liszt, bernstein, and a guy named itay :: three leadership principles of great conductors

January 13, 2010

Franz Liszt is the man.

If I just lost you, because you get emotionally involved in American Idol, but you couldn’t tell the difference between Brahms, Beethoven and Bach to save your life… hang with me for just a bit longer.  Most people approach music believing they already know what they love… The truth is, when it comes to art, people often love what they know.

So here’s a little nugget from the classical music realm.  Or romantic, technically…  somewhere in there.

Franz Liszt may be the greatest piano player of all time.  (I know.  I can just hear Kanye West getting all up in the grill of Sergei Rachmaninoff, mid-Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30… “Yo, Sergei… Imma let you finish…”)

Liszt was also a great composer, teacher, lecturer, and he made a mean quiche. (I made that up).  But I’m really grateful to him for his contributions in the world of CONDUCTING technique.  As a musician, I’ve sung and played under many, many conductors.  Some great.  Some clumsy.  Some effective.  Some frustrating.  And a few have been absolute MAGIC.  The best of the best have a way of making an ensemble gel together, breathe together… and disappear into the beauty.  It is transcendent for the performers… and that magic is not lost on the audience.

This is a fascinating picture of leadership.  Conductors make no sound.  Yet they wield tremendous, nuanced leadership that crafts a team of individuals into one coalesced organism generating a musical tapestry greater than the sum of its parts.  On one end of the style spectrum, conducting control freaks frustrate musicians who want to interpret and create.  The flip-side – the hyper-expressive sound-scapers (just made that up, too, but it works…) – likewise frustrate musicians with vague cues that leave the team on edge, unsure of when to come in or end a phrase.

Franz Liszt was, by all accounts, a tremendously expressive conductor, painting the sound with his hands… all between clear cues for his musicians.  As an artist, I want to go back in time and give Franz a high five for his influence on the conductors I have so loved to play and sing for.  As a leader, I want to go back in time and pick his brain.  Ask him about WHY he conducts the way he does.  How he views his role is as a LEADER in front of the ensemble.

In the end, there are a number of lessons – LEADERSHIP lessons – to be learned from great conductors.  As a performer, and as a music lover, here are my top three:

(1)  Great conductors (and great leaders) know how to cue (guide) their ensemble (team) without being too heavy handed (micromanaging). A great conductor sets the musicians at ease, because they know that when they really need it (entrances and exits), cues will be clear.  In order for any team to function at its highest level, the team leader must communicate key information clearly, so that expectations are unambiguous.  But those leaders must also trust their team to create their own path to the desired result.  Clarity lowers the team’s blood pressure.  Trust inspires the teams creativity.  Better results + more team ownership.  And musicians (team members) get to be artists (creators), not just cogs in the conductor’s (leader’s) machine.

(2) Great conductors (and great leaders) are more committed to creating something together than receiving credit as an individual. Because great teams produce end results GREATER than the sum of its parts.  Greater music.  Greater ideas.  Greater art.  Greater results.  Team synergy produces exponentially more passion for the product – in art, in business, and in ministry.  Truly great conductors (leaders) facilitate the highest performance level of the ensemble (team), and EVERYONE shares in the joy of the process.  In business, in sports, in art there is plenty of credit to go around.  In ministry, we all truly have only ONE to direct our attention and lavish our thanks on, anyway.  And that ONE isn’t any of us.  As J.S. Bach penned on every piece of music he wrote, Soli Deo Gloria.  To God alone be the glory.

(3)  Great conductors (leaders) require and give much in the practice room (board room), so that their leadership can take a back seat to the Ensemble (Team) on performance day. My favorite conductor joke ever (yes we have them… every field has their own jokes, right?) is about the much beloved and equally feared Robert Berglund, who served as director of the Bethel College Choir (now Bethel University in St. Paul, MN) from 1959 to 1995.  He built a renowned Choral Music program – and while his choirs sang with great freedom and beauty, he had a reputation for strict discipline in rehearsal.  So… a Bethel College Choir alumn dies and meets St. Peter at the Pearly Gates for a tour (Pardon the suspect theology here.)  As they’re touring the wonders of heaven, they come around a cloud bank, and there is a choir of the heavenly host, singing the most beautiful music… and on a small cloud out in front of them is a figure in a white tailed tuxedo, slightly balding with a white ring of hair above the ears.  The Choir member blinks twice and asks St. Peter in amazement, “Is that… is that Bob Berglund?!”  St. Peter replies, “No.  That’s God.  He just THINKS he’s Bob Berglund.”

I’ve never had the privilege to sing under Dr. Berglund’s direction, but I wish I could have.  And I’m not advocating leadership with a God complex here.  Dr. Berglund is well loved and respected – and, at the same time, it was clear that he had high expectations in the rehearsal room.  Effective leaders often do their hardest work behind closed doors.  Rooting out problems.  Fixing, guiding, directing, crafting with their teams out of the public eye.

Perhaps the best bow I could ever put on all this comes in the following video – a leadership discussion from Israel’s beloved conductor Itay Talgam, culminating in some wonderful footage of the great Leonard Berstein.  Watch and enjoy…

NOTE:  Special thanks to TWITTER, without which I would have never met @JesusNeedsNewPR, without whom I would have never fallen in love with the sound of @ImogenHeap, without whom I would have never seen the above video from – without which I would have never begun to reminisce about my fascination with Franz Liszt, without whom many of my favorite conductors may not have developed their style, without which this blog post would not exist.  So… thanks.

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Psalm 24:7 & Luke 10:42 >> Like David, and Mary, I'm in pursuit of my one thing. I'm the Pastor at St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Montgomery, IL. Pastor, teacher, writer, communicator, designer, and drummer. I definitely got the better deal in my marriage to Amy. And I couldn't be any more proud of my five amazing boys. Deeply grateful.