Observations of a World-Class Team Leader

Recently I went to a musical performance by the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.  My seat was in the choir seats behind the orchestra and I was right in the middle so I was directly opposite the conductor and therefore able to see exactly what he was doing in leading the team that is his orchestra.  Dudamel is lauded as an inspirational conductor, though there are some who prefer their conductors grey and more mannered.  I hugely enjoyed the concert, and I hugely enjoyed watching closely as Dudamel did his thing.  It really was a masterclass in team leadership.

When I watch a concert from behind the conductor (as is usual) or on TV, it sometimes feels as though the conductor can’t possibly be leading the orchestra – or not that much anyway, perhaps just giving the beat and key stop and start signals – to some extent it feels as though they are dancing along to the music rather than shaping it.  Watching as closely as I was able to this week, there was a tiny but perceptible gap between an instruction from the conductor and the relevant thing happening – I became more aware than ever before of the rich extent to which conductors (or, this one at least) has a profound and direct effect on the orchestra, on the split second behaviour of 100 skilled and attentive people.

It is a bit of cliche in the management literature to study orchestras as teams, usually in contrast to the style of say a jazz combo.  But I am going to add some observations of this specific conductor, on this particular day, that felt interesting – some of them may have wider relevance, in certain circumstances.  Some of the leadership points are very obvious!

Expressive, modulated, leadership using every tool available.  Dudamel used the whole of his body and an extraordinary array of facial expressions to communicate.  He missed no opportunity to convey his intention.  At times his movement was huge, his facial expression massively contorted, but at no point did it feel over the top, partly because the extent was always directly linked to the need.  For one really quiet passage he – quite literally – conducted the beat with the smallest movement he could do – he conducted the orchestra with his eyebrows

Conducting as though nobody is watching(!).  As a result of this massive expressiveness there were times when he looked really very stupid and undignified indeed!  A freeze frame shot could have been entered into a caption competition.  At one moment his bottom half was doing something like a “Frank Spencer ‘Ooh Betty'” while his top half was going three different ways at once and his eyes were popping out.  And of course nobody did laugh because the results he was producing were extraordinarily good.  A great leader, he only gained credibility from taking a personal presentational risk.

Knowing when not to lead.  There is a short, lovely and important oboe solo in the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.  Uniquely during the performance, for this section, Dudamel did nothing.  He stood, smiling respectfully, poised and waiting for the oboeist to finish before bringing everyone else in.

Stopping, waiting, and starting.  In between movements at a concert there is silence.  On this day I was able to detect three distinct silences, one after the other.  There was the silence that is necessary for a couple of beats once a piece has ended, there was the restful silence that was between pieces, and there was the preparatory silence just before things got going again.  These stages were signalled by Dudamel’s body language, and holding the baton straight up against his chest during the middle silence.  This made me wonder whether we do enough to allow that pause for reflection once something has finished, a moment of rest, and then a reflective pause before starting again.  In a concert the total length of the silences is about ten seconds, and I don’t think it need take much longer than that in a work context.  I think some meetings would be greatly enhanced by these three pauses between agenda items!

Individual attention in a crowd.  There were probably about 100 people in the orchestra, yet there were times when Dudamel gave very specific individual attention to one of the players.  Never for more than a few seconds at a time, he gave undiluted attention at particular key points.  His arms kept things going for the rest of the orchestra but his face – and you felt, his attention – were utterly focused on making eye contact with one person.  He would smile, or widen his eyes, or do something, which conveyed a sense to the player concerned – you could read it “now then, like that time at rehearsal that I was happy with” – a quick smile of thanks when the performance was delivered and then on to the next.  Do we give 100% focus to individuals when they need it, even fleetingly, or do we get distracted by the wider task?

Credit.  Dudamel was very generous with credit to the players.  He did the usual conductorly thing of inviting soloists or groups of players to stand and take an individual bow and receive specific audience applause.  But more than others he went to them where they were sitting and he BEAMED at them, shook their hand or patted them on the back.  Apart from the initial applause when the conductor turns round to take a bow, whenever he came back to take more applause he invariably did so from within the body of the orchestra, with his arms around some of the players.

In some of the social media traffic around this concert a friend mused about how Dudamel gets such extraordinary performances.  This is how.

(The specific concert I listened to is/was broadcast on Wednesday 14th January 2015 at 9pm.)


Jazz for People who Like Classical Music

So, basically, a little while ago I Tweeted and posted on Facebook the following question:

“What ONE CD would you recommend for someone who likes classical music and thinks they might like #Jazz if they found the right way in?”

Pleasantly surprised by the number of responses, and borderline astounded by the variety of directions from whence the recommendations came, I thought I should capture them for posterity and as a guide for others.  The recommendations were (in order of me finding them to cut and paste)…

  • If a 2CD counts, then combined albums for which Wynton Marsalis got Grammies for a jazz & classical disc IN THE SAME YEAR!
  • Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. And The Koln Concert by Keith Jarrett
  • (Kind of Blue got another supporting vote)
  • Miles Davis Cool, or John Coltrane Blue Train
  • Spaces in Between by John Surman
  • Fats Waller Ain’t Misbehavin’. He was classically trained and you can hear it in some of the piano solo pieces
  • Gil Evans. New Bottle, Old Wine; Miles Ahead; Porgy & Bess; or Out of the Cool. All great records! And I’m sure others will have suggested A Love Supreme
  • Wynton Marsalis
  • Courtney Pine
  • The Mahavishnu Orchestra

I also discovered a couple of absolute bargain box sets on Amazon which cover many of these recommendations



Having been largely unaffected by Jazz in my life to date, but realising I will need to be au fait by the time I’m 50, I am enjoying exploring this new (and it would seem highly elastically-defined) genre.

For what it’s worth, and for the ones I’ve heard, I think the best recommendation, in the spirit of the question asked – ie the transition from Classical to Jazz, is John Surman’s Spaces in Between.  

The Sixteen, 32, 64, 922, 282 … and 1081

Spent this evening in a nine hundred year old building listening to some two hundred and fifty year old music.  Helped me put in perspective the fact that within a few months when I fill in a customer survey like the one in the concert programme tonight I’ll be ticking an age range that ends with 64!

St Albans Abbey (1077) was the nine hundred year old (in fact 932) building and the music was a suite of coronation anthems by the man of the anniversary moment GF Handel.  So the music was from 1727, (in fact 282 years old – flukily same 32 years error in both approximations).

The performers were The Sixteen, the choir and orchestra founded and conducted by Harry Christophers, and who featured in a beautiful BBC4 series last year called “Sacred Music” which I bumped into, and found engaging, and which reawakened a fairly fallow following of classical music.  Delighted therefore to find them performing at my local neighbourhood 900-year old cathedral, and with religious coronation anthems being right up my ideological street I could hardly decline.

The setting was spectacular.  The sun went down during the performance so the quality of light changed smoothly during the evening, with the grey sunlit stones turning sandy yellow under the electric lights from the wrought-iron chandeliers in alternate arches, which created a dark-light pattern to mirror the segmented shadings of the many romanesque arches in the Abbey.

Shame the music was indifferent really.

Of course the music itself was great, and I strongly suspect the performers were very good too, but the acoustics were pretty awful especially for the major choral pieces.  It takes sitting in a long narrow stone box with a high ceiling to make you appreciate a modern concert hall, which I therefore now do, all the more.  Musing on this I noted that the acoustics for the organ solo were very much better, leading me to hypothesise that one of the reasons organs work well in a church-like environment is that they are loud, with each note un-nuanced and emitted from one point, all of which probably help with the fact that the sound waves then get bounced every which way.

So: learnings – St Albans Abbey, beautifully atmospheric venue, but book early to get a seat in the block at the front and arrive early to get a seat near the front in order to get the sound waves while they’re fresh and before they’ve been handed down from an inconveniently spaced number of surfaces.  And I’d like to hear The Sixteen in a purpose-built concert venue.

The epilogue to this was that as I was driving home, by a further fluke, there was a programme about Handel and I tuned in at the point where they were playing a superb recording of Zadok the Priest, so I got that full blast as I was thrumming along the A1081, and with recent memory of the words was able to join in to the fullest.  Amen.

Enjoying what you do

At Royal Festival Hall on Thursday evening for a performance by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Haydn Op. 104 London Symphony and Bruckner 9 – two last symphonies).

Excellent performance, superbly conducted by Zubin Mehta who conducted both pieces without a score (or a guard rail).

But I was most struck by this …

The Orchestra were serious people, playing serious music.  An average age in the 40s, I’d estimate.  These are serious musicians and the rules of the Vienna Philharmonic include that anyone who wants to play with them has to play with the Vienna Opera Orchestra for three years first.  They were expertly, and fairly grimly producing music of excellence – doing that thing that great orchestras do of conjuring out of a startling number of simultaneous instruments something of great beauty which is thrown away into thin air. Like a painter painting on a flowing river.

Now, one of the musicians looked about 12, which as I age I am beginning to realise means he was probably in his early 20s.  And he, he was grinning.  Damn it all there he was playing with the Vienna Philharmonic surrounded by this fabulous music, being conducted by Zubin Mehta to a packed auditorium in London  and he was smiling.  He was happy.  He was having so much fun that he couldn’t help but convey it.  Packing his case and trogging to the airport probably wasn’t fun.  Practising incessantly may not be that great.  Having to play music you don’t particularly care for, can’t be much fun…

But right there, right then, for him that was clearly what it was all for and he didn’t mind showing it – or couldn’t help showing it.

And I enjoyed it more as a result.  And I wondered whether the rest of the orchestra were enjoying it this much too.

Work is compatible with fun, at least occasionally, and it’s wearying when we don’t show it, and energising when we do.