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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.


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.

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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