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Tiffany Chang conductor 


Here are some of my favorite posts:

What's your mission? - I examined mission statements from 71 U.S. orchestras

Empathy in relationships - we know empathy is hard, and we should also know what it is not

Why don't we talk about it? - how organizations may encourage performers to be advocates

Note: New and existing posts will be hosted at

Below you'll only find archived posts from before June 24, 2021.


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

If you are intrigued, please sign up to receive an email with each new post. You can also watch posts as videos on this YouTube playlist.

Thanks for visiting!

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What are your fears?

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 15 April, 2021 at 9:00

I wonder what are you afraid of as a musician when you do your work? Are my fears the same as yours?


If we could learn more about our fears, we can gain more perspective. Perhaps we could even develop strategies to help ourselves achieve more and be happier doing so. 


So I decided to do an informal poll. 60 people responded and I want to thank each and every one of them for taking the time to help! 


I asked the participants to rank 12 fears. I then asked them whether they were 1) conductors, 2) instrumentalists, or 3) singers. Within those categories, they identified themselves as 1) affiliated with an organization, 2) affiliated with an academic institution, 3) freelancer, or 4) student. 


I was curious to see what kind of patterns I might find and insights I could draw.


I do realize that not everyone has ALL these fears and that some fears are related to each other, so this is not a scientific study by any means. Also, my sample size of 60 was quite small. So - I will preface the rest of the post saying that I am not hoping to make any definitive conclusions or generalizations. I simply looked at the data I had available and remained curious.




I'll start with sharing my reflections on the general results of the survey. Here are the overall rankings of all responses: 

      1. Underperformance - knowing you could've done better
      2. Embarrassment - making a fool of yourself in front of others
      3. Rejection - not getting a promotion or receiving negative feedback on your work
      4. Weak link - letting others down, not contributing to the group
      5. Job security - losing work partially or completely
      6. Isolation - losing sense of belonging to others in the group
      7. Plateauing - not reaching your full potential
      8. Insignificance - not having the intended impact for the work
      9. Uncertainty - not knowing what's going to happen at work, being kept in the dark
      10. Confrontation - speaking up or disagreeing
      11. Ease - not being challenged enough, stopped growing
      12. Change - adjustments in working circumstances or processes


No matter how I grouped the data, Underperformance, Embarrassment, and Rejection emerged as the top 3 each time. This was not surprising. In fact, it may give you solace simply knowing that everyone else faces these exact same fears. 


Here are some other findings: 


Ease and Change are both consistently within the bottom 3. This shows perhaps that musicians are generally resilient and adaptable to changes in our workplace (unlike other industries where people are more afraid of organizational changes). And we are intrinsically motivated to keep growing.
Job security is a low-ish fear for conductors (9), compared to a mid-ish fear for instrumentalists (5) and singers (4). This is interesting. Why?
Insignificance is high for conductors (4), compared to low-ish for instrumentalists and singers (both at 8).


If you want to nerd out and see more detailed results, comparisons, and my thoughts, click here to go to another document. There's some interesting stuff there, but I don't want to focus on that for today.  





"Fear arises with the threat of harm, either physical, emotional, or psychological, real or imagined." (from this article in Psychology Today).


With these top 3 fears, musicians cannot easily make them go away because we've been programmed from Day 1 to value achievement and affirmation of that achievement from our teachers, peers, the public, and even ourselves. Whether our fears are real or imagined, they affect us deeply. 


In this TED talk, Guy Winch talks about how when we get hurt physically (like scraping our knee), we know to practice first aid and mend to the wound to make sure it heals properly. But when we get hurt psychologically (like failure, rejection, or loneliness), we don't take care of those "injuries."


And quoting Winch from his talk, Winch says in his talk, "It doesn't even occur to us that we should. 'Oh, you're feeling depressed? Just shake it off; it's all in your head.' Can you imagine saying that to somebody with a broken leg: 'Oh, just walk it off; it's all in your leg.'" Doesn't make much sense.


As leaders, it helps to keep in mind that musicians' top fears are in fact underperformance, embarrassment, and rejection. Those are the injuries that musicians are desperate to avoid and to heal. We can recognize that sometimes in an attempt to avoid these fears, they end up actually underperforming or embarrassing themselves. We can start to see that the underperformance is a result, a symptom of the fear - and perhaps not because they are incompetent or being nonchalant.


In that light, what could we do to help prevent the cut from getting deeper, to stop the bleeding? Often, what happens is we either do nothing or we make the wound worse by poking at it. We make it clear that someone is not performing up to par and they need to work harder. We guilt trip them as a tactic to encourage them to do better. The intentions may be positive and means to elevate their work, but I wonder if jabbing at the wound in the moment is really the best tactic. 


Maybe acknowledging the fears and their consequences on performance is all we need to start creating a culture of safety and high performance. 


But, how can we help them lessen or get rid of those fears? Well, perhaps getting rid of them is not the path to be on at all.





Instead of removing these fears, we may actually be able to take advantage of them and use them as a catalyst for doing our best work. Now, bear with me as I explain.


Let me ask you this: despite the fear of making mistakes, failing, or embarrassing ourselves, why do we keep doing things that put us in that position? Well, it's because it actually feels good.


Andrew Huberman from Stanford University calls fear a "negative sensation that you don't know how to alleviate." It can paralyze us because we don't know what to do about it. We can also run away from the situation in "flight" mode. But sometimes we decide to fight and confront the fear. We jump off the diving board, we climb the mountain, or play that piece from memory. When you take that step towards fear, you go into the space of courage. Fear and courage are two separate things. And what courage does is it releases dopamine, the reward chemical of your body, and you get a hit of pleasure.  


You don't actually need to wait to get to the top of the mountain to get this chemical released. Even one step toward confronting the fear gives you dopamine. It's the body's way of saying "this is good for you, keep going." And here's the important thing: the only way to get this reward is if you have fear to fight with. So without fear, there is no reward. I find that fascinating and it completely debunks the idea of being "fearless." It's not what we think it is, and it doesn't allow us to be naturally encouraged to move forward.


Considering all this, what if what we could do to tend to our fear is to capitalize on this biological reward mechanism?


Two scenarios: 

1) Yes, performance is scary. We worked hard and we don't want it to go to waste in the one critical moment of the performance. But also consider this: we are often much less fearful in rehearsals than performances; we don't always confront the fear full on until the moment of the concert. So what if we practiced putting ourselves in that space of courage in every rehearsal and use our natural release of dopamine to edge us forward? Huberman also explains that the more we do this kind of activity involving courage, we rewire ourselves to seek that activity more because it makes us feel good. What if we get in the habit of living on the edge every rehearsal, and the concert is just another opportunity to do so? As musicians, we can be framing challenges with fear and encouraging ourselves to dash toward that fear all the time - knowing there is going to be a reward waiting for us. We may not perform a perfect concert, but in the process, we may just have leveled-up to a point beyond where we would've been had we waited to step into courage only at the concert.  

2) Now, our other big fear is rejection. So we refrain from taking risks, saying what we really want to say, or going for a great opportunity. We know now that being inactive about confronting this doesn't give us dopamine, so what if we can establish a culture that rewards this kind of courageous behavior. Maybe it's acknowledging someone for voicing an opinion (even if it eventually doesn't make it into the final product). Or offering an incentive for submitting an application for an opportunity (I've personally been given money simply for applying for something). Or valuing the valiant, out-of-the-box performance with a cracked note over the mechanically perfect one. 


Let's think about how we can activate what Huberman calls the "courage circuit" by putting ourselves in the position where we might get rejected or embarrassed or underperform? Let's remember that fear is necessary to have courage, and that's the space we want to occupy to become better. 




Now, back to Guy Winch from the TED talk. When we engage with these fears, there is no question that we are going to get hurt. What we don't want is to first encourage musicians to be courageous and then scold them for getting hurt. 


When we are hurt by choosing to confront our fears, let's normalize this result by acknowledging that it sucks, it hurts, it failed, and we feel crappy. Then, follow up with bandaging the wound and giving it care over time so it can withstand the next blow. This can be a simple check in with a musician after a tough rehearsal. Winch calls this "emotional hygiene," like how we brush our teeth every day for dental hygiene. 


I've come to understand that deep empathy is crucial for a leader in order to serve their people. When something doesn't go well musically in rehearsal, it is so easy for us to jump to all sorts of negative conclusions. "It's all X's fault; they didn't come prepared." or "They don't seem like they care at all." But we really have no idea what is causing that behavior, and fear is a real possibility given that all of us face the same fears.


It is really all about playing the game of "How can I help them to help themselves be the best." If fear is a big part of that game, we can use that to our advantage rather than see it as an obstacle.


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What's your mission?

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 8 April, 2021 at 9:30

On a whim, I decided to explore the mission statements of orchestras across the country in all 50 states. I was curious what they are, whether there are any similarities, and whether examining them would reveal any insights. I didn't really know what I was looking for, and it seemed like a fun activity for midnight on a Saturday.


So I looked at every state and a total of 71 orchestras in March 2021 (by no means a comprehensive list). Here are some interesting statistics:


First, these are common words that we associate with orchestral organizations. After each word, you'll see how many mission statements they appeared in.


      • Enrich - 27
      • Inspire - 25
      • Education - 18
      • Educate - 16
      • Entertain - 12
      • Engage - 12
      • Lives - 11
      • Cultural - 8
      • Culture - 2
      • Transform - 3
      • Fiscal - 3
      • Change - 2


Second, orchestras are cultural icons of their locations, so I wanted to see how many of their cities, regions, and states actually made it into mission statements. Here are the number of missions that mentioned:


      • their state - 8
      • their region - 12
      • their city - 3
        • Wichita Symphony
        • Greensboro Symphony Orchestra
        • Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra
      • "national" - 2
        • Chicago Symphony Orchestra
        • Hawaii Symphony Orchestra
      • "country" - 1 (National Symphony Orchestra)
      • "international" - 4
        • Chicago Symphony Orchestra
        • Hawaii Symphony Orchestra
        • Minnesota Orchestra
        • New York Philharmonic
      • "world" - 1 (National Symphony Orchestra)


Now, we can each make our own interesting conclusions based on this set of information. (One that surprised me is actually how few orchestras identify their hometown as a reason for being.) And I'm sure there are other sets of data that could be extracted to be examined. However, this kind of analysis is not what I want to write about in this post.



What I found the most interesting is that many mission statements are interchangeable. Here's what I saw:


"The mission of (insert orchestra here) is to enrich, educate, and inspire our community through excellent orchestral music."


31 orchestras basically have this same language. They may add additional text that specifies the region they want to target and how they achieve this (live concerts, educational programs, etc), but you could swap the orchestra and region and it would work.


Generic mission statements may be best practice and absolutely legitimate, but they often don't elicit visceral reactions and involuntary goosebumps. They say "inspire", but you don't feel inspired. You don't respond enthusiastically with "hey, that's totally for me!"


The unique mission statements really stood out. Here are the ones that struck me: 


The San Diego Symphony, through unquestionable commitment to the highest levels of artistic achievement, seeks to elevate human potential by providing a shared sense of pride and belonging to something bigger than any of us can achieve alone.
Colorado Symphony: Creating extraordinary musical experiences that transport today's listener, from the best of the past to the edge of the future
The Chicago Sinfonietta champions diversity, equity, and inclusion by creating community through bold symphonic experiences.
The Seattle Symphony unleashes the power of music, brings people together and lifts the human spirit.
The mission of The Phoenix Symphony is to provide the joy of music as a catalyst in helping Arizona to become the best place in America to work and live.
Grand Rapids Symphony: Our mission is to share great music that moves the human soul. 


Here are a couple standout phrases:


Boston Symphony Orchestra: "...dedicated to the making of music consonant with the highest aspirations of the musical art..."
Madison Symphony Orchestra, Inc.: " advocate music as a universal language of expression and understanding."

These make us feel something and call us to action. The specificity made them feel real and inspiring (without using the word inspire!). And they all paint a clear picture of belonging to a unified purpose. And they all suggest concrete strategic intent.

"A powerful strategic intent inspires people partially because it answers the question, 'How will we know when we are done?'" (McKeown in Harvard Business Review here)



Mission statements help articulate "people like us do things like this," à la Seth Godin. Simon Sinek calls it "just cause." David Burkus calls it "Pick a Fight" (here's the audiobook by the same name).


Powerfully specific mission statements position an organization to stand out from the rest of the market. More importantly, it broadcasts a clear signal that attracts like-minded people who want to join the same fight. It helps align values that determine every employee's motivations, mindset, and actions from the top down. There is a deep commitment to work for the cause, and beyond the paycheck.


You may think I'm advocating for a mission statement, but in fact, here is why mission statements are not the point: 


"The commitment is the source of the mission. The statements are merely the byproduct of the commitment. A mission statement can’t create a commitment. And a commitment can’t be thwarted by lack of a mission statement. Nelson Mandela didn’t have a mission statement for creating a free South Africa. But man, was he on a mission." (Pallotta in Harvard Business Review here)



So, here are some questions to ask ourselves:

What are your personal commitments? What are your organization's commitments? Do they align?
Do you know what your orchestra mission statement is? Is it really clear? Do you subscribe to it? Would you share it proudly with strangers?
What is your job and how does what you do help the mission?
Do you ever have conversations about the mission with leadership or colleagues? Do you hear others talking about it? Does your workplace remind you of it?
Has leadership told you actual stories of how what you did help move the needle closer to the mission? If so, how did that make you feel?


Organizations need to be open and bold about saying, "This is what we're about, and if it's not for you, that's OK." This mindset of specificity helped some organizations really flourish.

Consider these 12 mission statements:

Nike: To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.

Apple: To bringing the best user experience to its customers through its innovative hardware, software, and services.

Sony: To be a company that inspires and fulfills your curiosity.

The Coca-Cola Company: To refresh the world in mind, body and spirit. To inspire moments of optimism and happiness through our brands and actions.

Patagonia: Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

JetBlue: To inspire humanity – both in the air and on the ground.

Workday: To put people at the center of enterprise software.

Microsoft: Our mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

Squarespace: Squarespace empowers people with creative ideas to succeed.

Google: To organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.

Starbucks: To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.

Spotify: Our mission is to unlock the potential of human creativity — by giving a million creative artists the opportunity to live off their art and billions of fans the opportunity to enjoy and be inspired by it. 



What if musicians could target in their job search for the "shared cause"? What if the audition process could target those with the "shared cause" instead of just every excellent violinist in the world? (Unless, of course, gathering the world's best players is your shared cause.)


What kind of job market would result? What kind of organizations would we have? What kind of work cultures would we have? What kind of impact could be possible?


This is of course the ideal scenario, and the financial and societal realities would prevent it from fully taking form. But I still wonder if it would ever be possible.



The last thing I want to share is the mission of the Berlin Philharmonic: "128 virtuosi – 1 orchestra." Powerful and inspiring, yes - but also extremely concrete in identity, commitment, and belief.


I hope that one day, we can be committed to transforming where we work, how we work, who we work with, and (most importantly) why we work.


(If you're interested in the list of the 71 orchestra mission statements, download it here.)


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The Peter Principle

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 1 April, 2021 at 8:30

How many times have you heard that despite a musician's exceptional artistry, they are just lousy leaders and not good at managing a group of people or at dealing with administrative tasks?


This could naturally refer to a conductor - but it could also refer to a section leader or a department chair. You love their music making, but just can't stand it when you have to be in a rehearsal or meeting with them because of their incompetence as a leader. 

One way to explore this phenomenon is via "The Peter Principle" presented by Laurence J. Peter in 1969, actually originally a satire but has become the basis of much discussion and study throughout the decades.


The Peter Principle observes that, in a hierarchy, people who do a good job get promoted to the next level. And if they perform well there, they are rewarded with another promotion. This process continues until they reach a level where they can no longer do well, usually because the new position requires different skills. They now become incompetent despite their previous competence. And because they don't do well, they don't continue to get promoted and are stuck at that level--incompetent, stressed, and making others stressed. Overtime, Peter suggests that one could expect the majority of the people in the hierarchy to become incompetent at their "level of incompetence."


(Interestingly, a Harvard Business Review follow up article called “A Postscript to the Peter Principle,” in 1973 suggests that women and minorities were usually exempt from this trap because they are simply not getting promoted despite their demonstrated competence. I couldn't find this article available to view online.)


Of course, The Peter Principle doesn't superimpose perfectly onto the musical world. A violist promoted to principal viola is not really doing an entirely different job. But let's examine this more deeply:  

      • A section leader usually arrives at their role due to their incredible technical and musical skills, even though the new position requires an additional skill of leadership to excel. 


      • A department chair could arrive at their role due to seniority, required service (for their position), or a direct assignment from above.


      • In the case of an instrumentalist-turned-conductor, there is sometimes a lack of specific training that would make them more effective as conductors. 

Often, we assume that if people are excellent musicians, they'll be fine at the other things. We don't actively assess the necessary new skills as part of the audition or promotion process. And even if we think we do, often we go with our gut feeling. But what if our gut feeling is wrong or biased? Plus, the broad leadership skills are not taught in music school, so how could we expect them to have it? And how could we expect ourselves to know what we should be looking for? 


Therefore, when musicians are promoted to leadership positions, they are most of the time incompetent at leadership and must figure it out on the job. And sometimes they never figure it out.


While The Peter Principle is not directly applicable to the music industry, it can provide insight into what is missing in our educational values, training programs, and hiring processes - especially when we expect the majority of musicians to go into hierarchical workplaces.

Here are 5 potential solutions to combat The Peter Principle for our industry: 


      • Provide special training for those we put in leadership positions. This training should be part of a professional development program that is provided by the organization. By doing so, the institution is also demonstrating a commitment to their people's growth and success - instead of throwing them in the fire. 


      • Evaluate their potential future performance and competence level in the new position. What would they need to do? Do they already show competence in those areas? If not, do we see potential in their development toward mastering those skills? What could we provide in order to help them succeed?


      • Ensure that the hiring process includes assessment of non-artistic skills - we can achieve this via redesigning how we screen resumes and how we use probing questions in interviews and reference checks.


      • Be quick and honest in demoting people if they are unable to learn the appropriate skills. Sometimes, people just don't work out for many reasons. And we don't want to continue putting them in a position where they can't succeed themselves nor help others succeed.


      • Start valuing leadership skills as part of the music school curriculum. This levels the playing field for everyone to be successful when they are promoted to leadership roles.

Peter in The Peter Principle urges readers to “look around you where you work, and pick out the people who have reached their level of incompetence. You will see that in every hierarchy the cream rises until it sours.”


At this point, I'm sure you realize that you probably have encountered signs of The Peter Principle sometime in your life.

It's worth asking the question: Are we choosing to do anything about their incompetence? If not, what could we do about it?


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Do what they think matter?

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

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.




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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Flying rehearsals

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 18 March, 2021 at 9:00

Musicians who have worked with conductors: Have you ever felt like with some conductors, a two hour rehearsal goes by like no time has passed at all? And for other conductors, 10 minutes feel like an unbearable hour?

Have you ever wondered why that is? What is so special about those conductors that make rehearsals feel bearable - or perhaps even productive?

Instead of focusing on what the conductor is doing, let's consider for a moment what's special about what YOU feel and what YOUR actions are as a result of that feeling.

What you feel: 

  • You feel efficiency and forward momentum for the group. You don't feel bored.

  • You feel like you're contributing to a larger goal. You are crystal clear about what that goal is and what you should do to achieve it. You own that goal. And you believe that people around you believe that too. They own that goal.

  • You feel like that goal is worth the effort, and what is being done is worth the time (even if it doesn't involve you playing).

  • You feel like you are learning by observing. You feel like what's happening is always relevant to your growth as a musician (again, even if you're not playing).

  • You feel like you and the group are getting better--minute by minute, day by day, all the way until the concert.

  • Even if there may have been an "off" moment/day, you feel confident that the group will eventually achieve that goal.

  • You feel like you are more connected to your fellow musicians. You feel their warmth.

  • You feel more generous with your music making. You want to give more.

  • You feel a palpable excitement in the room. You share that excitement and feed off of it. You believe that everyone else feels it--together.

  • You feel suddenly relieved of your stress, depression, or fatigue. You've temporarily forgotten about that parking ticket you just got.

  • You leave the room energized feeling like, "Wow, we accomplished a lot."

These feelings result in these actions:

  • You sit at the edge of your seat. You lean into the music, toward each other. You look into the eyes of other musicians.

  • You are compelled to play with edge, energy, and excitement, because why would you do it any other way when you have such a clear and amazing goal.

  • You listen to what's being worked on with other musicians because, well, it's intriguing and it peaks your curiosity. You learn and grow.

  • You try to do your best always because you realize others depend on you in order to do their best.

  • You work hard to achieve. It inspires others to work hard to achieve as well. Then, that inspires you to achieve even more.

  • You have fun and joke around with your colleagues.

  • You openly acknowledge your "oops" moments.

  • You pay less attention to the conductor and more attention to each other.

  • You trust each other.

All these actions then feed you more of those same feelings, and it becomes a loop. An unstoppable, powerful loop that's generated and maintained by the people themselves.

That's the power of true artistic ownership, comradery, and belonging to a tribe and a shared goal - all leading to high fulfilment. It makes ensemble musicians do extraordinary things.

This is partly because your body is high on all sorts of feel-good chemicals (read this for the science). It first releases dopamine, the reward chemical, that distorts your sense of time and makes you feel like time "flies by". You'd also have oxytocin and serotonin in your system. Those are the chemicals of belonging and pride.

The other part of the story is the "shared goal" aspect. It turns out that enjoyment alone is not enough for time to fly by. We also need the motivation and the pursuit of a goal to guide our actions (read more here). Studies have shown that achievement-orientated actions are what actually makes us feel like time goes by faster.

So, the conductor is simply facilitating and encouraging this loop: either helping musicians access those feelings that result in purposeful actions, or using purpose-oriented rehearsing to elicit these desirable feelings.

There is no secret, no magical power in the conductor. It is all about what the musicians are feeling and doing. Tend to that, and they will find fulfillment and happiness in their work.


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Trusting Musical Teams

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 11 March, 2021 at 9:00

As professional musicians, we all share the background of competitive environments, high-stakes auditions, and things never being quite good enough. High performance is the primary marker of success, and we spend the majority of the time alone making our work better. When we finally get a job and join a large artistic organization, we suddenly become part of a team. And this mindset of high performance = success becomes only part of the equation--and sometimes even a problem.


One of the highest performing teams is the Navy SEALs, and they are famously known for the method in which they evaluate candidates. They look at performance on one axis and trust on the other. Performance is technical excellence, particularly under pressure. Trust refers to personal accountability, honesty, and how much they look out for each other.


It makes perfect sense that the SEALs would want high performance + high trust and don't want low performance + low trust. But interestingly, they found that they would much prefer someone who is medium (or even low) performance + high trust versus someone who is high performance + low trust. The latter is what they call a toxic team member, someone who blames others, cares only for themselves, and is a negative influence on the team. Ultimately, the SEALs realized that it is much easier to coach performance than character.


Learning about all this made me realize just how easily I can recall the "toxic" musicians I've worked with - those who sucks the energy away when they enter the room, who makes me feel like I'm walking on eggshells, who worries about upping their own status while putting others down, and who has a negative impact on my own performance and that of those around them. When I'm confronted by them, especially as a conductor in rehearsal, I never really know what to do or what to say in response. My confidence just melts into a puddle. I don't feel trusted, safe to do my work, nor do I feel like I could trust them.


"Trusting teams are the healthiest and highest performing kind of teams," says Simon Sinek in his book The Infinite Game. And a study by Will Felps showed that inserting even one "bad apple" wreaking havoc in a team can decrease productivity by 30-40% and constrict creativity, innovation, and communication. A Harvard Business Review article by Sunny Giles further points out that, "When the amygdala registers a threat to our safety, arteries harden and thicken to handle an increased blood flow to our limbs in preparation for a fight-or-flight response. In this state, we lose access to the social engagement system of the limbic brain and the executive function of the prefrontal cortex, inhibiting creativity and the drive for excellence. From a neuroscience perspective, making sure that people feel safe on a deep level should be job #1 for leaders."


So, we should simply not hire high performance + low trust musicians, right? Well, it is not that easy. Trust is a feeling and it's things like keeping promises, loyalty, transparency, and honesty. Those can only be measured and cultivated through time. They are almost impossible to accurately assess in how we currently hire musicians, on the podium and in the ensemble. (Even in the case of a lengthy trial period, people tend to stay on their best behavior the entire time.) So assessing performance, in comparison, is a more concrete method for hiring musicians since we ultimately do want to sound good as a group.


But - what if the toxic member actually might cause the group to perform worse over time and bring down morale? Is that a risk we're willing to take? Also, are we passing up excellent team members who may be medium performance + high trust but have the potential to quickly increase their performance? Those are questions organizations and leaders must grapple with.


Unless there is significant reform of hiring procedures that effectively account for trust, it is more likely than not that we will end up with some toxic people in our ensembles. So the question becomes what could we do about this?


The solution is to protect ourselves from toxic people and help them be better:  

  • We can use positive reinforcement by rewarding high performance + high trust and not rewarding the low-trust musician. This will show the entire organization where your values are and offer solidarity through action to those who are negatively affected--in other words: creating safety.

  • We can exercise the skill of "Bad Apple Neutralization," as described by Daniel Coyle (here), deflecting negative energy away, responding with warmth, and emphasizing the shared goal and path everyone is on. Again, neutralizing the threat to create a safer, comfortable space.

  • We can include other musicians in peer reviews. Often, musicians are assessed from the top down by a single person or small group of people. The perspectives within the teams can reveal much, and it makes the other musicians feel like they are trusted to have a voice and contribute to building the culture of the organization.

  • We can address the issue head-on and offer coaching to low-trust musicians to help them improve as a team member. Demonstrating our sincere wish for them to be better shows them that we trust them enough for a second chance. Earlier in my career, I was so determined to support high trust that it was one strike and they're out for anyone who made a trust mistake. While the intention was noble, I didn't give them a second chance. Now, I believe I was wrong and it is important for the growth of that person and the organization to coach them through.

If they end up being uncoachable, then in the words of Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn, it's probably "better to have a hole than an asshole."


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Posted by Tiffany Chang on 4 March, 2021 at 8:55

I want to begin with a passage from Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath:


"...legitimacy is based on three things. First of all, the people who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice--that if they speak up, they will be heard. Second, the law has to be predictable. There has to be a reasonable expectation that the rules tomorrow are going to be roughly the same as the rules today. And third, the authority has to be fair. It can't treat one group differently from another."


Gladwell calls these three things: standing, trustworthiness, and neutrality. And he cites the lack of these as triggers for dissatisfaction and radicalism in society.


I'm really interested in how these ideas play out in musical organizations and how they impact work culture and fulfillment for musicians. I want to explore how we may restore legitimacy if it's missing. How could we maximize it?


Standing - do people feel like they are respected as individuals and can speak up?

Orchestras strive for cohesion that is led by the conductor, so cultivating individualism is usually not at the forefront of a conductor's mind. In rehearsal, conductors usually think, "How can I get them to do what I want" rather than "I'm curious about the artistic opinions of the cellists." In my experience, musicians are smart and they often have interesting ideas they want to share, but voicing them is often stigmatized or seen as standing up to authority. Yes, there are concertmasters and principals whose roles are to be representative voices. But I wonder, within that hierarchy, how often does the section really feel comfortable sharing an idea.


Let's consider the benefits of musicians speaking up: when someone speaks up and engages in conversation (with a conductor or colleague), it means that they are contributing to the artistic dialogue. Exchange of ideas can be super productive for the creative process. This leads to a sense of ownership of the task at hand, not simply being told what to do. Being open to someone speaking up demonstrates our vulnerability (because none of us have all the answers and interpretations are ever-changing) and demonstrates that we'd be open to discourse. And at the end, if you don't agree, you don't agree. But at least you had that conversation. Gladwell adds something insightful, "The people don't need their needs to be met, but they need to feel like they are heard."


Of course, we don't want the rehearsal to be a public forum where everyone voices their opinion. That'd be a massive waste of time. Could we have both rehearsal efficiency and musicians feeling like they can speak up? How could conductors facilitate this process? First, we'll have to make a point to not put down or penalize those who attempt to do so, and then model normal conversation between colleagues that is free of hidden agendas or turf wars. I think the goal is to grow a desire within people to engage critically (even if they never say a word) instead of remaining passive in the process of creating art. This gives them a sense of purpose, which leads ultimately to fulfillment. That would be a huge step forward.


By the way, I also want to say that this works both ways too: sometimes orchestras have to be open to new interpretations. We've all heard stories of the deeply rooted interpretations being hard to break in major orchestras. But is that truly in the spirit of music-making and collaboration, to have only one way of interpreting a Brahms symphony?


Trustworthiness - are things going to be run tomorrow like it was today? 

Trust usually breaks down when there is a lack of consistency in expectations. This could take the form of frequent last-minute changes to the schedule. Having a chair to sit on today but not tomorrow. Sloppy personnel management. The conductor showing up one day really prepared and another day completely lost. All this uncertainty makes people feel uneasy, affecting mood and morale. It doesn't allow for the comfort that leads to doing their best work.


I think we can maintain our integrity by simply doing what we say we're going to do and showing up the same way every day. We can always ask ourselves if the quality of our work is unshakable even if we're having a bad day? Do we show up on time to each rehearsal?


Routines can build up a lot of trust. Even if it's not your job to set up the chairs or to send the schedule, consider those who have to. Consider if you're consistent and predictable with them so that they can do their jobs consistently.


Neutrality - are all people treated equally? 

This is a heated topic. There's undeniable evidence of many serious issues, including pay inequalities between genders and lack of diversity and inclusion. And orchestras have been working slowly toward neutrality over the last several decades, but we are nowhere near close.


Preferential treatment can be defined as preference given to someone because of their gender, ethnicity, race, kinship, or friendship. It can take the form of unusually accelerated promotion or unequal time off. Sometimes conductors exhibit this unknowingly, particularly in the case of kinship or friendship and exceptions made for their favorite musicians--even if it's well intended. This results in diminished morale, confidence, and motivation and creates a hostile work environment where people feel unsafe and stressed. In fact, the favored employees also feel stressed and uneasy. So nobody wins in this case.


We can all strive toward a more cordial, professional environment that exhibits no personal hierarchies. You don't have to be everyone's best friend and they don't have to be yours. At the same time, you can be approachable and supportive of your people. This is difficult to balance and I plan to dive deeper into this later on. However, I find that if I let the focus be about the artistic work, neutrality has an easier time of finding its way.


To wrap up: being mindful of Gladwell's principles of legitimacy - standing, trustworthiness, and neutrality - will lead to higher job satisfaction and better work culture. In our lives, when there is dissatisfaction and low morale, it is usually because people think they are treated unfairly, they don't have reliable expectations, or they feel they can't speak up. This occurs in all industries - so there is no reason why we can't apply these insights to the relationship between conductors and their musicians. Even our relationships to our friends and family are susceptible to eroding legitimacy.


When we start to view legitimacy as having these achievable components, we can see better and become more empowered to make a difference, one little thing at a time.

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Perks & costs

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 21 February, 2021 at 9:50

Title has nothing to do with leadership. Leadership has everything to do with trust.


When we are given the privilege of being the leader, we enjoy many perks: the bigger office, higher salary, fancy title, name on dressing room door, people bringing us coffee, the authority to tell others what to do. All those perks come with a cost. When we are faced with danger and threat, leaders are expected to protect those in their charge, even if it means sacrificing their own comfort and safety.


This could be standing up for someone who was treated poorly, showing solidarity, vouching for a respectable wage, keeping the peace within the group by breaking up fights or ensuring accountability. Or simple doing what you say you're going to do. In doing so, you might end up being bullied yourself, jeopardizing your job or end up in conflict with others - but your people know they can count on you to have their backs.


When someone takes all the leadership perks, tells us what to do, but does not own the responsibilities that come with it or are the first to retreat from danger - we don't view their leadership as legitimate. We don't feel it is fair and our trust in the anthropological tenets of the relationship becomes violated. The group becomes lost about who they could trust. It becomes every person for themselves, always looking behind our backs, and the quality of work culture suffers. We see this in many large musical institutions where dissent simmers and then eventually boils over dramatically. And we wonder what went wrong, but the clues have been there all along.


At the same time, we all can name someone we know who would do anything to back those to their left and right, someone who shows empathy toward our circumstances, regardless of what position they have. Those are the leaders among us, hiding in plain view. They are the glue that's holding us together. And we'd be willing to follow them wherever they go. We want to keep them as a leader because it's good for us and in our best interest. Give those people more credit. And stop giving credit to those who enjoy the perks without actively caring for those in their charge.


One of my heroes, Simon Sinek, often explains that "in the military, they give medals to those who sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. In business, they give bonuses to those who sacrifice others so that they may gain." The latter definitely resonates with me about the music industry, in all its celebrity and power-sensitive culture glory.


Consider this: if your organization were in jeopardy today, what would your boss do to protect you and your colleagues? Does that make you feel safe? Or does it send chills down your spine? Who else around you would stand up for you?


Conductors have the responsibility to create a culture of trust and safety in the work environment. By first ensuring the musicians are cared for in all ways possible, legitimizing their leadership by standing between threats and their musicians. And the result is a group of musicians that spend less time being afraid and more time working together.


I hope we can stop confusing the position of a leader with being a leader - and recognize the leaders among us.

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To go first

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 15 February, 2021 at 22:45

What does leadership mean in music? First, we must consider that to lead means to go first, to be the first to do something. Once the leader goes and does it, everyone else follows because they think "oh, I can do it too."


I'm interested in why don't more musicians want to go first? Musicians are creative, curious, courageous people, so why are there not millions of musical innovators and leaders pushing the envelope? Why would we rather sit there and be told what to do? That happens a lot in large organizations like orchestras. Why are we OK with being stuck doing things the same way? Why do we tell ourselves that we're not ready to share our ideas or that they're not good enough?


Well, it's because it doesn't feel safe and we want to protect ourselves and our survival in the world. We crave the safety net of approval, support, and belonging. When we go first, there is a real threat of failure and alienation, and it comes with stress, anxiety, and humiliation. Musicians are conditioned to practice and practice in a safe, private environment so they can reduce their risk of failure when they go public. It's really hard for us to say, "I have this neat idea. It might not work, but I'm going to do it anyway because it is important to me." It's really hard for us to say, "Here's a work in progress. What do you think?"


So - we love our leaders because they went first, bravely going out of their way to create a path, proving that it is safe for those who follow to do the things they've always wanted to do.


What if you could be that leader? That leader that creates that environment of safety for others? Let's ask ourselves: What if we went first? Who would then feel safe to follow us?


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Conductor as CEO - starting the conversation

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 15 February, 2021 at 14:20

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

Why is there growing dissent and declining job fulfillment for ensemble musicians? Why are there more stories about conflicts between orchestras and conductors compared to stories about conductors fighting for their orchestras? Why don't conductors focus on making things better for musicians? I'm thinking beyond matters of artistry, salary, or job security (though important and part of it), but rather the everyday work culture.

Many musicians feel a lack of trust, safety, and purpose in their work. We don't end up doing our absolute best and we refrain from risk taking without even knowing that's happening. Music that was once a deep passion becomes merely a job--clocking in and clocking out, off to the next gig. The result is unexciting art, hollow work culture, and unhappy people.

Musicians deserve to feel fulfilled by everything they do every time they do it and to know that their work matters. Conductors are crucial in facilitating and encouraging this kind of work culture. 

How can we work toward this? I hope to consider how we can be:

  1. Creating a culture of trust and safety in the work environment
  2. Infusing the group with a shared vision and goals
  3. Being empathetic to the musicians' needs and desires
  4. Exploring pitfalls, biases, and limitations of our hiring processes and organizational structures 


Imagine an organization where its people stand up for those to their left and right; where every individual can clearly articulate a collective, unified purpose; and where this energy, passion, and humanity transmit naturally to their audiences. That's the world I want to work in. I don't have all the answers, but I want to start the conversations.

I'll be sharing my ideas here and also in the form of short videos. I'd be interested to hear from you if this resonates with you. Thanks!


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