Fast Article, May, 2000 : LUSENET : M.Ed./International Falls : One Thread

Donna Frederickson UMD Cohort, Int'l Falls

May issue: Fast Company Magazine

"Leadership Ensemble", pp.286-302

"How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, Practice, Practice!" - that's an old joke. However, the Fast Magazine article puts it this way: "How do the musicians of Orpheus get to Carnegies Hall? They practice - not just their music, but a radical approach to leadership that has become a compelling metaphor for business."(P.286)

The life of a professional musician is very insecure. The professional musician is one of never having a steady income. So, the musician has to be inventive with finances, such as playing in one orchestra, or several, and hopefully being paid a small salary with, hopefully, a benefit package. He or she will play gigs with smaller groups in various genres, take on students for instrumental lessons or wait tables. However, most musicians seem to like it this way. They like the variety. They like the creativity that the variety generates. They like the control over their interpretation. They like the responsibility of developing their craft. They like to feel input, ownership and control in their performance.

One new orchestra that challenges the musician in these ways and requires its member's creativity, research methods, cooperation, collaboration and leadership is called the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, based in New York City. The orchestra was the concept of Julian Fifer, 49, the group's founder. He inspired the design of a chamber orchestra where each member had an artistic, interpretive responsibility to the development of the work, rather than have the entire orchestra play under one person's interpretation and direction. The musicians who he invited to try out his theory were thrilled at the concept because most find the conductor concept stifling. Sure, there were details that needed to be worked out, such as how to rehearse new works, the concert master role, who would be the ears for the orchestra, and many others. Working out the mechanics took experimentation, input, time and had incidents of trial and error. However, the orchestra is a success and its members revel in it.

The orchestra has received fame from several sources, some for the following reasons.

1. The orchestra was nominated for a Grammy, and that means they are good, respected and developing a following.

2. Orpheus practices in a high school, Baruch High School, and has for three years. The high school will make for noisy surroundings, but the high school students have the benefit of watching, seeing and hearing a unique method of organization and sound develop. The students see what collaboration and consensus building can do. And, the cost is low for the rehearsal space.

3. Orpheus practices without a conductor. In this day that concept sounds odd. However, in the Baroque Period (1650-1750) orchestras were small (usually under 24) and functioned without a conductor. That was not impossible because a chamber orchestra was small enough to see each other and sense the beat and movement. The harpsichord in the Baroque Period was the central mainstay of the unit and the orchestra members sat around it, but the instrument was not considered the leader. The composer of the music had the leadership and interpretation decisions, and I doubt that there was much discussion on how the music should be played. The concept of employing an old concept of the chamber orchestra with new, modern methods would appeal to today's modern thinking, talented musicians.

4. The Orpheus Orchestra is unique in that it is self-governed and the leadership is shared and rotated. The role of concert master rotates for each work. One member of the orchestra will go out into the audience area to listen to the group's sound, and that position also rotates.

5. New music is first learned by a small core group out of the whole. The core group discusses the new work's variations of tempo, dynamics and interpretation, researches other works by the same composer, historic elements of the work, listens to other recordings of the work and then each member presents their opinions. The core group comes to a consensus and presents the music to the whole. Then, the whole chamber orchestra works up the piece according to the core group's decision. All members are expected to be part of a core group at some time. It is this challenge for all members to come up with an interpretation for a piece through the core group that keeps stimulating Orpheus members and makes the groups attractive to others. Musicians after they have studied to perfect their craft want input into the interpretation and performance, and not to only be under the thumb of a conductor.

6. The performing number of the group is 27. However, with all of the members having other commitments and positions with other performing groups, the total number of musicians needed to secure 27 performers per performance is around 75. Each member is required to commit to 35% of the group's performances each year. Each section when performing must have at least one member who is fluent in the core member's direction of the work and leadership process. The cast for each performance changes, but the quality must remain. The salary cap for one of the members who would perform throughout the year is $35,000.00, which is not enough for New York's cost of living. So, that salary represents only about 10% of the member's total salary. However, all of the musicians say that the Orpheus Orchestra is the most rewarding unit in which they participate.

Today, business corporation executives look at the orchestra's success, stemming from its self-governing process. Orpheus has been hired by corporations to demonstrate their insights about motivation, decision making, performance and work. The orchestra is an example of "grassroots democracy and commitment to consensus that can lead to transcendental performance"(p.291), and that is what corporations would like to see achieved in their "orchestra hall." The concept is an adult commitment to collaborate, not lose sight of the goal, work for perfection, research, develop talents, and keep all members challenged and inspired. What organization wouldn't want that! - I'd like to see that work in education.

-- Anonymous, April 30, 2000

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