Members of the renowned Orpheus Chamber Orchestra conduct themselves with creativity and diplomacy. Their strategy of self-management ill strike a chord with businesses hoping to create harmony in the workplace

By John Lubans

Published in Hemispheres, January 1999, pp. 44-48.

In music, the term conductor conjures up images of temperamental, gifted, and iron-willed leaders who are at least a little despotic with their musicians. That pervasive stereotype makes a conductorless orchestra as unlikely a notion as a business without a CEO. Without the conductor’s absolute control, a symphony would surely devolve into discord.

All the more surprising, then, is the unrivaled success of a musical company that has never had a conductor.

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is a company of 26 musicians founded two decades ago by cellist Julian Fifer. Orpheus members work together to create a superb sound without the direction of a conductor. They regularly win the industry’s highest awards and play to full houses at Carnegie Hall. Orpheus is the meshing of highly educated and accomplished people doing a not-so-simple thing — playing music and pursuing the Orpheus trademark "unanimity of sound" and "clarity of expression."

This successful ensemble offers rich lessons for managers in any type of business but especially for leaders of loosely knit, creative organizations of equals. Like Orpheus, start-up companies must be nimble, unconventional, goal-oriented, and collaborative in nature—and maybe out to show the traditional corporate world a thing or two.

But as new organizations grow and mature, organizational structure becomes increasingly important—and potentially stifling. While hierarchy rules the organizational landscape, some believe that hierarchy itself represses creativity collaboration, and teamwork. In fact, much of what may have made the first few years of a start-up exhilarating and fun, with everyone eager to come to work, could he inhibited by the institution of a hierarchy How, then, to keep that creative spark and productivity?

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is a successful example of a strategy of self-management that can be applied to any organization. The Orpheus model offers much more than just another way to organize a business. The members excel in their ability to collaborate genuinely make decisions, and provide feedback for one another. And they make beautiful music together. I visited Orpheus at its home in New York City near West 120th at the Riverside Church, a beehive of social activity near Columbia University. On the 11th floor, the sign on the open door is whimsically reassuring to the out-of-town musician: Orphans Chamber Orchestra.

In the rehearsal room, which overlooks Riverside Park and the Hudson River, the orchestra is forming and tuning up. Since there is no conductor, leadership falls to the "concertmaster," a position that is voted on by the musicians for each piece that is performed. Interaction during rehearsal is critical, and this shared responsibility of leadership encourages respectful and responsive behavior. The concertmaster, the "first chair" inside the innermost semicircle, leads the group.

Players comment on the interpretation of the entire piece, and there is a palpable awareness that this is a product. Because of this sense of ownership, collaboration is intense.

Accountability is immediate and absolute. If the group fails, the performers have no one to blame but themselves.

In this way management doesn’t impose its vision on the musicians. Orpheus consists of a self-governing orchestra that makes the music decisions and, on the other side, a management team and a board of directors, both of which include Orpheus musicians. Membership in the orchestra is decided by orchestra members, not management.

The group, numbering about 20 on this morning, begins to rehearse a Mozart piece for performance at Carnegie Hall. A remarkable sound fills the room. For a moment, the analysis of the group’s dynamics is forgotten amid the splendor of the sounds.

The music flows, rises, falls, pools, and flows again. The interplay and the manner in which players give feedback are readily apparent. The dynamics at work here are fundamental — and so simple that they’re often forgotten in the corporate world.

Remember the rules for class discussions in elementary school? "There are no dumb questions or dumb answers. It’s OK to say I don’t know’ If you don’t agree, say so, and explain your thoughts. Keep asking until you really understand. Teasing, putdowns, and sarcasm are nor allowed. You have a right nor to take part in discussions. Don’t criticize people— agree with or disagree with their ideas. It’s good to have a mind of your own.

The group corrects itself verbally as it plays, penciling in changes on individual scores. Feedback among the musicians is frequent, diplomatic, and seasoned with humor.

There are no dumb questions or dumb answers. Feedback about the members’ parts or roles comes from all over the arc-shaped rehearsal seating. Players comment on the sound, the quality the interpretation of the entire piece. There is a palpable awareness that this is their product, nor the concertmasters. Because of this sense of ownership, collaboration is intense.

Talking about music requires a vocabulary akin to the language used to describe qualities of food or wine: "Nor too meaty," observes one musician. "Too pale," says another "Coloration" of the music is defined and redefined.

It’s OK to say "I don’t know." Someone asks the group, ‘What do I need to do to make it work better?" It’s a remarkable request, one—along with "I don’t know," I made a mistake," or I need help—that managers are still reluctant to make.

If you don’t agree, say so, and explain your thoughts. At the end of the piece, one of the two French-horn players admonishes the group, objecting to the overall sound: "Don’t do this to me, people. He [Mozart] wanted it this way!"

A cellist, whose initial comment fell on deaf ears, speaks up again, repeating her criticism, asking, "Is that bad?" She wants to know: Does my comment have substance or not?

Dead center in the rehearsal arc, in the conductor's "zone," stands a miniature conductor doll in a red velvet box on a music stand. The concertmaster makes a point of tapping on the stand with his bow, like a conductor demanding the group’s attention. It’s a joke, but there is an underlying subtle reminder that this is not how they operate.

Now a different piece, under the direction of a new concertmaster. She leads a smaller orchestral group in a different way. About halfway through she has established her low-key style as leader for the piece.

After lunch, the orchestra swells to 35 musicians, including a harpist, oboists, and a trombonist, to do Copland’s "Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson." There is to be a vocal soloist. It is said to be a difficult piece.

They begin. The vocalist reminds the orchestra of the seriousness and the intended tone of the poems. Copland’s desire was to imitate musically the spoken word.

It’s good to have a mind of your own (and to use it when it matters). The new concertmaster for the Copland piece is circumspect; she’d been poring over the score during the lunch break. An unusual dynamic comes into play— while the concertmaster is subdued, others fill in, acting as supporters and interpreters. A woman who had little to say in the morning session now becomes the most vocal member of the group, taking the lead in reinforcing what the concertmaster is saying. "Can we try the strings a bit faster?"

Keep asking until you really understand. "I don’t know ... " the soloist begins, admitting her confusion to the entire orchestra about the poem "Going to Heaven." Side conversations erupt. In group dynamics, this splintering of the group is considered something to avoid. Yet here it seems to be working toward solutions as the musicians clarify individual points among the winds and strings. The orchestra repeats the poem again, and again, and again. The vocalist stops at several points along the way nor satisfied with her phrasing or the musical sound.

It is now midafternoon, and the "Going to Heaven" piece is moving; the sound is rolling, rising and falling in perfect pace and pitch with the voice. The piece ends triumphantly. Congratulatory smiles break out all around.

So what does the Orpheus model mean for the workplace?

The experts tell us that people have some basic ‘wants" from their jobs. If the wants are met, the theory goes, people will work at a higher level than when they lack any or all of these: adequate elbowroom for decision-making, opportunity to learn continually on the job, an optimum level of variety, mutual support and respect, meaningfulness, a desirable future.

Orpheus appears to exceed all of these wants, with the possible exception of the "desirable future—most orchestras are beset by financial pressure—and many members hold other jobs, usually in conventionally organized orchestras.

To ease that pressure, Orpheus management has made fundraising a priority says Harvey Seifter, executive director. For every dollar of income generated by a performance, there is a dollar of subsidy from other sources—a healthy ratio for orchestras. While Orpheus does not exist to make money, the organization still keeps an eye on the bottom line.

But what matters most is the music, and Orpheus’ liberating environment encourages the type of feedback and interaction necessary for peak performance.

The successful manner in which Orpheus functions, the mutual respect and trust its members have for one another, their clarity of purpose, their unanimity of sound," are worth emulating in any type of organization.

By allowing—and encouraging—the respectful and honest exchange of ideas, the Orpheus orchestra excels at the give-and-rake that fuels constructive criticism and improves performance. The words of St. Augustine seem to apply to this unique and successful group, and to other organizations in pursuit of new and greater levels of organizational achievement: "In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, freedom; in all things, charity."

Details, Details, Details / Orpheus plays at Carnegie Hall on February 27, March 27 and May 4.

The orchestra resides at 490 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10027.

Tel: 1-800-ORPHEUS or 212-896-1700.

Web site: (www.orpheusnyc.com).

Two exemplary Orpheus Chamber Orchestra CDs: Pavane — Ravel, Satie & Faure, Deutsche Grammophon, 1996 (449 186-2); Mozart Concertos, Richard Goode, piano, Nonesuch, 1996 (79439-2).

John Lubans is a senior manager at Duke University's Perkins Library He has consulted in executive development programs at Duke's Fuqua School o/ Business and writes frequently on management topics and the Internet.