A Conversation With Conductor Roger Nierenberg (Part 1)


Have you ever wished there were fewer brilliant people in the world? Those who lead them sometimes do.

It’s one thing to lead people; it’s quite another to lead brilliant people. There’s a range of talent in any field, but on the far end of the spectrum—two standard deviations from the mean—we find those with luminous talent, those who have mastered their craft.

Now think about leading an entire group of people with that kind of proficiency. That’s intimidating. It’s not just skill that differentiates brilliant people; it’s also the way they think, behave, interact, and respond or refuse to respond to those who lead them.

We know that brilliant people tend to be more demanding, more impatient, and more intolerant. We know they are ferociously driven. And we know they require enormous amounts of autonomy to enable their creative output. We also know that elitism breeds disdain for hierarchy. Brilliant people are often suspicious of leadership, viewing authority as an obstacle and hierarchy as a vulgar and necessary evil.

We love that brilliant people are brilliant, but why is brilliance correlated with recalcitrance? Most importantly, how do you get brilliant people to make beautiful music together?

To explore this question, I interviewed Maestro Roger Nierenberg, the creator of The Music Paradigm, an immersive experience (now virtual) in which he invites leaders from all sectors of society to gain an intimate view of leadership and group dynamics from the vantage point of the orchestra conductor.

Before his transition into leadership development, Roger completed long, successful tenures as Music Director of both the Stamford Symphony in Connecticut and the Jacksonville Symphony in Florida. He has guest conducted the National Symphony, the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, the Detroit Symphony, the Saint Louis Symphony, the Baltimore Symphony, the Indianapolis Symphony, the San Diego Symphony, and many other great American orchestras. Abroad he has recorded with the London Philharmonic and conducted at both the Prague Spring Festival and the Beijing Festival. Roger graduated from Princeton in music composition and then took graduated degrees in conducting from the Mannes College of Music and the Julliard School.

Tim: Roger, as a conductor you spent your professional life leading brilliant people. I can’t help but go straight to the baton. I’m not a musician, but it seems to me that your instrument makes no music. Yet when you move that little stick, the music suddenly appears. Is the baton a gentle instrument that can only influence rather than control, persuade rather than intimidate. Or can you misuse the baton?

Roger: I see the baton as the quintessential symbol of leadership. But it’s not for reasons of power, authority, control, or domination. Rather, understanding how a conductor uses the baton reveals penetrating insights into how effective leadership can work.

The conductor holds the baton in his hand and moves it with great control as if it were a musical instrument. But in truth it’s unlike all the instruments that produce sound. As you pointed out, the baton doesn’t produce anything. But it can be an amazing instrument of alignment. It organizes action.  Let me give you an example. Take the sport of rowing. Consider the coxswain in a boat race—the man or woman who sits at the stern and calls out directions to those who are rowing.

The rowers are seated facing the stern, the best position for them to pull with the full force of their arms and push with their legs. But the rowers are in the worst position for making strategic decisions about the race. They can’t even see where they’re going, no less measure their progress. They can’t make good judgments about pacing themselves. Their sole preoccupation is rowing. The coxswain faces forward, surveying not only the course ahead, but also scrutinizing the rise and fall of the oars. The moment there is any flaw in the synchronicity, the coxswain will raise the alarm and call out corrections until alignment has been restored. Split second timing is what wins races.

The coxswain decides when it’s necessary to make slight course corrections and instructs the crew on how to do it—the rowers on one side intensifying while the others slacken, until the most direct path to the finish line has been regained.

The coxswain is the crew’s strategist, responsible for adapting to changing winds and the currents, making judgements about the strength and stamina of the crew, and planning how and when to apply the last measure of their energy to win the race.

Not least, I love that the coxswain is by far the scrawniest person in the boat. The rowers need to be brawny and fit, but the coxswain, who does no rowing, should be as light as possible. Although he or she may be physically the weakest, the coxswain must have a fiercely competitive spirit, capable of exhorting the crew during the final sprints.

In so many ways the coxswain is like the conductor—planning, motivating, mobilizing, coordinating, steering the work of others. In earlier times the coxswain would use a megaphone so the entire crew could hear the commands. But today a cox box amplifies his or her voice through speakers throughout the boat. The conductor’s baton is his cox box, enabling even musicians who are far away to be confident about the orchestra’s strategy and timing. The art of baton technique is the ability to convey all of these things non-verbally, at lightning speed, and through the simple motions of a stick.

Clark: As a conductor, you get to have a leadership experience the rest of us can only dream about. You’re not standing in front of beginners who need to develop basic skills. You’re standing in front of experts—accomplished, brilliant people who have mastered their craft. What is different about leading brilliant people? How do you approach this unique task?

Nierenberg: From childhood classical musicians learn to be very discriminating about their own playing. They have developed high standards for excellent rhythm, playing in tune, making a beautiful sound, and being thoroughly prepared. They are dedicated to continual self-correction. That’s the only way to develop and maintain their skills. They are very discerning about the playing of their colleagues—extremely appreciative of those who attain high standards and critical of those who do not. They are even more demanding of those who lead them, and not easily impressed.

Even experienced conductors will privately confess to some nervousness before the first rehearsal with a new orchestra. Here’s my advice for a young conductor:

Accept that the orchestra will not offer you a supportive environment. It feels more like a skeptical attitude, somewhat mistrustful. It’s not your fault. It’s normal. It doesn’t mean that they are rejecting you.

Be thoroughly prepared: know the work and have a detailed, informed, compelling vision for how it can sound. Your steadfast commitment to that vision will be needed to influence all of the experts in the orchestra.

Understand how the orchestra works: you don’t need to play all the instruments but you do need sufficient technical knowledge to be able to speak their vocabulary and give suggestions that make sense to them.

Understand the lines of communication that the musicians use to work together. Discover how they collaborate in real time – who listens to whom, who leads and who supports. Discover especially what they do not hear – this opens the door to your adding real value.

Hear the orchestra accurately. Appreciate in detail the fine things that the orchestra is offering in their first reading. Always have your ideal interpretation in your imagination as you listen and hear their playing against the backdrop of how you imagine it can sound. Do a gap analysis: determine the gap that needs to be narrowed in order to bring the orchestra closer to your ideal. Be prepared to translate this into directions that will accomplish this. It’s easy to make criticisms. It’s far more difficult to prescribe solutions.

Clark: Can brilliant musicians become passive or resistant? What have you learned about convincing all of these brilliant people to subdue their egos, work together, and create a beautiful collaboration?

Nierenberg: Leadership is so difficult to understand that it’s all too common for an orchestra to feel that the conductor does not draw out their full potential. With a new conductor their attitude will be hopeful, but at the first sign of disappointment they’ll default into a posture of passivity. They’ll certainly play well, but devoid of the inspiration and creativity that they know is possible. In rehearsal they’ll comply with what is being asked of them, but they’ll reserve their best playing for the concert when the conductor can no longer interrupt them. It’s rare that there will be open resistance. But ultimately they understand that they are serving the music first, and the conductor second.

It’s challenging to unite all the artistic personalities of an orchestra in harmonious collaboration. A naïve conductor might think that it’s necessary to subdue the players’ egos to serve his own vision. But that’s folly. The musicians need their creativity and imagination to play and they won’t give that up for anyone. And only a fool would ask them to.

The musicians understand that their job is to carry out the directions that are written in their part – playing the right notes, in time, in tune. The conductor will ask them to interpret those directions in an effort to bring life to the music. But ultimately each musician decides to what extent he or she is willing to go along with the conductor’s requests. Any effort to unite the orchestra begins with persuasion.

The best way to persuade is to bypass the “I tell you what to do, and you do it” relationship by pointing out appealing or amusing features of the work itself. Share insights that arouse the musicians’ curiosity. Make them aware of connections and relationships that they had not noticed. Allow them to hear things that had escaped their perception. Help them discover aspects of the music that you can tell they had not seen. All of this makes the work feel both more important and also new and fresh.  This also puts the player and the conductor on equal footing as servants of the music and its larger purpose. When they feel the presence of greatness in the music nobody cares about their own ego anymore.

Tim: In leading a team of brilliant musicians, I imagine they don’t like to be micromanaged. Did you ever make that mistake and how do the musicians respond to overbearing or micromanaging conductors?

Roger: It is a mistake to disparage micromanagement, per se, or even to state that brilliant musicians dislike being treated that way. Should the musicians be given a piece written by an unknown composer, are confused by what they see in their parts, don’t know what to listen for and can’t make any sense of how it sounds, they downright expect the conductor to step up and just tell people what to do. Or in an emergency, like a fire, when things must be speedily organized, excellent micromanagement is a blessing. Every leader should be a first-rate micromanager and have those skills available if and when they should be needed.

But most situations are not emergencies. Simply put, micromanagement generally disempowers the team. Motivation, energy, creativity, resourcefulness, even speed and accuracy are impeded. Collaboration is thwarted. Focus on the work is eclipsed by focus on the leader.

For the leader however, micromanagement feels quite satisfying. You’re working really hard, you’re focused, you’re getting things done, you’re causing activity and progress. Even your team seems to value your leadership more – they come to you more often for guidance. It feels like you’re giving them a lot.

But micromanagement is not generous. It’s actually withholding. The additional guidance your team seeks is not a sign of respect, it’s a symptom of unhealthy dependency. The team wants to know, “What is our strategy? Tell us and we’ll get to work on it.” The micromanager, in effect, answers, “You don’t need to know the strategy, I’ll take care of that. Just do what I tell you.” In fact, the micromanager doesn’t want to reveal the strategy because that cedes too much power to the team. And behind all of the micromanager’s dedication to hard work lies the fear of sharing power. The fear that, unsupervised, someone will make a mistake that will make the micromanager look bad. Along with the withholding of authority, there is the withholding of confidence. It’s no wonder that it saps the energy from the team.

We conductors tend to micromanage. It’s uncomfortable for us to be held accountable for the driving when we don’t have our hands of the steering wheel. When we know so much about all the dangerous turns in the road it’s unnerving to put ourselves in the hands of someone who’s less experienced. Since virtually all conductors grew up playing an instrument it’s natural to want to control the orchestra the same way we control our instrument. Micromanaging feels right, it feels responsible, it even feels artistic. But to professional musicians in the orchestra it feels like a straight jacket. They recognize it immediately and have an instantaneous reaction: they tune the conductor out and look to each other for cues. They’re quite comfortable ignoring the conductor and playing as they did in their previous performance. Yet every musician knows that this is a huge disappointment because the orchestra’s creativity and enthusiasm is absent. And they silently hold the conductor in contempt for it.

But what’s the alternative to controlling the musicians who play under your direction? Just let them have their way? The most straight forward example is when a player, say an oboist, has an exposed solo. The conductor must understand that the oboist has been working on this solo since she was a teenager and has studied it with the finest teachers. It is naïve in the extreme for a conductor to think that he or she will have much impact on how it’s going to be played. Even if the player acquiesces to the conductor’s wishes in the rehearsal she will probably revert to her own preferences in the concert.

No, the conductor must first acknowledge how beautifully the solo’s been played and then work with the rest of the orchestra support it with great care: balance and pace the accompaniment around the solo, insisting that everyone listen in real time and adjust to every nuance. In effect you’ve temporarily turned control of the orchestra over to the oboist and you use your authority to align the orchestra around her.

Then you can take the same approach with a prominent section, asking that the rest of the orchestra form around their sound. Now you’re creating a partnership with the musicians, adding value by making sure that they are working together. I have discovered that once I have fine-tuned the listening relationships in this way the orchestra becomes more sensitive and elastic, more open to following the conductor’s lead.

But beware, all of you conductors with hungry egos. The maestro who knows how to partner with the musicians and exercise power by ceding some authority should not expect a big show of gratitude. The musicians will become more alert, pay more attention to each other and feel more connected with the music. The freedom, expressiveness and imagination of their playing is likely the only reward a conductor will receive. The musicians will probably feel that they alone are responsible for this success.


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