Category: Ask a Musician

Ask a Musician: Workplace Culture

Photo by: Steve Bowbrick

As any musician will tell you, there is no shortage of bad jokes about any type of instrumentalist, ensemble, genre of music, style period, performance venue, or view toward music. In fact, one could say that the only unifying aspect of musician-based comedy is that we are all subject to criticism about whatever culture we belong to in our musical lives.

So that I may be a good sport:
Q: Why are a organist’s fingers like lightning?
A: Because they rarely strike the same place twice.

As bad as some of these jokes are, it’s important to note that all of the ones about brass players are true.

OK, really – I’m done! As fun as it is to make fun of every other type of musician that I’m not, the unfortunate fact is that as a musician, I am often required to work with these people (last one!). Naturally, some combinations of instrumentalists/vocalists work better together – (although the latter aren’t really musicians – really now, I’m done).

For example, string players are well used to working well as chamber musicians or as part of an orchestra. Brass players are also well respected and useful members of orchestras or brass ensembles (that wasn’t a joke) and pianists can easily fit into any ensemble that needs them or work well – some would say better – as a solo instrument.

The business world has a lot to learn from the musical world regarding workplace culture. Truly, musicians can and have been working together in creative and novel ways for hundreds of years with very little conflict. The primary reason for this, in my personal opinion, is a strong focus on the same goal: the best possible musical product.

When the goals of everyone in an organization are aligned to the same end, a new culture of success will take hold and can help to dictate the behavior and rules of its members. Though success may be the same goal for everyone, this alone will fix nothing. A violinist who is experienced in playing with orchestras may still play with many orchestras over their lifetime and each one has its own, unique culture. Musical ensembles are dynamic and change constantly, so a well-trained musician knows how to fit in and adapt to any ensemble.

The person most accountable for this is the leader (conductor in an orchestra) of the group. He or she must clearly state the goals, how to prepare, the method of operation, and define a workplace culture of respect and understanding.

Mergers and acquisitions are a lot like combining two large ensembles each having their own conductor. Let’s say that a city’s philharmonic orchestra and choir are combining for Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana”. This work requires an expanded orchestra, percussion, and choir. Naturally, the choir doesn’t usually rehearse with the orchestra and many new members are added from other ensembles.

In this case, the issue of leadership and adapting to new authority is very clear: the orchestra has a conductor and the choir has their own. Of course, there will be only one person conducting. Both ensembles and their associated management will negotiate – before rehearsal even begins – who will be conducting. Before any musical business can even begin, all planning and negotiations must be completed to all party’s satisfaction. This of course requires such considerations as: ability, prior working histories, and whether or not the idea is a good one to begin with.

Once the planning is completed, all musicians involved must fall into line behind the new leadership. This is impossible without clear direction – which itself is only possible with proper planning.

As part of this direction, the new director must address the needs and views of all members involved. “Carmina Burana” uses percussion very heavily. This group of musicians is used to being overly qualified for whatever the standard symphonic needs may be; however, in the Orff production, they are used very heavily and can easily become strained with the new workload. The new director must be well aware, and prepared, to deal with the new and unusual needs of the percussion section.

Photo by: VXLA

Naturally, the stakes are very high for this kind of integration. One bad performance can spell the end of an ensemble. Therefore, the leadership must be prepared to communicate and listen effectively to the needs and concerns of all members involved.

In business (as in “Carmina Burana”) leadership will change: “old” leaders may no longer lead and “new” leaders will take their place. Effective executives will realize this and prepare for change before any change – specific actions – are required. Musicians know this, and the business world can learn from the musical culture of constant change. Unfortunately, woodwinds don’t know how to adapt to changing key and never will (now I’m really done)!

As always, check out what can happen when you know how to align merging musical forces:

Ask a Musician: Workflow

Ask a Musician: Workflow

By: Cody Soska


Conductor_Baltazar Hertel


Frederik Magle: by Morten Skovgaard

Welcome to the “Ask a Musician” section of the Harmonic Systems Consulting blog, where I explore a component of business operations to better understand its value by relating it to a familiar musical concept. Our first topic: Workflow!

Workflow is “An orchestrated and repeatable pattern of business activity enabled by the systematic organization of resources into processes that transform materials, provide services, or process information.” (Business Process Management [BPM] Center of Excellence).

It is appropriate that the BPM article mentions orchestration when defining workflow, because that’s what all organizations are comprised of: the orchestration of people, resources, time and capital. Likewise, with a musical performance of, say, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis – one of the greatest masterpieces in musical history – a synthesis of the time and effort of a number of performers must align perfectly to accomplish the goal of a successful and moving performance.

Conductor _fountain

Without the alignment of time, resources and effort towards a clearly defined goal, the taking of a product or service (or, in this case, a finished musical performance) from its planning and development stage to its final note of completion, will fail. From piece selection to preparation; from first rehearsal to dress rehearsal; and from performance to performance, all of the effort in a business organization or orchestra must be harmonically balanced to achieve true Workflow Efficiency.

Part of this effort that is imperative to a successful musical performance is managing and measuring processes. For example: If the music director of a symphony finds that predetermined benchmarks in the score are not being rehearsed by a set deadline, the symphony will not be ready in time for its first performance. If the instrumentalists are not tuned by the time the conductor is ready to begin rehearsal, time is lost. The music director, performers and librarians must carefully track their department’s individual tasks and ensure that process goals are met in a timely manner. If these goals aren’t met, time, money, and resources will be wasted – or, worse, the performance will fail.

In business this concept is no different. Without true Workflow Efficiency, and organization’s process benchmarks will not be met. Over time this can lead to lost revenue, lower ROI, and losing clients. Every client is your most important client, and they deserve the performance of a lifetime! Carefully measure, plan, and manage your processes to ensure that none of your resources aren’t spent achieving your organization’s vision and giving your client the best experience possible.

While you consider this, try listening to an example of what Workflow Efficiency can do for your business: Philippe Herreweghe conducting Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

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