Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is the founder of Savvy Growth, a noted leadership coaching and management consulting firm, and an expert on wellbeing and performance science. Grace writes a regular column on happiness & leadership for WRAL TechWire.

Include flow activity in your happiness hygiene

Last month, I signed up to perform Debussy’s Clair de Lune for my Presto piano performance group. Once I committed, I was motivated to practice this piece with intensity.  Playing piano is an important part of my happiness hygiene, contributing to my mental wellbeing.

I am in flow when I practice, which provides me energy.

Neurologically, our prefrontal area is temporarily inhibited in flow, triggering the feelings of distortion of time, loss of self-consciousness, and loss of our inner critic (Happiness & human performance: Winning the inner game).

Researchers hypothesize that the brain’s dopamine reward circuitry is stimulated which amplifies our curiosity, enabling us to communicate freely and enjoy engaging in the creative process.

‘The music is beautiful’

Upon entering remission from my severe depressive episode just over two years ago, I decided to restart piano after a four-decade hiatus to honor my mom, my first teacher. In her final days, I would be sure that Clair de lune was playing in her room; her last words were “the music is beautiful.”

In my introduction to my Presto group on Sunday, I shared that in re-starting my piano studies a year and a half ago, my goal was to overcome my fear of flats so that I could play my mother’s favorite piece.

Still in my early stages of practicing, I managed to prepare the first three pages, before the key signature changes from five flats to four sharps.

In performing my mom’s favorite piece with this safe accountability group, I learned how I need to practice going forward to get better.

Musicians discuss ‘Maestro’

After our performances, fellow musicians gathered around our host’s dining table to enjoy tasty treats and share stories.  I asked who had watched Bradley Cooper’s biopic on Leonard Bernstein’s life, Maestro, and then exchanged thoughts on the movie.

We discussed just what was the role of a conductor, and I posed the question of what would happen if the maestro didn’t show up, could an orchestra perform on their own?

With many orchestral musicians in our group, they immediately commented that the conductor’s “real” work resides in rehearsals, the background work with the 100 members.

Shaping the music

Our Presto leader, whose corporate career had been in healthcare human resources at Abbott Laboratories and Becton Dickinson before turning to music, exclaimed the key role of a maestro is “shaping the music.”

Often a conductor will choose the music for the season a year in advance. They may select a theme and choose soloists to perform with the orchestra.  Then a couple of months before a particular performance, they will study that music — singing it, playing on piano, listening to others’ interpretations to decide what their own will be. They will notate their score in the way they would like to shape the music.

They will decide when the music will climax, how instruments will relate and listen to each other.  Orchestral members come to rehearsal prepared, which typically takes place a few times for a few hours before the actual performance. What the conductor conveys during these rehearsals is critical for the desired outcome of a “bravo” experience for the audience.

During the rehearsal as well as the actual performance, the conductor will use gestures and facial experiences so that the music will sound like the interpretation they have envisioned.

Listening to the musicians

Standing in the center podium is the best place to listen. As the conductor listens, they may look at the section or individual soloing to spotlight those people.  As they listen, they may need to make real time corrections.

Months ago, in my column including Boston Philharmonic’s maestro, Benjamin Zander (New Starts, State of Flow, Art of Possibility), we learned of certain ways a conductor listens to orchestral members.

Ben adopted “white sheets” where he placed a blank sheet of paper on each of the music stands of his orchestra for performers to write comments on the piece, including what they thought should be performed differently. He picked these up after each rehearsal and would incorporate many of the suggestions into the performance, looking at the person who suggested, when he inserts that move, to give them credit.

In Two ears, one mouth: Has anyone ever told you that you could listen better?, I discussed how the most effective leaders listen well.  We all want to be seen and heard. God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.

“Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.”

Maestro and CEOs

A maestro leading an orchestra could be likened to a CEO leading a company.

Similar to a coach in sports, they decide on who is up and when to transition players.  They drive the plays.

The conductor shows respect and collaboration with the concertmaster by shaking hands at the beginning and end of each performance.  The concertmaster leads the tuning before the conductor walks in, usually plays any violin solos, and understands the conductor’s ideas and relays them, when needed, to the musicians.

This is akin in some companies to the relationship between CEO and COO.  Every company is different.  Having the teamwork and collaboration of shared leadership is what is key.

A conductor’s key stakeholders include the musicians, audience, and critics. How they show up, interpret the composer, listen, and direct is how they inspire and motivate and empower their orchestra members and deliver a unique interpretation to everyone listening.

The composition/score could be likened to the plan for reaching the goals for the company and how one leads or directs is how the vision is actualized.

The maestro’s attitude, passion, and commitment impacts how the pieces will be received.

Answer to my question

I’ve heard leaders say that they’d love for their teams to operate well without them there all the time. To answer my question of what would happen if the orchestra had to play without a conductor, a good conductor will have laid the groundwork for an orchestra to know the shape of the music, so I suppose the members could attempt to self-direct. Do they dare to?

They need and want a strong leader.

I am not alone in being curious to know. There has been research fielded on related questions.  What is the difference in music quality between novice and veteran conductors?  Are players really influenced by the baton, e.g. do the movements of violinists really follow the direction of the conductor’s baton?

The research revealed in blind tests that music quality as perceived by audiences is demonstrably higher with an experienced conductor than a novice, and that the movements of the instruments do indeed follow the baton.

Maestro’s break

So that is how Leonard Bernstein became the most famous conductor in America at the age of 25.  Having been recently named assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he was asked to make his first major conducting debut on short notice, without rehearsal, when guest conductor Bruno Walter came down with the flu.

The New York Phil didn’t want to perform sans conductor, so called in Bernstein, and the rest is history!

Personal Application,  Questions to consider this week:

What activities do you enjoy where you are in flow?

Can you commit to identifying one and doing that activity at a regular interval in 2024?

How can you better listen to and orchestrate your team? Or how can you be a better player?

About Grace Ueng

A management consultant, leadership coach and human performance expert with Savvy Growth, Grace has been covered in The Wall Street Journal, Inc., and MIT Technology Review.  Leaders call her when seeking a strategic review of their business, when going through a pivot point, or when they’d like to have a thinking partner to hold them accountable to stretch goals.

Her company offers workshops to improve team effectiveness: Savvy’s Seven: What You Will Learn.

Join her Happiness & Leadership community to be more productive leader: click here