The gestures of an orchestra conductor physically do nothing but move the air, and even that has minimal influence on the physical world. So why do conductors matter?
There's something about leadership that makes conductors matter, and it's not just about making music. The world's great orchestras--a sadly diminishing number--can most certainly make their way through the conventional repertoire with minimal guidance. With a concertmaster's tempo, the corps can play the score. Hey presto: instant Mozart!
But we all know there's more to music than meets the metronome. Imparting influence and opinion, a conductor makes a million subtle and not-so-subtle gestures that influence the outcome. Many of those influential gestures take place far from the performance podium. In rehearsals, in frozen snippets of conversation while pouring coffee in the break room, even going back so far as decisions about which musicians to hire, conductors set trajectories for invisible forces that emerge as sound at performance time.
Some creative acts come to life from the hands of singular auteurs. Painting, rather obviously, springs from the brush of a singular artist. But what of opera? What of filmmaking? What of golf course design (presuming you're into that sort of thing)?
Collaborative creative enterprise may require the input of many on a team, but above all it requires vision. It needs clear guidance, and success demands leadership.
Not everyone can lead, but the moment that statement gets spoken aloud, people bristle. Not being a leader does not imply diminishment of value. A complex evaluation, value becomes a measure of absolute quality, not relative quality. In relative terms, the lead tenor at Saturday's Metropolitan Opera performance is certainly more "valuable" to the production than an anonymous chorus singer, but this should not impugn that unknown singer's value overall. Leadership demands that all parts take themselves seriously, or as the great acting coach Constantin Stanislavski once famously remarked, "there are no small parts, only small actors".
Conductors do not play the instruments wielded by musicians seated before them. They may be able to play, but they usually do not do so at performance time. But the great ones understand the nuanced and complex language everyone shares beneath the baton. Conductors are responsible for the entirety of their musical ship, first movement to last, downbeat to final rest. Sometimes they're forced to haul an orchestra over challenging terrain, but most of the time they do something completely the opposite. Most of the time a smart conductor knows how to keep the wolves of distraction and random interference away. A conductor says, “I'll take responsibility for where were going, but I'm still counting on you to get us there.”
In my experience, there's no one perfect leadership format. Conductors, directors, management executives, and lead surgeons in operating theaters, come in all different personalities and styles, even if they share a few distinct traits. But in all cases I've believe that good leaders are in touch with how subtle gestures can have profound influences on those beneath their baton. If they're paying attention, good conductors will be influenced just as much by the corps bowing hard across the strings as the string players respond to tuxedoed arms waving up front. Because when it comes right down to it, leadership of successful teams uses the intangible qualities of nuance and gesture to make things that matter. Big, obvious decisions tend to be easier to deliver, but not necessarily more desirable to experience. While beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, nuance and gesture are the invisible heart of the sublime.
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