Four musicians sit in a practice room playing a string quartet by Beethoven. To anyone listening, the sound is lovely and the music seems to be flowing well when one of the members of the ensemble quits playing. Everyone immediately follows her lead, and in the silence that follows she asks, “Does anyone else think it’s too slow? We’ve lost the momentum here.”

 

“Yeah, I think that we didn’t hold the tempo during that last quiet passage,” answers another member of the group. The others nod, and one even pencils in a cautionary note on his music.

 

“Let’s start again.”

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RE-IMAGINING TEAMS

"The difficulty is not in playing your own part

but in knowing how it fits in with others."

Leaders function at high levels while being aware of the needs within the many layers of the organization.

 

Teams have hierarchical needs in order to function well. Sub-groups within larger teams develop the means to meet their own needs while aligning the behaviors of the sub-groups with the goals of the whole.

We are watching a string quartet at work. As a small team there is a sense of equal contribution among all the members even though one person may be acknowledged as team leader. Each player is a soloist in their own right, and the success of the quartet depends upon every individual bringing complete mastery to the group.

 

However all of their artistry is pointed toward achieving unity. The measure of a great quartet is the ability of each musician to move to the forefront – even for a moment – and then to be able to recede into a supportive role in order for another musician to be clearly heard. Such ensemble work requires flexibility, self-discipline and a transcendent purpose: The whole is made up of the parts, and the parts only matter in context of the whole.

 

If a string quartet could be represented as a mathematical equation, it would be 1+1+1+1=1. Complete individuality is sublimated to the shared goals of the group. Great teams exhibit a complex dynamic between individual and collective goals. As teams change in size the dynamics, roles and responsibilities also change.

An orchestra’s rehearsal would reveal a very different dynamic at play.

 

Great orchestras tune just as mindfully as they rehearse and perform, and the interior teams within the full ensemble begin their disciplines from very first tuning note.

An orchestra’s rehearsal would reveal a very different dynamic at play.

 

Great orchestras tune just as mindfully as they rehearse and perform, and the interior teams within the full ensemble begin their disciplines from very first tuning note.  Often there are three tuning pitches – given by the oboist – for sub-groups within the orchestra. The first “A” is given for the woodwinds; then there is another for the brass; and finally, one for the strings.

 

So, one can already see interior teams involved: in this case, three instrumental families within a larger ensemble.

 

A closer look at the tuning practice, through, reveals even more strata. Once the oboist establishes the original tuning note, the principal flutist, principal clarinetist and principal bassoonist begin to tune. After they are in agreement, the secondary players join in. This allows for a quartet of soloists in the woodwinds to have exactly the same pitch level while, as a secondary goal, the second players are matched to their respective principals.

All of this tuning takes place under the direction of the concertmaster, even though the orchestra’s leader is the conductor – so there are several levels of authority with clear roles and responsibilities assigned to each strata.

The orchestra’s conductor must constantly shift awareness between the individual musicians, combinations of instruments playing at any time, and the total sound of the orchestra heard as a single unit. Because the conductor is not engaged in playing an instrument individually she can see the orchestra from various perspectives. She can instantaneously move her point of view from close up to distance, focusing on the architecture of the entire work or on a single note.

 

The conductor's primary responsibility is to enable all the individuals in her teams to excel in their roles. Leaders function at high levels while being aware of the needs within the many layers of the organization. Teams have hierarchical needs in order to function well. Sub-groups within larger teams develop the means of meeting their own needs and align the behaviors of the sub-groups with the goals of the whole.

As we look at smaller units within the ensemble the thinking moves increasingly toward the granular. Each individual musician is focused on personal details as they interact within their sub-unit. Each violinist matches bow strokes to those of the concertmaster. Each member of the brass family measures dynamics to balance with the other members of their section. 

 

Membership within teams is sometimes fluid. The larger the entire team, the more rapidity, fluidity and flexibility in team formation will naturally occur.

As the music unfolds we might notice that there are changing instrumental combinations in each ensuing phrase of music. Here the principal flutist is playing in unison with the oboist; there the two bassoonists are duplicated in the horns. An awareness of one’s individual part is joined with a focus on what the other members of the temporary “teams” are doing.

 

The difficulty of performing in an orchestra is not playing your individual part, but knowing how it fits in with others who are playing at the same time.

The larger the team the more complexity in execution and the more noise created. In orchestral playing the musicians must look about (with their ears as well as their eyes) to see what the rest of the group is doing.

 

The distances on stage between the musicians make the job even harder, since sound travels from the instrument to ceilings and walls and then bounces back toward the musician. If a player trusts only the sound he hears, he may find that he has accompanied not the original sound, but its reverberation off a wall. The musician will have to trust what he sees with the conductor’s baton rather than what he hears on the stage. Learning what to listen for – and what to ignore – is essential to ensemble success.

Teams create opportunities for individuals to listen, learn and interact in context.

The musicians must look about to see what the rest of the group is doing.
 
Learning what to listen for - and what to ignore - is essential to ensemble success.

One might think that when a musician is playing a passage alone the necessity of teams has temporarily broken down. But actually the other musicians are listening closely in order to continue their own play afterwards. If they have the same music in an upcoming passage, the first musician to play it establishes the interpretive pattern for those who come afterwards to follow. In order to imitate, one must first have been listening carefully to the original pattern. There are no “rests” in ensemble playing, only moments when one is silently listening and planning how to contribute to the whole at the point where the musician plays again.

Teams foster individual success and acknowledge achievements.

 

When a musician performs an extended passage alone – say, the famous “Goin’ Home” solo by the English Horn in the second movement of the New World Symphony – the other musicians nearby are careful not to do anything to disturb them.

 

There is not only silence around them, but also a complete stillness of motion. This practice respects the need for the musician under pressure to stay completely focused on the music.

 

After the passage ends, there are discreet ways for individual members of the orchestra to show their support of individual excellence during a concert. Since they are onstage and can’t clap or overtly show any motion that might disturb the audience, the musicians nearby will barely move their foot forward and back, just a few inches each way. Those hardly perceptible foot motions are a way of saying to their colleague in real time, “Well done!”

In order for one team member to achieve success, another team player may have to adapt, even if such an adaptation is uncomfortable to them. 

When musicians play a passage in unison they have to pay special attention to intonation – meaning they each have to play the same note at exactly the same pitch as another playing that same note. Sometimes in rehearsal two players may have to consult with each other on a particular passage and make a compromise. Since each musician’s instrument has certain notes that are slightly lower or higher than they would be on another instrument, it is common for one of them to agree to bend their pitch slightly upward or downward in order to accommodate the imperfections of the other’s instrument. In such a case, the goal of unity between the two of them exceeds the goal of individual perfection. It is less important to be “right” than it is to be in agreement. To be individually right would be to make the team wrong.

The success of the team relies upon individual excellence, but individual excellence does not assure team success.

The success of the team relies upon individual excellence, but individual excellence does not assure team success. If a musician arrives unprepared, their wrong notes or insecure playing impacts all the other musicians. It is not possible for any other player to “replace” the sound of the offending musician. The entire level of the group is dependant upon each musician playing their part well. However, even when each individual musician performs his own music perfectly, there is no concomitant rule that the individuals have become a true ensemble. It is the effort among the individual musicians to sublimate their personal work in service of the whole that makes a great ensemble.

Achieving transcendence balances the needs of the Self with the needs of the whole. It is one thing to play as a soloist, and quite another to play in a group. Indeed it may be much more difficult to play “soloistically” in an ensemble setting because of the necessity of devoting attention to others playing at the same time.

 

Although comprised of multiple persons a team is a single unit. Teams are a means of creating things that could not be make by any single individual, regardless of talent, work ethic or personal resources. Their interior interplay brings into clarity the challenges of contribution, sublimation, submission, and transcendence. Such work requires movement beyond Self.

 

Regardless of the number of people in a team, the equation for success always ends with “=1”.

©2020 John Thomas Dodson All Rights Reserved

No part pf this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the author.

℗ 2020 John Thomas Dodson All Rights Reserved 

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