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Tiffany Chang conductor 

Note: The blog has moved here to ConductoAsCEO.com. 


Any new and existing posts will be hosted there. 

Below are only posts from before June 24, 2021.




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I imagine a world where conductors make artistic organizations great like CEOs make businesses great--by being of service to its people.

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Confident humility

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 24 June, 2021 at 8:00

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the liabilities of charisma and how strength of personality may lead to our doing things to please the leader and to our making decisions through the lens of the leader's view of the world.

 

Well, this poses a dilemma and a series of questions for leaders. Does that mean leaders should not demonstrate strength in vision or exercise their influence on their groups? How could leaders effectively help guide people toward their visions without imposing? How could their groups truly feel fulfilled by their work? What does it even mean to feel fulfilled? 

 

The questions continue, and they get harder and harder to answer. 
---


I've always struggled with confidence. Here's what typically goes on in my head - on and off the podium (you just need to add "in rehearsal" after each sentence for on the podium):


      • I know we can all be more fulfilled in our work everyday and I know we can get there, but I don't know how.

      • I've learned so much from people who have brilliant solutions and revolutionary ideas, but I don't know which ideas would work for which problems.

      • I know the change I seek to make in the world, but it might take fifty failed attempts to implement the solutions. I won't know if it'll work until I try, but trying means failing.

 

Not knowing answers kills my confidence. It leads me to believe that wrong solutions make me a bad leader. Not having all the answers makes me a leader others don't deserve. It makes me believe that once people find out that I don't know everything, they will pass judgement and say that I don't belong.

 

And on the rare occasion that I do feel confident about a decision, I become afraid that it's not warranted and I'm missing something. I would fear being too confident. 

 

So, I could never win.

 

I'm sure this is the result of my personal experiences, but it is also the result of living in a world that indoctrinates these ideas in us on a daily basis. 

 

However, there is perhaps another way to unpack my battle with confidence, with what Adam Grant calls "confident humility."
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Grant describes confident humility as "confidence in skill and ability to reach goals" plus "the humility in the tools and processes to get there."  

 

As leaders, we can (and should) have confidence in our skills and clarity of vision. Without those, we won't know where we're going nor seek to gain the tools to get there. At the same time, we can (and should) admit that we don't have all the answers. We all have blindspots that blur our view of the world. With the help of others (the group), we can seek to find the best solutions together. So it pays off to show humility in not knowing the processes and questioning the path to reach any goal.

 

Confidence and humility are therefore not mutually exclusive. You don't need to pick one or the other. 
---


Leaders that demonstrate confident humility do the following:

 

1) They normalize the humanity in all of us. We all make mistakes. We don't know everything. Nobody does. Confident humility encourages the people to recognize and reveal the humility in themselves, instead of hiding behind confidence and the need to only supply the right answers (or the right artistic product).


Without that fear of being wrong, imagine the risks we'd be willing to take and the growth we'd be able to accomplish - both personally and in service of the group.


2) They empower the group to openly contribute to problem solving that makes the journey toward the vision more efficient.


If everyone sitting in the rehearsal knows what the problem is and the conductor missed it, why is it the norm that we either secretly fix it ourselves and/or shame the conductor for not having noticed it?


We assume that the conductor should know everything and because they didn't notice something, we conclude that they are deficient in some way. Since the conductor is incompetent, it's up to us to do their job.


While this kind of commentary may be accurate and shows the conductor needs to improve, it fosters judgement that brews fear of doing something wrong and a mindset that supports hiding for not being good enough. It results in us vs. them, a lack of camaraderie, trust, and psychological safety. If we're saying things behind someone's back, which people are saying things about us behind our backs? In addition, there is a lack of us accomplishing something together, but rather you are responsible for this, and I am responsible for that.


What if when the conductor struggles with finding a solution, the group quickly and openly offers the solution they see? The conductor can recognize those who offered it and say thank you, and we fix it and move on.


Sometimes the conductor has the solution, and other times, the group has a better solution. At the end of the day, what are we trying to accomplish? A common goal.

 

We all can have the confidence in our ability to work toward the same goal, and we are all responsible for getting there in the quickest and most effective way. We also have the humility to seek and ask for help from the others on the team openly. In the process of having both confidence and humility, we start to dismantle the us and them.
---


When we think of what we want in leaders, we think about someone with an abundance of expertise, who provides solutions to all our problems, and someone who is confident.

 

These leaders do make our lives easier to some extent, but they also remove autonomy, complexity, and the relationship between effort and reward of problem solving. Those are three elements that lead to fulfillment (according to Malcolm Gladwell and many others). 

 

When a leader practices confident humility, we are given the opportunity to 1) regain the liberating autonomy to take action we believe in, 2) confront the challenging complexity of problems and having to solve them, and 3) give true effort that leads to satisfying rewards - and thus, fulfillment. 

 

Finally, Gladwell agrees with Grant by saying, "What we think we need in a leader is their expertise, but in fact, we need a leader for their humility."

 

I can certainly work harder to become more confident about not knowing all the answers and asking for help.


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Why don't we talk about it?

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 17 June, 2021 at 8:00

Imagine a cellist sitting in rehearsal about to play a few pages' worth of tonics and dominants in a Rossini Act I finale.

 

After the rehearsal, what's the likelihood of them being excited to tell someone else about it? Encouraging someone to come see a performance? Sharing the experience with a friend in a coffee chat the next day?

 

It's probably more likely that they'll complain about having to play the passage and how boring they find Rossini operas to play. 

 

For the cellist, the passage (and probably most of the opera) is mundane, repetitive, not hard to play, and frankly a means to get their paycheck at the end of the show. Why would that be interesting to talk about? Why would anyone want to hear about it - other than to give their sympathies for enduring the torture? If the cellist doesn't see reason to be invested in the activity, why would they feel inclined to invite someone to see the show?

 

These are some possible reasons why performers themselves sometimes are not the most eager advocates for their own large ensemble performances, and why they are not eager to talk about it.
---


We've all heard it before. Consider these two common things we say:

 

1) In school, we'd tell our friends, "You don't need to come to the orchestra concert, it's not going to be good anyway." 

 

That statement reveals our level of commitment as a performer. If we don't think it's going to be good anyway, why should we even try to make it good. The mindset is demotivating and our thoughts would almost certainly result in a sub-par concert. 

 

So, why don't we feel committed? Maybe we don't feel inspired in rehearsals by the person on the podium, or by our colleagues sitting next to us. Perhaps we don't understand how the music "works" so our parts seem pointless. Maybe our commitment is currently elsewhere (in a solo recital the next day, or that big audition next weekend) and we can't spare any commitment to this rehearsal right now? 

 

Why wouldn't we tell people to come? If we don't like or feel invested in the experience, our friends (who share our taste) would certainly feel the same. So obviously they shouldn't come. It will not be a good use of their time. We are looking out for them and their valuable time. Or perhaps we are ashamed of contributing to a sub-par product, so we don't want anyone to bear witness to it.

 

2) In school, we'd also told our friends, "You should come see this orchestra concert. You'll love it -  the soloist, the conductor, and/or whatever piece of music."

 

That statement also reveals our level of commitment as a performer. We are excited about it: we feel attached to and direct contributors to the outcome. We are confident that how we perform will impact the success of the show. It will be a great concert because we will give it our all and we know we are capable of accomplishing it. This is all highly motivating.

 

So, why do we feel so motivated and committed? Well, something about this soloist, conductor, or piece of music transformed and motivated us. Maybe it's the way the composition has surprised us with its twists and turns. Perhaps it's how the soloist made us feel, like we are an equal musical partner, and that made us want to give our all. Maybe it's how the conductor revealed the significance of our part in rehearsal that made us play with more conviction and purpose.

 

Why would we tell people to come? The experience has changed us, surprised us, delighted us, or taught us. It has motivated us to be committed to giving that same gift to others. We want our friends to feel what we've felt and discover what we've found. We are looking out for them and we want them to be better people as a result of it - or simply to share our joy. We want them to bear witness to our being an integral part of something greater than ourselves.

---


In reflecting on these two scenarios: we realize that sometimes whether we choose to tell others about something is truly due to the objective quality of the product. Most of the time, however, it's a reflection on whether we've been positively impacted and changed by it. If we were positively transformed, we would want to share that experience. We don't need comp tickets to be compelled to tell others about it. In fact, if we feel so strongly that it's something they must experience, we'd probably go out and buy them the tickets ourselves.
---

 

Now, back to that cellist playing Rossini.

 

What if they experienced a transformation during a rehearsal: maybe they went into the rehearsal thinking the sea of tonic-dominants is boring, pointless, and injury-inducing, but they somehow left feeling the same passage is exhilarating and kaleidoscopic - every new line of the same thing is now a new color, a new emotion, a new temperature. 

 

Maybe the transformation was a result of something their stand partner said about the passage during the break. Perhaps it was the way the conductor led the unfolding of the passage. Or it could be the specific way the oboist played the melody that inspired the shift of mindset.

 

The cellist may not have a clue as to why that change happened in them and who or what caused it. But they would probably feel inclined to share that experience with a friend, colleague, or family member later in the day. The conversation is highly personal, self-motivated, and an act of sharing - because the cellist cares about it. It's about them and something that happened to them, and they are the only one who can share the specifics of that unique experience. It just may spark a conversation that leads to their friend getting a ticket to the show.
---


As leaders, we often want our performers to be advocates in bringing in audiences. But we often don't start with asking: why would they want to talk about it in the first place?

 

What are the personal stories of impact and change that would motivate them to talk about it (without any prodding or incentives)? And what is actually preventing them from talking about it? Why might they be uninterested to share it?

 

Musicians seek to have an impact on others through work that is meaningful and purposeful. If they indeed believe their work is meaningful and purposeful, they will realize that in order to have an impact on others, there must be people there to receive it. So the stakes become high for them to tell others about it. 

 

At the end of the day, we can leverage these stakes to increase fulfillment and help musicians own impact - generated by the people themselves wanting to talk about it with others (as opposed to being instructed to do so by an organization).

 

And as leaders, we can ask ourselves: what are we doing to cultivate an environment that encourages this? How have we transformed our musicians so that they'd want to talk about their work?

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Liability of charisma

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 10 June, 2021 at 8:00

When you make decisions or take actions, are they determined by whether they would be deemed acceptable by the leader, teacher, or other authority figure? 

 

I answered yes numerous times throughout my own conducting training and while watching others teach conducting.

 

I find it interesting that conductor training usually involves scenarios driven by 1) pleasing the personality that is in the position of authority (the teacher), 2) being attracted to that person's charisma and using it as a lens through which we make decisions, and 3) viewing that person's artistic purpose or interpretation as the one and only. The more famous and established the teacher, the more normalized and motivating are these status drivers. 

 

Here are two common scenarios:  

      1. When teaching score study, the teacher often gives a play-by-play prescription on how to navigate the score - such as go faster here, conduct in 4 in this bar, and then in 2 the next bar. This is the way it's done; it's the way they were taught themselves by their teachers. There is not often discussion about what led to these decisions or about how to develop one's own interpretation. To defy or question these handed-down interpretations means defying the teacher, their teachers, and tradition. There is no space for rethinking nor discovery. 

      2. When teaching rehearsal techniques, what often happens is the teacher gets on the podium and does a "let me show you how it's done" demonstration by rehearsing the ensemble themselves - doing all the work for the student, while the student is supposed to learn from osmosis. Yes, it is intended as teaching via demonstration, but imitation is no substitute for actual experience. 

  

The student ends up with copious notes on the page and lots of rehearsal phrases to pull out of their toolbox, but the student lacks the decision-making know-how and practice that would have led them to making those decisions and gaining those rehearsal phrases - therefore, they lack true ownership. 

 

The understanding of the score becomes quite hollow, and the student often does not have compelling reasons to justify choices -- after all, these were not their choices to begin with. And rehearsal skills are lacking since the student didn't get the actual experience of reacting to circumstances in real-time. The creativity of identifying the problem, failing to solve it, and rethinking solutions are all missing in this process. Instead, what they simply have are out-of-context comments to throw at musicians.

 

I have seen these strategies celebrated as the norm, especially in professional training programs, and I remain unconvinced that these methods result in the most self-sufficient, fulfilled artists.
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The scenarios above result in a kind of learning based on 1) passing information from teacher to student and 2) valuing a teacher's charisma and personality as the driver for decisions and actions.

 

It's much easier to say, "Tell me what I need to know, how I could fix this problem, or what I need to do to make myself credible," than to say, "I'm going to try and solve this problem or answer this complex question on my own." 

 

Examining the information on the score as clues to be pieced together takes effort. Making mistakes and discovering alternative solutions in rehearsals take time. But both result in a sense of purpose and ownership. We might miss a clue, fail at making sense, or make ineffective choices, but every step of the way hones and solidifies the responsibility of ownership, integrity of thought, and personal purpose. With their own sense of responsibility, integrity, and purpose, they can act with confidence, conviction, and (well) purpose. There is no desperate attempt to see things through the lens of someone in the position of authority or to gain approval from those higher up in status.
---


When we are conditioned to value personality and charisma for why we make decisions, we should be careful of its liability. 

 

Author Jim Collins talks about the "liability of charisma." He explains that charismatic leaders lead the group to focus on the facts through the lens of the leader, which may prevent the group from seeing the "brutal facts" (Collins' term) as they truly are. Non-charismatic leaders help the group focus on the facts as they are perceived by the outside world. In the latter case, there is more objective clarity for the group to make sound decisions.

 

In addition, the liabilities of charisma include 1) people doing things to please the leader and not to serve the purpose of the organization, 2) everyone allowing the leader to be the only person with ideas, and 3) the organization becoming too dependent on the leader and wouldn't know what to do when the leader leaves.

 

Collins states, "A company's long-term health requires a leader who can infuse the company with its own sense of purpose, instead of his or hers, and who can translate that purpose into action through mechanisms, not force of personality."
---


In the field of music, we often worship those in authority, especially those who have strong charisma. They define our rights and wrongs. They tell us what to think. They impose their sense of purpose onto us, sometimes even in a well-meaning manner. 

 

Considering that we may be victims to the liabilities of charisma, we can ask ourselves: 

 

      • Are we making decisions to please the leader?

      • Do we feel internal conviction about why we are doing something?

      • When's the last time we had an idea of our own? And shared it with the leader or someone else in the organization?

      • If the leader were to leave, would we have the same sense of purpose?

 

Thinking about the answer to these questions may reveal that we are indeed victims of the liabilities of charisma.


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Thinking for ourselves

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 3 June, 2021 at 8:15

When musicians sit in a large ensemble rehearsal, we often wait to be told what to do next, how to play something, or what we need to do to fix problems. Overtime, we become out of practice in thinking for ourselves, and we are afraid and uncomfortable in making decisions. In fact, this mode of operation begins way before the moment we begin our professional lives.

 

Throughout our musical education, we gain an abundance of skills and relevant concepts such as those from music theory and history. But we don't always keep practicing how to use them to generate our own points of view on the music or how we perform it. Maybe we were taught for a few months on exactly how to do that in the context of a course, but it is not honed year by year, day by day. We don't develop the habit of using that knowledge to solve problems or make interesting discoveries about the tasks at hand. Instead, the reality becomes that we regurgitate information to obtain a grade or to complete a degree, only to soon forget the information. This process does not motivate us to understand why we are learning it, the purpose of (sometimes complex) processes, nor the implications of it on performance.
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I have personally witnessed this in tutoring music theory at the doctoral level for over a decade. Musicians are not well-practiced at thinking for themselves and rarely see the reason behind the tasks they are obliged to complete. However, when the task is seen as a process of discovery and asking "why" questions, suddenly it becomes an interesting activity that is full of purpose, both informing or challenging decisions they can make themselves about their own music making. I'm always shocked at how simply articulating the purpose of the exercise transforms the musician's mindset and makes the task so much more impactful and sometimes even enjoyable.

 

The students have convinced themselves that what they're doing is worthwhile through being asked questions. People are often the best people to convince themselves if that option is available.

 

Adam Grant talks about this important point in his new book Think Again (more here). He says, "By asking questions, rather than thinking for the audience, we invite them to join us as a partner and think for themselves." Now, this was in the context of debates, but I think it is applicable in many other situations as well.

 

Why is this so difficult within the context of academic training for musicians?

 

I think it's because we don't first unlock a perspective in the musician that positions purpose front and center as the key motivator. Why are they being asked to learn something? How does it challenge their own preconceptions about the music? How does it make them a more creative performer? How does it give them more ownership in their creative work?

 

Also, I see that, even when musicians are given an extraordinary music theory education with purpose in their undergraduate years, the purpose mindset deteriorates quickly due to lack of application. And when they reach their doctoral studies, the mindset is mostly non-existent. And there is even less hope for those who did not start off so strongly.
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This typical rapid deterioration (or simply lack) of purpose in music theory is simply a microcosm of how our general training and education easily results in an industry of professional musicians who are not conditioned to think for themselves. We wait for someone else (like the conductor, their teacher, or other authority figure) to do the thinking and then tell us the path forward. When we are in school, perhaps that's how we learn, but it naturally extends into the professional scene.

 

This mindset contributes to an industry culture that puts purpose in the back seat and focuses instead on doing things "right" in the approving eyes of authority.

 

Professionally, we are trained to do what we're told to so we can keep our jobs and maintain our standing. It is a safe process and maximizes efficiency since we know it makes the giant machine work. We don't want to do anything wrong to jeopardize that condition, so we become less inclined to take risks and speak up, even when we know deep down something is awry. We are comfortable allowing a leader to make decisions - sometimes because we can say ultimately that we are not responsible for those decisions should anything go wrong. Other times, it's simply because we don't know we have the capacity to do so.

 

What if we felt like we had a higher stake in these decisions should they go wrong? What if organizations can help artists feel like it is part of their job to make decisions, rather than just contributing skills and time?
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We are not always taught the relevance and application of the concepts and skills we learn; or if we were taught, we forget easily in the hustle and bustle of professional work. So we don't think to use them when we encounter artistic problems to solve or decisions to make, which is every single time we pick up our instruments.

 

I have noticed that when I am the most inspiring and impactful in my work with large ensembles, it is always a result of 1) achieving self-sufficiency in artists to think for themselves and make decisions and 2) giving them permission to have a stake in the purpose that is collectively ours--not just mine.

 

These are not simply educational tactics that only should occur in academia. But they are life tactics that ensure we have professionals in any field who feel fulfilled in their lives.

 

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Grades with purpose

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 27 May, 2021 at 8:35

Recently, I've become interested in ways we may revamp our grading and incentive structures for large ensembles in the pre-professional academic context - and by extension the professional context. (If we swap "grade" for "pay" or "incentive", for the most part, the ideas can be mapped onto the professional setting.) 

 

We typically determine grades based on measurable metrics such as attendance. And at best we use subjective evaluations of etiquette, attitude, musicianship, or effort as determined by the leader, instructor, and/or conductor.

 

In this context, grades become somewhat transactional: you do this to get that grade. We end up considering which grade we want and plan the corresponding actions that will result in that grade. We make decisions sometimes about how much we can get away with - not because we are terrible or malicious people, but because we are simply human beings easily affected by external motivators, or what we also call carrots and sticks. If there was any inherent passion and intrinsic motivation for large ensemble playing, they are quickly squashed and diminished by these associations (and studies have shown this). We end up thinking, "I am not motivated to do this unless I'm going to get that grade." 

 

Author Daniel Pink said in a talk, "Too many students walk through the schoolhouse door with one aim in mind: to get good grades. And all too often the best way to reach this goal is to get with the program, avoid risks, and serve up the answers that the teacher wants, the way the teacher wants them. Good grades become a reward for compliance but don't have much to do with learning." 
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It is true that the typical education trains us to become compliance machines and we get really good at it. What are the consequences for this in the large ensemble context?

  

      • We get tunnel vision and see only limited, known solutions to problems.

      • We are afraid to experiment and take risks--artistically and organizationally.

      • We don't speak up in fear of things being wrong.

      • We become less inquisitive and curious (because why would we need to be if we can do our bare minimum in a transactional context).

      • We stop thinking for ourselves and feel uncomfortable making decisions.

      • Our creativity suffers and the work becomes mundane.

 

We end up with musicians who avoid taking risks and who want to play it safe. Musicians who are not interested in facets beyond the skills and tasks they are bringing to the table. While they may be fantastic musicians, they wait to be told what to do and how to think.

 

Pink also says that, "We expect people to not like their job, so we put in place carrots or sticks to motivate them externally. People are the highest motivated by intrinsic aspects. The solution is not to entice people with a sweeter carrot or threaten with a sharper stick."

 

It's interesting to consider why we think we'd have to motivate externally as a default, and why we continue to be convinced that the threat of a lower grade would make someone more compliant or that winning a salary bidding war would always secure a hire. 

 

Grades are the external carrots and sticks. They are not directly connected to the purpose and meaning of the work being done nor internal values. They are simply not designed that way, traditionally. So people lack a sense of purpose beyond the reward of the grade, and they become less invested and less motivated from within.
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But - I've been thinking: what if we could connect grades to purpose and values?

 

Here are some what if's:

  

      • What if we can reframe the grading structure so that it measures and rewards a musician's contribution to the organization culture, the extent to which they are living out the organization's values, or how they are serving the organization's collective purpose?

      • What if the grading items (such as attendance and musicianship) were not seen as simply the end goals, but rather means to achieve the organizational values and purpose? And every action and decision were funneled through those filters, seen through those lenses? 

      • What if we embraced more lateral, peer-to-peer evaluations and self-evaluations in addition to top-down ones? What if the people had more of a stake in the assessment of themselves and their peers?

 

To use my own ensemble as a case study:

 

Our values include excellence, innovation, belonging, collaboration, and accountability.

Our purpose is to bring the conservatory experience to all musicians regardless of major and challenge the status quo via our values.

 

Some ideas:

  

      • We could document effort and track growth in musicianship as ways to seek excellence in the vein of a conservatory experience.

      • We could treat appropriate ensemble etiquette and attitude as ways to peer-assess how one contributes to a culture of belonging.

      • We could use attendance and punctuality as ways of measuring one's commitment to accountability.

      • We could emphasize creativity and encourage experimentation as ways to ensure a spirit of innovation and document how we change the status quo.

      • We could design teamwork activities with peer reviews that provide opportunities for collaborative skills to shine.

 

 

This reframing of grades as a measure of purpose and values could be transformative in 1) aligning actions with organizational goals, 2) boosting intrinsic motivation that eliminates the need for carrots and sticks, and 3) cultivating more creative musicians who can think for themselves and contribute to their own fulfillment in their work.

 

Ultimately, musicians in a large ensemble context should not feel like they are workers who exist as a cog in a transactional relationship. We can change the focus in education and in the workplace to motivate us to be more fulfilled in the artistic work we do.

 


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We're in the business of... happiness

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 20 May, 2021 at 8:30

In the last post, I shared the evolution of Zappos' vision. Their focus shifted naturally from the largest selection of shoes to delivering happiness. "Selection" indicates a concern with short-term gain, external results, and achieving metrics, while "happiness" puts the spotlight on the intangible feelings of people and their experiences that are impossible to measure.

 

Today I want to talk about this idea of happiness, and to share with you Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh's discussion of the 3 types of happiness, and how they might provide insight for musicians.

 

Here are the three types of happiness: 

      1. Happiness of pleasure (Hsieh calls "rock star") - this is a temporary high, where you're always seeking the source of stimuli, it's difficult to sustain

      2. Happiness of engagement ("flow") - losing a sense of time, being in the zone, feeling passion of being engaged in the activity

      3. Happiness of meaning/purpose - being a part of something bigger than yourself

 

 Zappos' vision transformation seems to map perfectly onto these three types of happiness: it began with the "largest selection of shoes," where it's seeking to be in the position of number one--chasing the metric. And when they are, they get a pleasure high, when they're not, the happiness goes away quickly. Compare that with the final vision of "delivering happiness," where serving the calling and purpose bigger than any single employee provides a self-sustaining reserve of happiness that lasts a long time. 

 

While we all primarily focus on chasing the first type, the research Hsieh explored shows that we should emphasize chasing the third, more sustainable long-lasting type.
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This is true in music: we are often stuck in seeking the first type of happiness all the time. We think that achieving metrics or recognition will make us happy, but it ends up being short-lived or we feel empty inside because it doesn't have much meaning beyond yourself. 

 

An organization may rank as number one in ___;  but then what? Will the people be happy about it beyond this year, this moment? You win the job; but then what? Will you be happy in it or will you be looking immediately for the next job? If we as individuals or as organizations seek this type of happiness, we sacrifice taking care of bettering ourselves as people for chasing the metrics.

 

The second type of happiness ("flow") lasts longer. We may play a great concert and we feel fantastic; but then what? The feeling wears off after a few hours or days, and we yearn for the next time we get to feel that way again. You'd be lucky if you feel that way on a daily basis as a musician. Even if you perform everyday, you may not achieve a "flow-state" performance everyday. 

 

What does the third type of happiness mean for musicians? What is a purpose that is both larger than ourselves and that is specific enough to be actionable and serve as a compass?
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I think this is a very hard question, simply because as artists we are fortunate to have an intrinsic love for our work. We often don't think (or perhaps feel like we don't need to think) about why we love it or why we do it. Without the purpose driving our actions and decisions, however, we fall into the trap of chasing external metrics as a purpose and therefore end up feeling unfulfilled or unhappy in doing so. 

 

We are also victims of an education system and workplace run traditionally by extrinsic motivation. For work that is intrinsically motivating (like playing music), there is actually a negative effect to the enjoyment of that work when there is an added focus on extrinsic rewards that turn "play into work." Daniel Pink calls these "if-then" rewards in his book Drive (if you do ___, then you get ___.). He explains that social science tells us that if-then rewards work well for simple, algorithmic, short-term tasks, but are not as effective for more complex, creative tasks - such as music performance. He further says that this is due to the fact that if-then rewards require people to forfeit some of their autonomy. We all can see how lack of autonomy (even in this accidental kind) can prevent fulfillment in our creative work. (There is so much to explore within the work of Daniel Pink that future posts will be dedicated to his work.)

 

So, happiness in our intrinsically-driven field can be threatened by our focus on both 1) striving toward the short-lived happiness of pleasure via achieving metrics, and 2) if-then rewards that unknowingly decrease intrinsic motivation and stifle creativity. Simply our willingness to see these as factors in play can help us to begin changing things around for a more fulfilling and happy workplace for musicians. Like Zappos, we can evolve our visions as individuals and as organizations to aim for happiness through purpose and meaning that will last a lifetime.

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We're in the business of... people

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 13 May, 2021 at 8:30

I want to tell you about Zappos, the online retail company well-known for its obsession with providing the best customer service. The record for the longest customer service call is currently at 10 hours and 43 minutes! Of course, that employee's goal was not to beat the previous record (because he would've stopped at 9 hours 38 minutes--one minute beyond the previous record). Instead, he was living out one of Zappos' core values of "delivering WOW through service." His exceptional service created a meaningful relationship with the customer that allowed the real person on the other end to feel truly seen and heard. And this was directly serving the company's ultimate vision of "delivering happiness."

 

It's actually interesting to track the evolution of Zappos' vision, because it didn't start out nor stop with customer service. 

 

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh explained that at first the vision in 1999 was the largest selection of shoes. In 2003, it became providing the best customer service and in 2005, to use culture and core values as their platform because that was where the great customer service really came from. Then in 2007 they focused on developing a personal emotional connection as a way to define their unique customer service. And finally in 2009, they took a step back and said this is all about delivering happiness to people -- customers, employees, and partners alike.

 

There is a lot to take away from this transformation, but I want to highlight two key aspects of this journey that are worth considering for musicians. One this week, and another next week.

 

The shift I want to talk about today is the one in 2005 - from a focus on customer service to "using culture and core values as a platform."

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Work culture is generated through people, their collective shared values and behaviors. We can usually identify our company's core values by asking "what do we stand for?" or "what are we like?" or "what does the company mean to you?" Some of Zappos' core values include: deliver WOW through service, create fun and a little weirdness, pursue growth and learning, and be humble. 

 

When its employees live out these core values, amazing customer service simply was a natural byproduct - a result rather than the vision or goal itself. When Zappos realized this and graduated their vision from customer service to focus on core values, it not only reaped the benefit of continued top-notch customer service, but it also strengthened its responsibility to employees by nurturing them as people and building community (foreshadowing its later final shift to something bigger--delivering happiness). This shift takes the spotlight away from the customer and onto the people who serve the customers. It allowed Zappos to live by Jim Collin's notion of getting the "right people on the bus," thus creating a high-performing team to achieve the company goals and purpose. 

 

Here are some ways the company curated its culture and nurtured its employees:

 

      • They interview cautiously for culture fit and alignment of values - not just for skills. For example, they ask the shuttle bus driver afterwards how they were treated by the interviewees. And they actually ask the question, "How weird are you?"

      • They give new hires a $3K incentive to quit after their initial training if it's not the right fit. This encourages the new hires to carefully consider whether they indeed are in the right place.

      • Performance reviews are 50% based on core values - as Hsieh puts it, "whether you’re living and inspiring the Zappos culture in others."

      • They also empower employees to celebrate the core values in their colleagues. Once a month, each employee is given $50 to reward as a bonus to a fellow coworker.

 

Zappos emphasizes committable values, ones that they're willing to hire or fire over. This creates a workplace where everyone feels camaraderie, personal accountability, belonging, and pride.

---


Orchestras are responsible for...

 

How many times have you heard that an orchestra is responsible for serving its audiences? Probably a lot. How often do you hear that an orchestra is responsible for serving its musicians? Probably never.

 

I think we can learn a lot from companies like Zappos who serve their customers by taking care of their employees, who are the ones really serving the customers. When we neglect the well-being of employees, we actually sabotage how effective we could be at serving our customers.

 

When we hire musicians, we focus on mostly observable, measurable skills. While artistic skills are crucial, it doesn't have to be 100% of the evaluation process. We don't consider if the musician would be a good culture fit, or the equally-powerful culture contribution (where their differing culture adds what's missing in the existing one). We don't consider if the musician would subscribe to and live the values of the organization. We don't know if the musician would find meaning in the organization's purpose. What would they bring to the organization and the customers besides the artistic skills?

 

When people are not good fits, they will not be entirely happy and the other people will be affected too. The culture suffers, and levels of trust, happiness, belonging drop--ultimately jeopardizing the artistic product for the customer. 

---

 

On a skills-based approach

 

Here's an interesting thought: with an entirely skills-based approach, we can clearly justify our decisions. We find comfort and safety in knowing that we relied on hard rules, metrics, and boundaries to hire those with the best artistic abilities, to hit revenue targets, and to top the charts. And when problems with culture arise, we feel safe to fall back on "but they were the best players." So we are used to building culture or solving culture problems using these tangible metrics - thinking that better skills, better pay, being number one will equal better culture. 

 

But culture, belonging, trust, and happiness are feelings. And at the center of feelings are human beings - not numbers. 

 

Metrics actually offer a false sense of security that limits us. It's where we go to hide when things go wrong. It blinds us to our problems and potential solutions.

 

Sure, we want the outcomes of artistic excellence, appropriate compensation, wide audience engagement, and high standing in the industry. But they don't exist in a vacuum. What we are really dealing with are people who hold these values and people who are driven by these goals. We can reframe our focus to serving these people by cultivating a meaningful connection between their skills and their values and goals. Here are some thoughts:

 

      • Instead of only seeking to hire all the best talent, also help musicians to always become better than they were the season before. The sky's the limit if people have a growth mindset.

      • Instead of simply advocating for increasingly better wages, focus also on establishing maximum transparency in acknowledging the financial worth of the people's work and how that specifically correlates to plans for improving pay. 

      • Instead of dictating the ways educational concerts build audiences or hustling to reach a numerical goal, also explore how musicians' passion side-projects may be catalysts for meaningful audience engagement. Connect the people with the people.

      • Instead of fighting to become number one, also evaluate internally how musicians feel about themselves, about each other, and about the organization's development. While external affirmation is great, people have a hard time lying to themselves. An accurate internal compass is more sustainable for fulfillment and happiness in individuals. 


Notice these suggestions are not either-or's, but and's. We don't have to give up the goal of metrics. The problem is that metrics should not be arbitrary, lofty directives, nor externally implemented. When we can motivate people from within to live a set of shared values and work toward shared goals, the metrics are merely the byproducts. The best part is that everyone's in it together, and we develop a deeper sense of safety through community and relationships that will be more sustainable than safety derived from any metric.

---


This is harder said than done, however. It's scary to implement and difficult to measure. It requires letting go of the traditional measures of success, and there is no specific timeline as to when results would come. Uncertainty in timeline is something that many artistic organizations simply couldn't afford to have. So, what if our fundraising efforts are designed to achieve this flexibility, instead of hitting some arbitrary giving goal?

 

And more generally, what if we thought like Zappos? What if our interviews and performance reviews (do we even have those?) included items that measured how we are living the core values? What if we incentivize people to leave if they know it's not a right fit? What would happen if one of our core values were "delivering WOW through service" and we believed in it and lived it day by day? How would our behaviors and attitudes change? How would our product change? How would our interactions with our audience change? 

 

Thinking about these things will eventually serve the audience more. But first it will help us realize that 1) the musicians are the ones who are serving the customers and 2) their well-being is paramount to customer service. Maybe we'll be able to inspire the musical equivalent of the 10-hour, above-and-beyond Zappos customer service call. 

 

I'll end with two quotes by two CEOs who are employee-centric and clearly in the business of people.

 

Jim Senegal, former CEO of Costco, said, "Of every dollar that we spend on our business, $0.70 is on people. It doesn't do much good to have a quality image, whether it's with the facility or whether it's with the merchandise, if you don't have real quality people taking care of your customers."

 

Hubert Joly, former CEO of Best Buy, said, "We will do well by doing good. Simply put, purposeful leadership recognizes that all companies are human organizations composed of individuals working together for a collective purpose. And the magic happens if you connect what drives individual employees to the purpose of the company in an authentic fashion."

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Fitting in, Belonging, Status

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 6 May, 2021 at 8:00

Today's post was prompted by reflecting on the frustrations I experience in my work (that I shared recently in a social media post). I touch on a collection of topics, including belonging, fitting in, status through the work of Ron Carucci, Brené Brown, Simon Sinek, and Seth Godin.

 

I am very fortunate to be a conductor at a name-brand conservatory. From the outside, it may seem like everything's great and I have a dream job. But the reality is far from it.

 

I conduct an orchestra of non-performance majors who've traditionally felt like second-class citizens. I'm convinced of this general feeling from anecdotes and feedback gathered from members across many years. Students have shared they felt "unwelcomed walking down the halls" or that the "Conservatory looked down upon them." 

 

And I felt similar sensations even as a faculty member. I struggled to belong. Now, this was interesting because I was on the same faculty list, had a title, and brought credible accolades to the table. I had a place, but why didn't I feel I belonged there? Why did I feel like I need to prove myself in order to fit in or be accepted? Why did I feel like I wasn't a worthy collaborator unless I had conducted at The Met? 

 

For years, I've tried to answer these questions. 


In this post today, I'll use this space to explore a collection of my thoughts of reflection and discovery.
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Belonging is about status and affiliation. A reputable conservatory (or really any organization) seeks to maintain or improve their status by finding affiliation with something of equal or higher status. This is human nature, and as organizations are led by humans, we can't discount that factor. When humans think about affiliation, we ask ourselves,"Who's next to me? Am I like them? How do I rank? Do I want to be associated with them? Does the affiliation help improve my status?" Affiliation often equals status. Just consider how powerful a celebrity endorsement on a product is. It doesn't matter if the product is good or not, and you may not even have heard of it, but the affiliation with someone famous naturally makes you think highly of the product, or at least double back and pay attention.

 

I began to see that simply being affiliated with a group of non-performance majors lowers my status in the eyes of the industry, regardless of my actual artistry and ability. The assumption is that I must have lower artistic quality because my ensemble has lower artistic abilities. It's difficult to separate the leader from the group. I could possess artistry and skills that surpass the abilities of my ensemble, but usually I am judged first by my affiliation, and the interest and trust in me stops there. This is especially true for 1) artists who don't know my work, 2) non-tradespeople who are not equipped to evaluate the craft itself, and 3) marketers who find no value in the affiliation with lower status. 

 

The conservatory aims to belong to a certain status and anything that is not helping them do that is not worth their effort. In fact, they protect themselves from outsiders that threaten their status. My orchestra and I present a threat because of what they (and the industry) perceive as lower status. And the fear of losing status via affiliation drives actions to prevent it, resulting in us being intentionally categorized as an "other." 

 

Here's something interesting: I heard from an interview with Ron Carucci that "when we get categorized, our amygdala gets triggered, and we feel unseen, unknown, and unsafe." The amygdala is the part of the brain that deals with fear and responds to danger. When it gets triggered, our defenses go up and we feel the opposite of belonging.

 

I always hated the fact that I'm so easily triggered and go on the defensive to prove my worth at my organization and within the industry (or worse, to automatically label myself/my ensemble as "less than" to make some people feel more comfortable). I know that most people are genuinely supportive and well-meaning, and it's only a few people that feel their status is threatened. But having that amygdala triggered makes it less likely for me to trust anyone in the institution. Understanding that there is a biological reason for this defense response is actually quite helpful and can help me regulate and reflect on my own default responses, which may not always be rational.
---


Ron Carucci's work explores the importance of honesty in the workplace. He shares that people don't trust a company's purpose until they see it activated and put into action. And when actions don't match stated intentions and values, we feel a lack of trust - and belonging.

 

In my situation, the conservatory has put initiatives in place to promote inclusivity and accessibility to musical opportunities for non-performance majors. The available course offerings, resources, and opportunities are abundant and amazing, yet students still feel like they don't belong. On paper, students should feel strong belonging because they have access, but the actions and mindsets aimed to protect status are incongruent with the promise of accessibility. Actions such as hiding affiliation by demanding removal of an institutional tag on a social media post showcasing ensemble class work. Mindsets expressed in the form of revealing comments like "what comes out of their instruments doesn't matter" (subtext being: because what's the point, they will never be good anyway). 

 

Actions quickly override any talk, and I'm more convinced than ever that talk and action are two different things. When we don't see things being done in alignment with what's been said, we become frustrated, less likely to trust, unfulfilled, and unhappy. 


It is perhaps better to say, "We are exclusive; we don't serve you; you don't belong here," and follow through with actions that protect status, than to say, "We want to open our doors to every kind of musician," and demonstrate actions and mindsets that go against it. 


Here is more from Ron Carucci on being who you say you are:


---

 

Considering status and how we wrestle with it reminds me of how Brené Brown distinguishes fitting in from belonging: fitting in is changing who you are, and belonging is being allowed to be yourself. 

 

In order for my orchestra to fit in, it meant to be more like them (the performance majors). Only when you play as well as the performance majors (or achieving equal status) will you matter. In order for me to fit in, it meant to be helpful in maintaining or elevating the institution status. Only when my professional affiliations will boost their status through association will my work matter.

 

Chasing status is inherently hoping to fit in - regardless of the validity of your intention to do so.

 

And I realized that I have been focusing on fitting in (Brené Brown's changing who we are) rather than belonging. I've been trying to change who my orchestra is fundamentally in order to get them the recognition (and belonging) they deserve. But the reality is they don't need to achieve equal status as the performance majors. And for myself, I've been putting an unhealthy emphasis on chasing status symbols to be worthy of fitting in to my own institution. But ultimately, they're the ones who get to decide what is worthy, which may not be aligned with how I define worth for myself.

 

Seeking belonging in terms of being allowed to be who you are is much different. It requires you to think hard about who you are fundamentally and your values. For my orchestra, it could be reframing "not good enough like them" to "good enough within the context of our life goals." For me, it could mean chasing work and affiliations that help me define my purpose and implement the changes I seek to make.

 

Here is a long, but worthwhile, interview with Brené Brown:


---

 

In talking about trusting teams, Simon Sinek shares a story about the same barista feeling like they have to fly below the radar to get by in one job and feeling like he can be himself in another job. In one job, managers catch employees doing things wrong and in the other, managers ask how they can help them do their jobs better. The same person behaves and shows up differently simply because of the culture set up by the leadership.

 

I realize that in my various work experiences, I tend to do superior work when I am allowed to be the artist that I am with full support and no judgement of status, and not being told I need to achieve these specific things to fit in. When I am preoccupied with trying to do the "right" things to fit in, I can't devote as much energy into my artistry, I am distracted, and my work suffers.

 

Here is Simon Sinek's 2-minute story:


---

 

I'll end with sharing a quote from one of Seth Godin's podcasts about status roles:

 

"Shame is the status enforcer. What we have done is orchestrate a culture, that if you're surrounded by people with more status than you, we've instructed you to feel shame. To avoid shame, we make bad decisions, decisions that honor marketers or those that would manipulate us as opposed to what's best for us..."

 

The fact that I don't feel like I fit into the institution (or industry) status brings shame. The fact that I feel like I'm not contributing to elevating the institution (or industry) status also brings shame. This shame conveniently protects the status of the institution (or industry), and keeps me out of it. Understanding that was powerful.

 

Here is the podcast from Seth Godin on status roles (cued to 3:17 and listen as far as you want).

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Thanks for going on this journey of reflection and discovery in this personal case study. I hope you got something along the way. 

 

Here are my 5 key takeaways:

 

      1. Status drives actions and mindsets. Affiliation equals status. Recognize when this is working for you or against you.

      2. There is a legitimate biological response when we are categorized. Our guard goes up and we are less likely to trust or feel belonging.

      3. Alignment between what's promised and actual actions leads to trust, safety, and ultimately the space to feel belonging.

      4. Seeking status can result in fitting in, but not necessarily belonging. It can drain us of our energy and prevent us from being our best selves. Belonging does not require you to change who you are fundamentally.

      5. Feeling shame leads us to make poor decisions to fit in and seek status - only to cater to other people so we don't feel like we're falling behind.

 

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The Stories We Tell

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 29 April, 2021 at 8:40

What are the stories we tell ourselves in rehearsal? What are the thoughts that go through our minds? Do conductors and instrumentalists tell the same stories?


Consider these pairs of stories: 

- CONDUCTOR: This is the most important thing in my life right now.
- INSTRUMENTALIST: This is not the most important thing in my life right now.
- CONDUCTOR: I have thought about the specific intentions of the composer in every marking.
- INSTRUMENTALIST: I don't know what the specific intention of the composer is. I only see piano and tenuto.
- CONDUCTOR: I only have 3 minutes left.
- INSTRUMENTALIST: Just 3 more minutes to go.
- CONDUCTOR: The music could be better.
- INSTRUMENTALIST: The music could be better.
- CONDUCTOR: I'm frustrated because I haven't achieved what I want musically.
- INSTRUMENTALIST: I'm frustrated because I don't know what you want musically.
- CONDUCTOR: I understand why every note written on the page is important.
- INSTRUMENTALIST: I don't understand why my part is important.
- CONDUCTOR: Why can't the ensemble play together?
- INSTRUMENTALIST: I can't hear anything; the trumpets are so loud and I should have ear plugs.
- CONDUCTOR: I wish the orchestra would play better.
- INSTRUMENTALIST: I wish I were inspired to play better.
- CONDUCTOR: I am here to challenge the ensemble to be 3x better than it is.
- INSTRUMENTALIST: I'm here to maintain the status quo and keep my job.

You get the idea.
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Much of the time, the narrative of the leader and that of the group members are different. And this gap makes the work challenging, stifles progress, and brews frustration without us even realizing this is the cause.

 

We can seek to understand (and attempt to close) this gap by asking the hard questions. 

 

Why is this not the most important thing for them? What is more important for them? What do they care more about (that maybe I don't care as much for)?

 

If they also think the music could be better, what do they think is the problem? Would we agree on that? What are they hearing (that maybe I'm not hearing)?

 

Why might they fear losing their job more than artistic mediocrity? What keeps them up at night (that maybe I'd never have to worry about)?

 

Why are they eager for the rehearsal to end? Do they not enjoy the experience? Or must they dash somewhere afterward? 

 

This all comes down to empathy. What is it like to walk in their shoes? What would you see? What would you feel? What would you think? What would matter to you?

 

Maybe those views, feelings, beliefs are so unfamiliar to you that you didn't even know they could exist - so of course you don't see, feel, or think them. Just because they're unfamiliar doesn't mean they're unjustified or invalid. They just don't make sense to you (while being a no brainer for them).

 

Empathy is hard because the best you can do is imagine the answers--unless, of course, you ask them--and try to believe them.

 

Coming to terms with this is the first step.
---

  

The next step is just as difficult: what do we do with all this insight? What could we do to change that narrative (on either side) so they are more aligned with each other? How do we use this understanding to 1) fuel advocacy for job security, 2) design a purpose-driven rehearsal environment, 3) clarify the shared artistic goal and get everyone on board, and 4) cultivate a psychologically safe culture?

 

And while empathy begins with the leader, the group is equally responsible to try to see things from the conductor's perspective. 

 

Empathy is a muscle that we have to exercise. I've certainly started building these muscles way too late in my life. I've always assumed that my view of the world is correct, and I have a hard time imagining any other way of seeing it. However, when I imagine the answers to those hard questions, I gain a whole other perspective. And many of those I could never "unsee."


Want to start? Here's a powerful promotional video on empathy from the Cleveland Clinic.

 


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After Action Review (AAR)

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 22 April, 2021 at 9:00

One of the things I do after each rehearsal is to reflect on what happened (what didn't go well, what went better than I thought, where did I miscalculate). I then try to find ways to recalibrate the plan and strategies moving forward (tweaking the rehearsal schedule, what kinds of notes do I have and how do I give them). I'm always frustrated by something and my goal is to relieve or find a solution for that frustration. This is normal for all conductors.


And as all conductors, I always find that I run out of rehearsal time!

 

So when we have multiple performances of the same show, I have the habit of relentlessly rehearsing even after the first show. And after each performance, I would practice my reflection and send notes via email or print them out and put it on the music stands at the next performance call. I might also make a list of notes that I thought would be more effective if delivered in person via a conversation. To me, striving to be better doesn't stop just because we are in performance mode.

 

Now that I think of it, a little part of me was always scared to do this. I'd think: would the musicians care? Would they think I'm micromanaging? Are they annoyed by this? Fortunately though, I would often be pleasantly surprised to hear that they appreciate the notes and they will do their best to make the music better.

 

This got me thinking. Musicians naturally want to continually improve. But in a group setting, why is every single musician not actively involved in this process? Why are we passive in waiting to be given notes, especially if when we get them, we develop a sense of agency right away?

 ---

 

The U.S. Army developed a debriefing process called the After Action Review (AAR), which takes place after a mission to identify and reflect on successes and failures in order to improve future performance. While the AAR in the military context often involves scenarios of life and death, this tool for group reflection has been widely adopted by teams in many industries. And I think the AAR could have a profound impact on large ensemble culture at any level.

 

Here's how it typically works. As a team, participants ask themselves:

 

      • What were our intended results?
      • What were our actual results?
      • What caused our results?
      • And what will we sustain or improve?

 

"AARs should be carried out with an open spirit and no intent to blame. The American Army used the phrase 'leave your rank at the door' to optimize learning in this process." (from here)


I think it's worth considering this: when we play a solo recital, we engage in AAR-like reflection ourselves. When we play a big solo in orchestra, we may also do this. But we don't meet as a section or as an orchestra and talk about, "what went wrong in this tempo transition here today?" Or even, "Wow, this section was really awesome. What did we do?! How could we make it happen again tomorrow?"

 

In the sports context, many hours are spent in reviewing game footage--as a team, with the coach. It may not be all fun and the conversations are by design difficult, but it helps the team avoid the same mistakes in the future and come up with clear actionable steps to improve. It also helps rearticulate the shared goals and injects a renewed sense of purpose.

---


Large ensemble work is teamwork, so why don't we engage in these group reflections regularly? And if we do it at all, why is it often one-sided - with feedback coming only from the conductor or leader?

 

Conductors are expected to come up with the solutions in private, in their mind, and then report back - either immediately after a run-through or in the next rehearsal. Similarly, stage directors often sit with the entire cast and read through their list of notes. Sometimes a conversation ensues about a note, but not often. This interaction and collaboration between leader and group is the key, and we don't seem to value them.

 

I realized that the reflection I engage in after each rehearsal is in fact an AAR! But I do it alone. For a conductor to hash it out with input from the musicians is just not how we do things. That's seen as a waste of the musicians' time.

 

Well, I think this is only a waste if they're not involved in the hashing.

 

So what if we involved the musicians in the hashing via true group AARs? We could reap many benefits like the opportunities:

  

      • To show our vulnerability about not knowing everything in the world
      • To learn from what the musicians have to give (both from their perspectives "in the trenches" and also from their expertise)
      • To build a productive culture of "we're in this together" and of individual accountability
      • To make our work better day by day (even after the run of performances have begun). We'll feel more fulfilled about the incremental progress we make.

 

Afterall, feeling like there is progress and being a part of it could be the ultimate drivers for commitment and achievement.

---


Also, AARs don't have to occur only after a concert has finished nor do they need to be hours long.

 

We could do AARs after each rehearsal. Sure, everyone is busy and we barely have time for rehearsing. But I wonder what would happen if we are committed to incorporating this into how we operate as a large ensemble? How would that make our process more efficient so we do have time for rehearsing (instead of wasting time re-rehearsing).

 

AARs could also be as brief as asking two questions: What are 3 things that went well? What are 3 things that didn't go well? This could take 2 minutes and could be conducted in a rapid-fire fashion.

 

Often, the mere act of engaging in reflection is enough to rectify the problem or improve the performance. We don't even need to have a lengthy discussion about how we could improve--because sometimes we all know the basic answers to those questions (listen to the horn solo, pace the crescendo better, let's fix this bowing, etc). On the other hand, AARs can also reveal problems that have nothing to do with music (the draft keeps blowing the music off the stand, the light is too bright and in someone's eye, etc).

---


Big frustrations of the ensemble context are usually the churn of "show up and play" and not mattering or having no voice. While we all improve personally in private, the group dynamics and functionally often do not. And that is the frustrating part.

 

AARs can offer relief and solutions to these frustrations. A balanced diet of regular extended review sessions and quick huddle-type activities could reinvigorate ensemble culture for the better.

 

I always thought that maybe these group reflection tools like the AAR could come across as cheesy, soft, and something you can only do in a school "learning" context. Professional musicians would probably laugh it off, I thought. And that is perhaps true in some places.

 

But I realized that maybe we don't do them because we are afraid of vulnerability. We're afraid of having hard conversations about how we didn't quite measure up or we don't know what to do (we can have these conversations in our heads, but it's a totally different thing in front of everyone). We're afraid of staring at our problems (or people) in the face. We hide.

 

As a result, the group functionality stops growing, and we've become complacent or passive about driving that growth as part of the team. And we wonder why we don't feel engaged and fulfilled in our workplaces. We can't possibly feel fulfilled if we are not actively participating in moving things forward. AARs can help us be more accountable in linking lessons learned to definitive future actions.


In the military, you can't hide from an AAR because lives are at stake. Well, what's at stake for us? Whatever it is, I hope it's important enough for us to stop hiding.


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