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I have a little writing book that I keep beside the sofa I read on at home. In it I jot down quotes from books that I want to remember. I’ll often note the source it comes from in order to go back to it later. Here is one that I found while leafing through the book this morning. I neglected to write down where I found this, so I’m not sure of its origin, but it is the point of departure for this blog post:

“The more powerful a person truly is, the less they need to promote it. And the stronger a leader is, the less they need to announce it.”

Traditionally, orchestras (and I’m speaking mainly about professional orchestras here) are very hierarchical. The conductor is in charge, followed by the concertmaster, and then principals and assistant principals. Section players then follow. Now, I’m not for the complete dismantlement of this system. It is in place partially to prevent the too many cooks in the kitchen syndrome. Rehearsals with an orchestra as big as ours would be difficult without some sense of order.

Before I moved to Saskatoon, my teacher had me over to his house for what he called ‘a lesson on how to be a principal bass’. It was essentially just us hanging out and having dinner, but at the end of the evening he said:

“The best principals don’t say too much and what they do say only helps their section play better.”

It’s the best job description I’ve ever heard of a principal orchestra player. That is the job: sound as best as you can, as a section, as an orchestra, as a team. It can sometimes involve pointing out a mistake but always with the aim of making the section sound its absolute best.

So here’s some thoughts, and similar to the SYO Values I shared with you recently, I think this is something we are already good at. If you find yourself in one of the traditional leadership roles in the orchestra, challenge yourself by imagining being in the shoes of your section mates. If you offer constructive criticism, is it truly aimed at elevating and encouraging everyone? And I would challenge the section as well. Hopefully the feedback coming your way is communicated with this kind of good intent and empathy, but however it feels, be open to suggestion. Whether a suggestion is coming from a fellow player (and maybe not always the one playing principal*), a coach, or myself, I hope that it is being given only with the intent to lift up and not to cut down. I think everyone needs to be open in an orchestra; kindness and empathy go both ways.

The orchestra is a team with no opponent. We are not trying to beat another orchestra. And while music is filled with competition, I always find I’m happiest when I limit that to being competitive with myself- trying to be better than I was yesterday.

*One caveat here about giving suggestions to fellow players. The SYO, like many youth orchestras, practices rotational seating. The string players rotate and the wind, brass, and percussion players often do to. I’m refraining from giving hard fast guidelines as to who is supposed to give direction within a section. Traditionally it is always those playing in the principal chair in the strings and those playing the first part in the winds and brass. But can a really experienced player offer some suggestions to section when they happen to be rotating and playing a 2nd or 3rd part? Sure and this all depends on context, but I’d advise such a player to privately discuss it with the player who is playing 1st for that piece.

Basically this long blog post can be boiled down to “be nice and imagine yourself in the other players’ shoes”, whether you are making a suggestion or a suggestion is being made to you. For players in positions of leadership, empathy in your leadership will inspire younger players; you can end up having an impact that will last many years after you move on from the SYO.

Thank you to all of you in the SYO who lead in ways both seen and unseen, on and off the stage. As noted in the remarks for the SYO player in last week’s post, leadership doesn’t only come from “the recognized face of leadership”.

In orchestras you win or lose as a team. Let’s keep winning! I’m tempted to making a Charlie Sheen reference here, but I’ll wrap up my comments here.

One Comment

    • Amy Piesinger Tait
    • Posted January 21, 2019 at 5:22 am
    • Permalink
    • Reply

    What a wonderful post. I love how you Are not only shaping our youth to be great musicians but also great people. As a parent I just want you to know I appreciate you!!


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