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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.



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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