Leadership Ensemble

How do the musicians of Orpheus get to Carnegie Hall? They practice -- not just their music, but a radical approach to leadership that has become a compelling metaphor for business.

The second week of January at Baruch High School in Manhattan: Teenagers are noisily making their way to and from class. On the street below, a siren blares through Union Square. And in a classroom on one of the floors of the high school, musicians are sight-reading a piece of music. After several frustrating attempts, cellist Melissa Meell finally stops and shrugs her shoulders. "We're a long way from Carnegie Hall," she quips.

That kind of wisecrack would be typical of a clever 12th-grader who's struggling through her first Mozart symphony, hoping to ace her audition for all-city orchestra and get a crack at playing on the stage of that revered concert hall. But, in fact, Meell is 44, a professional musician, and a member of Orpheus -- a Grammy-nominated chamber orchestra that's widely considered one of the best of its kind on the planet. Although she and her fellow musicians are just 19 days away from their next Carnegie Hall performance, they still sound as if they're playing rubber bands.

With such an imposing deadline at hand, why is this prestigious group of musicians rehearsing in such noisy surroundings? The school, it turns out, is its home. Orpheus has been the orchestra in residence at Baruch High School for more than three years and at Zicklin School of Business, which is affiliated with New York City's university system, since September 1999. Orpheus is a conductorless orchestra, and it was for that very reason that Baruch wanted the orchestra to take up residence there -- so that students could watch Orpheus rehearse and observe firsthand how it uses collaboration and consensus building to settle its creative differences. High-school students would get a living lesson in conflict resolution. And business students, who would soon be working in a world where few people believe that a CEO has -- or should have -- all of the answers, would learn that self-governance makes a worthwhile model and that leadership is most effective when all levels of an organization have input.

Its self-governing and leadership abilities have made Orpheus more than just a group of gifted musicians. Orpheus has actually become a metaphor for structural change -- the kind of change that has bedeviled so many big companies and exasperated so many big-company CEOs. Orpheus's founder, Julian Fifer, 49, first became aware of the group's metamorphosis when a chairman of a large Japanese publishing company approached him several years ago. "He told me how much he had enjoyed our concert," Fifer recalls. "But then he confided that he didn't want his employees to discover us." Fifer was amused -- and intrigued: If old-line business leaders resisted their self-governing process, presumably there were corporate mavericks who would find it compelling. That assumption proved to be correct: During the past two years, several large companies, including Kraft Foods and Novartis AG, have hired Orpheus to demonstrate its process to their executives. This spring, the orchestra will be sharing its lessons with hospital trustees and directors in Dallas and with PR executives in New York City. Within the next year and a half, the group is scheduled to make presentations to international business leaders in Berlin, Paris, and Tokyo.

What do these executives find so compelling about Orpheus's sound and system? To them, the group is a radical, ongoing experiment to find out whether grassroots democracy and commitment to consensus can lead to transcendental performance -- or whether it will all end in organizational chaos and muddled results. So what is the key to the orchestra's continued success? A set of insights about motivation, decision making, performance, and work that are as relevant in conference rooms as they are in concert halls.

Motivation: The Sweet Sound of Satisfaction

Those who aspire to a career as a classical musician and who are studying at a top conservatory have a few obvious career paths: Clearly, the more talented you are, the more options you have. Those who win or place well in big competitions can go on to sign recording contracts and to enjoy solo careers. They can also choose to join chamber-music groups, as do many of their other colleagues. Virtually all -- no matter how successful or well-known -- teach. Some, however, are forced to do so to support themselves financially. Most orchestra musicians who want to perform full-time join symphony orchestras.

Those jobs offer relative stability and a decent income, but they are hard to come by. Even so, back in the early 1970s, when Orpheus's founding members were trickling out of music schools and into the New York freelance scene, taking such a job was not high on their list of career goals. "Many of us believed that joining a traditional orchestra would lead to a creative dead end," says Ronnie Bauch, 47, a violinist with Orpheus since 1974, "because you'd be under the thumb of its conductor for the next 30 or 40 years."

"Ironically, your conservatory training leaves you ill-equipped to play in large orchestras," adds Frank Morelli, 49, a bassoonist who joined Orpheus in the late 1970s but sometimes also plays in conductor-led groups. "Presumably, you've devoted so much time to studying music because you have a need for self-expression. If you've studied at a top school for the past four or so years, you've also got a certain amount of pride and ego invested in your career. And you're self-motivated because the competition is so steep. But all of those things can get in the way when you're sitting in an orchestra with a conductor telling you what to do."

Some observers of the orchestra scene today believe that the moral righteousness of Orpheus's early members was prophetic. "The climate in most conductor-led orchestras is appalling," says Harvey Seifter, 46, Orpheus's executive director, who left the theater world about two years ago to take on the delicate task of administering to the needs of this self-governing enterprise. "Orchestras take a lot of very smart people, many of whom learned to read music before they learned to read words, and, if they're violinists, sit them in the last row of the second-violin section, where they must unquestioningly follow someone who's waving a stick at them. Success is defined as how good you are at getting your bow to leap off your violin at the exact same nanosecond as all of the other violinists' bows."

That interpretation is in keeping with the results of a study conducted by Harvard psychology professor Richard Hackman. In the early 1990s, Hackman looked at job satisfaction among symphony musicians in 78 orchestras in four countries and found widespread discontent. Indeed, in this now well-known study, symphony members experienced the same levels of job satisfaction as the federal prison guards whom Hackman had studied earlier. Symphony musicians were, however, happier than professional hockey players.

"Most of them adapt," explains Hackman. "But they often do that by finding other ways to develop musically. One person said that he had to be very careful not to let his symphony job get in the way of making music."

For Fifer, the inspiration for Orpheus came from his chamber-music experiences back at Juilliard. He found the sense of intimacy and connectedness that he felt with other musicians in those groups exciting and inspiring, and he longed to find a way to re-create that experience on a larger scale. "I loved chamber music's clarity of sound and flexibility of temperament," he says. "I wanted to bring that camaraderie and spirit into a larger setting. And in order for everyone to be able to communicate more effectively, it seemed necessary to do without a conductor."

So Fifer invited a select group of musicians to that first rehearsal, carefully choosing among those who he knew could take -- as well as give -- criticism. He named the group Orpheus, for the Greek god who created music so powerful that stones rose up and followed him. "We had no particular method for presenting interpretations and ideas on a piece, but our spirits were high, and we had a great deal of enthusiasm," he recalls. "It was as if we were calling out to anyone who would listen, 'Look Ma, no hands!' "

Decision Making: Everyone's a Leader (Just Not All at Once)

But could they do it? When Fifer's idea first took shape, he knew of no preexisting model for a conductorless group of Orpheus's size -- anywhere. So his idea was an ambitious one: assembling a number of renegade musicians and building a sustainable enterprise fueled only (at least at first) by idealism and satisfaction. Still, the group pressed on, meeting at Chinese restaurants, rehearsing in churches, and performing at public libraries and housing projects, because city-owned property cost nothing to rent. Eventually, the group got a few annual grants from New York's arts commission, created a demo tape, and, in 1974, booked a small hall at Lincoln Center for its debut performance. In 1979, Orpheus made its first concert tour of Europe, and five years later, it signed a recording contract with the prestigious Deutsche Grammaphon label.

Even as performances gained recognition and attracted larger audiences, rehearsals remained a work in progress. At first, all 27 members of the group participated in every decision that had to be made for each piece -- hundreds of tiny details involving dynamics, phrasing, and tempo. So that Orpheus wouldn't sound like dueling stereos, each decision had to be unanimous. And that could take a while, especially when 27 strong-willed musicians were involved, and the buck stopped with all of them. "Rehearsals were becoming free-for-alls," says Martha Caplin, 48, a violinist with the group since 1982. "We needed twice as many rehearsals just to try all of the ideas."

Any organization that operates on consensus risks the possibility of arriving at utterly wishy-washy decisions. If the agreement process is itself chaotic, that risk is even greater. To combat that problem, Orpheus decided to experiment with a new rehearsal method. Instead of just giving the floor to anyone who had an interpretation to offer, Orpheus formed smaller core groups, whose members would change regularly, that would rehearse each piece before the entire group began working on it.

"These core groups formulate one interpretation of a piece," Bauch emphasizes. "It's not necessarily the interpretation. Sometimes it's just a starting point." A core group does the same sort of preparation that a good conductor would do -- researching the composer's other works, learning the history of the particular work that will be performed, and listening to recordings of that piece of music. Then the core group presents its ideas to the entire ensemble during the first read through.

Another unusual aspect of Orpheus is the role that its concertmaster plays. In conductor-led orchestras, the concertmaster is usually more of a team captain. But in Orpheus, that function (which rotates regularly) is similar to that of a player-coach on a soccer team. Orpheus's concertmasters are responsible for actually running its rehearsals, moderating debates among members, suggesting resolutions to those debates, and making sure that such discussions don't get too bogged down. Although the core group exerts its influence mostly in the early stages of rehearsing a piece, the concertmaster has more influence as performance dates near.

According to Fifer, having different people be concertmaster seemed the only logical way to run a group fueled by 1960s idealism. The decision to rotate core-group members was, however, more pragmatic: "That rotation method actually alleviates some of the pressure to try to get your way all of the time," admits Bauch. "Having to modulate our personalities and to take on different roles gives us an opportunity to develop leadership skills as well as a chance to be supportive." At first, the entire group voted on who would be the concertmaster for each piece. Eventually, Orpheus elected an executive committee that appoints a concertmaster according to an individual's particular musical expertise.

Not only do core groups and concertmasters change from concert to concert, but they also change from piece to piece. Such frequent changes in leadership require some preperformance planning. At the conclusion of every piece, Orpheus musicians bow and walk off stage. When they return for the next selection on the program, they take different seats, according to their part in that piece. This maneuvering is similar to that of the small chamber groups that Fifer envisioned when he formed Orpheus.

And also like those small chamber-music groups, different members of Orpheus give one another musical cues. Alert audience members will notice a musician use a nod of a head or a gesture of a bow, in a way inviting a fellow musician to join the "conversation" by offering that person a chance to pick up a musical thought. "At any time, you can be leading or following. 'Supporting' is the word that we like to use," says Bauch. "When I'm about to get a cue, I often find myself moving with the musician who's playing." That physical style of playing is usually not experienced in a standard symphony orchestra. It's as if members of Orpheus are all breathing with the same set of lungs.

For performances, Orpheus sits in a semicircle, with the center space (which is normally reserved for a conductor) empty. As a result, casual observers and some critics have erroneously referred to the ensemble as being "leaderless." In fact, "Orpheus exerts more leadership than any other orchestra I've examined," says Harvard's Hackman.

Performance: Practice Random Acts of Leadership

Soloists often adjust how loud they play a piece and how long they hold a note to the acoustics of a particular recital hall. Orpheus does the same. Those who have never worked with the group may find its methods fascinating. "One of the neatest things about Orpheus is that one of its musicians will go down and sit in the audience to hear how each piece sounds to a concertgoer's ears," says Susan Botti, 38, a singer and composer who wrote a piece that Orpheus premiered during its series of concerts in late January. "I come from the theater, so I'm used to having people out where the audience sits taking notes and giving feedback during a run-through, but I've never seen that happen in an orchestra before."

Whether or not the concertmaster for a piece is particularly vocal, or the core group unusually opinionated, Orpheus's members all demonstrate great faith in the feedback from the colleague who's doing a sound check. "It's a crucial part of what we do," says Bauch. "On stage, you can't hear how a piece of music sounds to an audience, so you have to trust your colleague's ear. We used to vote on that kind of stuff at the last minute. Now that our listening skills are more refined, I think we trust one another more." (Bauch also has had an opportunity to hone another of his senses -- just in case he'll need it on the concert stage: He's helped taste-test New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream for his childhood friends, Ben and Jerry.)

Bauch notes that changing core-group participants and the concertmaster position has given each orchestra member an intensive course in leadership training. "I've always been a quiet person, but in this group, speaking up is a matter of survival," says Susan Palma-Nidel, 53, a flutist with Orpheus since 1980. "This experience has allowed me to discover strengths that I didn't know I had. Not only have I helped lead the group, but I've also been interviewed by the media -- something I never thought I'd do. If I hadn't been forced to do those things, I'm not sure that I ever would have."

Work: Musical Chairs in the Talent Market

Making great music without a conductor is challenging on its own. Imagine doing that with a rotating group of musicians. Despite performing music at the highest levels of excellence, Orpheus has no dedicated full-time members. Actually, it would be impossible for the 27 members of Orpheus to work for the group full-time and make an adequate salary. The most anyone can earn performing with Orpheus is about $35,000 a year. There are many reasons for this challenging financial environment, including a general decline in the popularity of classical music and a crowded, competitive landscape in the group's home city. But when you're in a profession where the tools of your trade (your musical instruments) can cost more than a house, it's no wonder that Orpheus's musicians must take on additional freelance opportunities so that they can support themselves financially.

Bassoonist Frank Morelli leads a life that's typical of a freelance musician. Besides participating in Orpheus, he teaches at Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, and Yale. He's principal bassoonist in the New York City Opera Company's orchestra and in the American Composers Orchestra, and he also plays regularly with other well-known orchestras. In addition, he has his own woodwind quintet that tours regularly, and he performs as a guest with chamber ensembles. Orpheus requires that each of its full members plays at least 35% of its concerts each year; Morelli figures he performs at least that often. Although Orpheus provides only about 10% of his yearly performance-related income, he says that artistically, it may be the most rewarding work he's ever done.

When Morelli and other full members can't make a performance, Orpheus uses ringers to fill in for them. The cast keeps changing, but the performances must cohere. "It's like a wedding band," says an exasperated Harvey Seifter, who's trying to find a way to boost attendance and compensation. "You get a bunch of musicians together for one gig, and then they disband."

During any given year, about 75 different musicians will perform with the group, and sometimes substitutes perform more often than Orpheus's permanent members. Last year, at one Carnegie Hall performance, only about 40% of the full members were present, even though family and professional obligations have them clamoring for more in-town engagements.

With those statistics, it's only natural to wonder at what point Orpheus is no longer really Orpheus. How many members have to be absent before audience members are hearing some group other than the one that they're expecting? It would be easy to say that as long as a performance meets the standards that the group has become known for, then it doesn't matter who's filling those seats.

But to ensure that consistency of performance and to maintain its stellar reputation, the orchestra has adopted some rough guidelines that are somewhat similar to those that the Chicago Bulls used in the 1990s: When Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were on the court, it almost didn't matter who else was out there with them. As long as the other three players were solid, Jordan and Pippen could lead their team to a championship performance. Likewise, Orpheus takes great pains to make sure that at least one member from each instrument section who's fluent in the group's leadership process performs at each concert.

Fortunately, New York City is filled with hundreds of high-quality freelance musicians and Juilliard graduates eager to perform with this unique chamber orchestra. Among that large group, Orpheus has a dozen or so regulars who perform so frequently with the group that they have become part of its extended family of musicians. Freelancers who are familiar with the Orpheus process are crucial, especially because newcomers are often reluctant to speak up, and full members can't carry the entire responsibility of shaping how a piece of music will be performed.

"I remember the first time I subbed, I felt as if I were entering a private club," recalls cellist Melissa Meell, who became a full member of the group in 1991. "At the time, I didn't clearly understand how much I was expected to contribute, so it was easy to feel odd about making my opinions heard. Now I know that all of the musicians need to participate as if they were members. Hearing fresh, new voices is always good." To help ensure that everyone is heard, members and subs in many sections participate equally over the course of a performance cycle, dividing the principal roles among each section member.

Sheer longevity in the business helps a lot too. Not only do you become familiar with a classical repertoire, but you also get to know other musicians, even if some of them aren't always around. "I remember reading a story about Bill Russell many years ago," says Bauch. "He said that when the intensity of the game of basketball reached its highest level, everything seemed to slow down so much that he could almost predict what each player would do and what each move would be. To me, that best describes the experience of playing chamber music with people whom I've known for years. Time stands still, and you can anticipate one another's every move. Nothing outside that moment seems to exist."

Nothing, that is, until the last note of Brahms's Serenade No. 2 resonates through Carnegie Hall. Then the silence is broken by enthusiastic applause from audience members, among whom are a large group of Baruch students who have come to see for themselves what collaboration and consensus building can do.

Ron Lieber (rlieber@fastcompany.com), a Fast Company senior writer, is based in New York City. For more information on Orpheus, contact Harvey Seifter by email (hseifter@orpheusnyc.com), or visit Orpheus on the Web (www.orpheusnyc.com).

Add New Comment