Tiffany Chang

conductor

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Do what they think matter?

Posted by Tiffany Chang on March 25, 2021 at 9:00 AM

Today, I''d like to begin with a story from my Oberlin school days...


I wrote my master's thesis on leadership as a conductor. I decided that I was going to put on a conducting recital and explore some leadership qualities along the way in the form of a paper. I remember that I created a survey that polled the musicians in the orchestra about their thoughts regarding the rehearsal process, leadership qualities, etc. I was trying to gather some empirical data so that I could analyze it. And it was just a harmless survey that I would pass out at the end of each rehearsal.

 

For this project, I had a few mentors. One of them was a professional conductor, my teacher at the time. I'll never forget her response to my using the survey as a tactic for this project. It went something like this, "What they think doesn't matter! They don't know what you're doing. They can't tell you anything that'd be useful."

 

Some of you reading this may agree with that. A part of me agrees with that as well.

 

But, when I told her that one of the reasons I want to conduct is to work with people, she laughed and responded, "If you want to work with people, go work somewhere else." I think she may have suggested the grocery store, a community center, or nursing. I really can't remember because I was so shocked to hear that conducting to her is not "working with people."

 

I hope fewer of you agree with that.

 

I realize this is one singular view, and I respect her as a conductor and teacher. But that interaction has caused me to become hyper-aware when I witness conductors behave like the musicians are there to do a transactional task--to supply their individual parts as demanded by the conductor.

 

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I was confused at the time, but now, I'm convinced that musicians have something useful and meaningful to say and it's a conductor's responsibility to listen - not just to their music, but to what they have to say. I also don't mean listen and then cater to their every desire and need. There is actually a big difference between 1) their being heard and 2) their having their way.

 

I'm talking about listening to them like human beings with thoughts, motivations, and feelings. I mean trying to understand their points of view - how they see, how they think, how they feel, what they want. And when we put ourselves in their shoes, it gives us insight into how we might want to be understood and treated if we were them. That information is so powerful.

 

What if what we discover through that empathy could actually help make the experience a more enjoyable one for everyone? More equitable? More efficient? More creative? More revenue-driving?

 

What are we missing out on by not hearing the musicians? How long have we been missing out on such opportunities to grow?

 

Jim Collins talks in Good to Great about employing mechanisms that "turn information into information that cannot be ignored." It's not enough to just ask for information, but we need to have measures in place to act on it.


If we can find ways to gather this information regularly and spotlight its crucial significance, we can (and are pushed to) make changes in real-time because it just makes sense to do so. We don't have time to wait until the next season to start implementing changes that could have a drastic impact, right now! Or more importantly, we must be willing to confront our fears against seeking the real truth and refrain from sweeping issues under the rug.

 

So, ask your musicians what they think. How do they think things could be better for them? What would they want you to continue doing? What would they want you to stop doing?

 

Ask them for input and we need to be generous and open in receiving the information. The point of asking is not to make any conductor feel bad or diminished in their status. It is simply to understand and help us see better.

 

Empathy for musicians and listening to what they have to say are first steps to help us create art that I believe will truly transcend.

 

I'll end with a quote from an article industry legend Henry Fogel wrote, "devaluing the opinions of an orchestra will be as strong a morale killer as just about anything."

 


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