Music and Leadership (part 7)

When the managers of a car assembly plant of 2400 people tell you that they just saw their leadership model in action, that’s when you know you are on to something…

Classical music is no longer for arty-farty people. It can be the backbone of some serious management discussions. This time we had the honor to be eavesdropping on the very first Beethoven’s Pathetique rehearsal of the prestigious I Solisti del Vento ensemble, together with their experienced coach Etienne Siebens.

Have a look at the below video and – apart from enjoying the music – have a look at the exchange of communication cues and the resonance among the musicians.


It was striking how this ensemble demonstrated the difference between true communication and non-communication. Their coach explained it as follows:

Good communication is like breathing together. If you look close enough you will see that these musicians are constantly looking at each other for cues and resonance. This is how they communicate.

But the most important part of their communication is the ‘why’ part. The musicians communicate well because they have a shared purpose, which is to bring the most authentic and perfect interpretation of Beethoven’s Pathetique. The managers of the car assembly plant could easily relate to that: we communicate in order to build the perfect car. Seems like having a higher purpose helps to improve communication. Francis Pollet, the leader of the ensemble explained it by stating:

We are all soloists, and yet we are capable of listening to each other because we are being in service of something bigger: the great master Beethoven. But we could not have done so without growing into that attitude.

Rehearsing is Growing

‘Communication’ and ‘Community’ have a lot in ‘Common’. Got it? Rehearsing is about being there, being present and being involved in the discussions about the interpretation. As a result the musicians resonate with one another. Unfortunately, 1+1 does not make a top-performance. Instead, you need 1+1+blood+sweat+tears+time together.

Pollet continued by explaining that the rehearsals are more important than the performance. Rehearsals are moments of truth. As they are a project based ensemble, the rehearsals are restricted to an initial budget and time is precious. Therefore it is important for each musician to be present and to live every minute of every rehearsal.

Trading Places Improves Resonance

One of the practices that Etienne Siebens often uses as a coach is to scramble the physical position of the musicians. We experienced one of those scrambles where musicians had to trade places. Next, they had to play the exact same piece as they did before the scramble. The result was astonishing and the difference could be heard and felt by all people in the room – including the non-musicians like myself.

Siebens explained that this is a technique he often uses in order to improve the most important part of communication: the listening part. Time for us to wonder what a scramble would look like in our environment – whenever we sense that there is something wrong with the communication. Instead of pointing fingers, we could trade places and play the scores one more time. I’m pretty sure that would make sense and improve the resonance.


Finally, some wisdom and observations from the shop floor. For some managers of the car plant it was surprising to see that musicians clean their own instruments on moments they were idle. Cleaning the saliva, blowing some air, etc.  To the musicians this seemed fairly logic. It’s their instrument after all! However, when we compare that to a production worker on an assembly line, there is no logical link anymore. We’d rather call maintenance for stuff we could be taking care of during idle time. Duh!

The Hunt for Leadership

The most puzzling part came when the managers had to debrief about the leadership they had observed. There was no way that they could pinpoint the ‘one and only’ leader of the ensemble. Was it the lead-player? Was it the coach? Was it an opinion leader among the musicians? There was no uniform answer.

The leadership and the decision-making was constantly switching thanks to direct communication and listening. This is the most amazing thing about observing this ensemble: you can almost see and hear communication and leadership as it happens – but you can’t attribute it to a single person or a single level. Is it an attitude? Or rather a process? Difficult to tell – but it did happen right there in front of us. That’s why Bizzarts is experience based learning.

  • Kurt Peys

    I enjoyed the music and the analogy between communication in the ensemble and in a company. I’ve experience with both, but I’ve never considered the comparison. Maybe, there is another difference between the orchestre and a company. In the ensemble everyone is able to contribute with its strongest capability, its own instrument. Should we scramble instruments between the musicians, so that everyone plays another, communication might be much more difficult and less effective… 

  • Hi Kurt,
    Scrambling places works out pretty well. However, scrambling instruments may be a bit more tedious I’m afraid. But then again, it could also increase the mutual respect.

  • Gabrielle Emonds-Baker

    I am a
    musician, working in a business environment and can confirm everything that
    was said above.


    most important thing I have learned as a musician is that I can lead
    or follow depending on what is required.  That is why musicians
    can be section leaders but still follow the conductor, who is of course the
    ultimate leader.  The problem with many managers in business is that they
    only want to lead and never want to follow other’s instructions.  


    other difference I experienced between an orchestra and a business is that in
    an orchestra everybody clearly knows the part they have to play.  The
    music parts clearly define the roles of the musicians and they will not deviate
    from it. In business the demarcation of roles in not so clear so you
    do get trumpeters who are trying to play the 1st violin.  


    third lesson I learned learned from music ensembles is that musicians have
    to have practised their parts to prepare themselves for the
    rehearsals.  I wished people in business would prepare themselves equally
    for meetings and workshops. 


    Finally, I learned how important communication is with your peers and as
    a leader.  If you don’t listen to your fellow musicians and look at the
    conductor you miss your entry.  The conductor needs to communicate all the
    time with the orchestra to bring in the different parts and to convey the
    nuances of the piece.  Unfortunately, business leaders do not seem to
    communicate at all on that level and then wonder why the work
    force is not in tune.NB: In a scramble musicians don’t change instruments of course, they just change places.  So a violinist could have a oboist sitting on the left and a cello sitting on the right.  It is quite a powerful experience because you have to be much more alert and  cannot rely on your neighbour to get your entry right.

  • Great comment – thanks!