehearsal and performance …[with] a great variety of performing bodies…[involving] collaboration..among conductors, composers, soloists and accompanists.”  Thus, making music provides valuable lessons for leadership, teamwork and creativity.

Conducting and Leadership Lessons from Marin Alsop:  Authenticity, Mentorship, Failure and Mutual Respect

A few days after my call with the Leadership Intensive cohort, I had an inspiring  lesson on conducting and leadership from the amazing and inspirational conductor and MacArthur Fellowship ( the “Genius Award”) winner, Marin Alsop, who was in residence at Yale to conduct the Yale School of Music’s orchestra, the Yale Philharmonia, along with the Yale Glee Club and Yale Camerata in a program of Bernstein and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

In her talk to the Yale communityMaestra Alsop shared her own development as a conductor.  Like Talgam, she is a protégée of Leonard Bernstein and the coincidences between the two talks were quite striking. The Maestra credits her mentor, Bernstein, with teaching her how to be herself as a leader. She also emphasized the importance of forging a mutually-respectful relationship with the members of the orchestra, thus echoing Talgam’s own thoughts about collaborative leadership.

Here are the highlights of her lessons on how to become a great conductor/leader:

1. Be yourself

To be a conductor, you need to be comfortable being yourself in front of a lot of people. Therefore, you need to know yourself before you put yourself in front of others. She characterized young conductors as “overconfident and not knowing enough!”and recounted the story of how she found her style while at Tanglewood where she was very fortunate to have intimate one-on-ones with Leonard Bernstein. On one occasion when she conducted, he told her, “It’s excellent conducting but I’m not moved.” She told us that she was terrified to resume conducting, but after a break, she went back and let go of the need to be perfect. “I stopped trying to be what everybody wanted me to be.” He grabbed me and said, “That’s it!!!”

2. Find a mentor

Young leaders can learn a lot by having a trusted mentor. Witness Maestra Alsop’s own experience with Leonard Bernstein.  It is also one of the reasons that she has created the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship for young women conductors so that they can get quality mentoring.

3. Learn from failure

Maestra Alsop emphasized the importance of failure and recounted how her failures were important learning experiences. One reason women conductors do not get a lot of opportunities to conduct is that as a young conductor, you get one shot with a particular orchestra and often, you are not ready so you do not get rehired. Maestra Alsop told us that she was “lucky”in winning the MacArthur Fellowship in 2005 which helped her to work her way through the many barriers that women conductors face.  Giving young women conductors as opportunity to fail was another reason that she founded the Taki Fellowship.

4. Forge a relationship of mutual respect

Maestra Alsop observed that musicians like to test young conductors from which she learned not to take things personally. She views her role as the messenger of the composer to make great music with the musicians. She emphasized the importance of forging a relationship of mutual respect with the musicians and observed that it is better to be respected than liked. That’s where knowing yourself comes in. For her conducting experience at Yale, she echoed the message from Itay Talgam about forging a partnership with the musicians.  She explained that she did not want to impose an agenda but rather to create a shared experience where “together, we find a way to touch as many people as possible.” As she told the students whom she was conducting, “Have a great time.”  Indeed, my students who had the privilege of appearing in the concert under her baton agreed that the experience of working with Maestra Alsop was truly inspirational.

I hope that Maestra Alsop someday has her own TED Talk where she can share her story and her lessons with a wide public.

Next time, how today’s arts leaders are forging their authentic leadership styles.