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On more occasions than I care to admit, I’ve wandered down the YouTube “rabbit hole” watching archival footage of great conductors of the past century. Years ago, I came across some rehearsal footage of the Austrian conductor, Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004), leading the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra in music of Carl Maria von Weber. At the start of the video, Kleiber stands perfectly erect in front of the orchestra, arms raised, holding his baton horizontally between both hands—physically quite still but bristling with a quiet, internal energy. He announces the music to be rehearsed—“Freischütz Overture, bitte.” The players shuffle through their music and settle themselves in their chairs as Kleiber cooly scans the ensemble. He waits a second longer, brings his baton into his right hand, and with the same stillness and composure, gives a small, imprecise cue to summon the initial, gently growling unison C from the orchestra. He stops immediately and says (in German): “Let the others begin. Always let your colleagues begin first.” Allowing no time for the players to question the oddity of what he’s said, he gives the same cue—the sound is utterly different, Kleiber’s eyes come alive, he lets out an ecstatic “Ja!,” his posture is transformed, and, having ceded initial control of the sound to his players, he shifts roles and asserts his authority with gestures of exacting clarity. 

Carlos Kleiber

Conducting might seem at first glance to be among the most autocratic and non-democratic forms of leadership—a single individual, often standing on an elevated platform, in front of a large group, wielding a stick to elicit and enforce a unified response. But this is only part of the story. There is a distinction between authority and authoritarianism, and, while an effective conductor must possess the former, those that tend towards the latter minimize their impact as empowering leaders. Apart from the objective tasks of indicating when to start and stop, setting and maintaining the tempo, unifying details of interpretation, and correcting mistakes, the rest of a conductor’s leadership toolkit is rooted in what we would classify today as “soft” skills—building trust so that others will WANT to follow them, inspiring others to do their best work as individuals and as part of a team, fostering an atmosphere of mutual respect in which members of a community are invited to listen and to be heard, and, knitting all of this together, having the self-awareness to abdicate “authority” whenever possible. 

The case study with Kleiber demonstrates how all of this can work in practice. Before the orchestra plays a note, Kleiber is clearly in charge—he is poised and ready to lead, his eyes scan the players before him, acknowledging them and inviting them into relationship even before a note is played. Recognizing that gesture is always more efficient than words, he gives an initial cue that is intentionally ambiguous. His goal is to elicit a sound from the orchestra in keeping with the dusky, shadowy world of Weber’s overture, and precision is anathema to this idea. Having already undercut his authority with a purposefully vague gesture, leaving the individual players to determine the precise moment at which the sound should begin, he then goes a step further—“Let the others begin!” What?! Importantly, he allows no time for the players to second-guess this apparently counter-intuitive advice. One could imagine the likely grumblings from the orchestra: “What do you mean? YOU’RE the one who’s supposed to begin, and we follow YOU. If you’re not going to give a clear cue, at least let ME be the one to decide when to start.” But, of course, Kleiber’s instruction is brilliant, and it transforms the sound by fostering first a sense of agency on the part of individual players and an intensity of listening which helps the group sound to coalesce. Having created the sound he wants by empowering individuals and strengthening ensemble unity, he then pivots immediately—replacing vagueness with clarity as he steps back into the driver’s seat of the orchestral “vehicle.” The whole episode, lasting little more than 30 seconds, is a masterclass in effective leadership.

The broader study of conductors and conducting has much to offer to the field of leadership studies. For the purposes of this post, I want to consider the case of another legendary figure of the past century—the Alsatian conductor Charles Munch (1891-1968), who served as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1949 to 1962. Having grown up with the BSO as my local “band,” the history of the orchestra has long been of interest to me. But, it was not until I embarked upon a newish hobby of collecting vintage vinyl (aided and abetted by the amazing used book stores run by the Montgomery County Library System in Silver Spring and Rockville, MD), that I became fascinated with this particular chapter in the orchestra’s history. As I delved more deeply into the Munch recorded legacy, I discovered here a kind of music-making that sparkles with vibrancy, excitement, nuance, and spontaneity—all indelibly present in repertoire that runs the gamut from Bach to world premieres. Like Kleiber, Munch was a conductor with an intuitive understanding of the dynamics of effective leadership, and his recorded legacy bears testament to this. 

Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall, Boston

When Munch first arrived in Boston, he gave a press conference at which he said relatively little, but ended with a promise to his audience and his players: “There will be joy!” His consummate professionalism notwithstanding, Munch never abandoned the idea that serious work at the highest level can also be serious fun, and this element of his music-making was undoubtedly among the key factors of his success. It is evident throughout his numerous recordings with BSO—an ensemble that, at the time, was arguably the most technically accomplished orchestra in the world, with an all-star cast of principal players whose musicianship beggars belief. With utter trust in the abilities of his players, Munch had a keen understanding of when to lead and when to let go. In rehearsing a piece that the orchestra knew well, he would frequently get to a movement and say “pas nécessaire”—allowing spontaneity to govern the performance and with faith in the ability of his musicians to deliver in the moment. While some have dismissed such behavior as laziness, it’s also an empowering statement of confidence in individuals’ abilities and an astonishing abdication of conductorial authority. 

While his famous pronouncements of “pas nécessaire” have become part of the Munch mythology, he was also known to be quite exacting in rehearsal; but, according to the reports of players, he would then just as often walk onstage for a concert, and do things VERY differently. Again, without trust in what his players could do, and without knowledge that THEY would be with him, no matter what, such antics would have proven disastrous. Perhaps my favorite example is a live performance of the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3—at a truly irresponsible tempo (and one that is much faster than the tempo that Munch adopts in his studio recording of the same piece). In the video of this same performance (which is no longer available on YouTube), one sees the characteristic twinkle in Munch’s eye as he pushes the players JUST as far as he knows they can go. The players (all on the edge of their seats) function together as a single instrument of breathtaking precision. 

Other video footage of Munch shows him radiating exuberance and joyful abandon from the podium and documents an exchange between conductor and orchestra in which both entities are listening, responding, and adjusting to each other with utter trust and respect on both sides. It is music-making that is frequently “on the edge,” with Munch pushing everyone to new levels of excellence, exceeding accomplishments of the past, and enhancing the players’ sense of what they can do as individuals and as an ensemble.

Munch’s 1954 monograph Je suis chef d’orchestre (published a year later in English as I am a Conductor) offers little concrete advice about how to conduct (Munch acknowledges that this is more or less impossible), but the book reveals his deep knowledge of what it is to be an effective, relationship-driven leader. In summary, I offer a few of Munch’s maxims that articulate the leadership values that he embodied on the podium.

Fundamentally, Munch understands that conducting is not about “command,” and he takes steps to correct this common misunderstanding. 

The French word for conductor, chef d’orchestre (orchestra chief), connotes command, but the conductor’s problem is not so much the command itself as … communication. His medium is not speech, but gesture, posture, telepathy, and an irresistibly keen radiation. Standing on the podium … [a conductor] can only live, let his heart beat, his soul vibrate, and his emotions sing.

Munch, I am a Conductor, trans. Leonard Burkat (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955), 4

Building upon this idea, Munch also acknowledges that conducting is fundamentally about building relationship with individuals and eliciting the best that is within them. 

I believe that [all] human beings … bear within [themselves] a little of the supernatural…. The highest purpose of a conductor is to release this superhuman potential….

Munch, I am a Conductor, 8

Respect for his musicians as individuals is fundamental to Munch’s approach as a conductor, and, like all effective leaders, he understands that quality of communication is to be privileged over quantity.  

What attitude should the conductor take toward the musicians to obtain the best results? Let him not make long speeches to them. Musicians come to play, not to listen to lectures. Say what you must in as few words as possible…. Let them retain some sense of responsibility. Never discourage them. Restore the confidence of those who are in trouble. Do not make much of their errors. Correct them without embarrassing them before their comrades.

Munch, I am a Conductor, 61

Ultimately, conducting for Munch is about a recognition of our common humanity and the many ways in which we are bound to each other:

The most solemn moment in the preparation of a concert is the one when you establish your first contact with an orchestra that you are not acquainted with or that you have not conducted for a long time. It is not an orchestra that you are facing then but a hundred human beings, each one of whom knows joy and pain and suffering. Before telling them, as I usually do, how pleased I am to be making music with them, I always look at those hundred faces turned up to me. I try to read what is in their eyes, to discover the happiness or sometimes, alas, the misery hidden there. I try to find what role each one plays in the comédie humaine. This is a short and silent communion, reaching into the bottom of the heart, engendering a climate of sympathy, friendliness, and trust.

Munch, I am a Conductor, 77

Richard Giarusso is Associate Professor and Chair of Musicology at the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University and Music Director of the Georgetown Chorale in northwest DC. He maintains an active career as a classical singer throughout the Atlantic corridor. He resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife and son.

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