NOTE:  June 2, 2002 revision  of  the On Managing Column for Winter, 2002 LA&M by John Lubans, Jr. entitled Prestissimo Leadership.

Orchestrating Success: A Profile of Simone Young, Conductor
John Lubans

This is a very democratic organization, so let's take a vote. All those who disagree with me, raise their hands.

Eugene Ormandy - Conductor, Philadelphia Orchestra

The 1930s film Fantasia contains one of the most enduring images of the all-powerful conductor. The towering Leopold Stokowsky fills the screen. Without a baton or a musical score, the conductor summons up Bach’s Toccata and simultaneously brings forth light! Of course, in real life, Mr. Stokowsky was less wizard-like. He did refer to the composer’s score and used a baton to beat time while leading the Philadelphia Symphony.

Conductors are real people. Nor are any two conductors alike: each displays a different leadership style just as leaders do in any organization - a diversity of approaches, from hands-on to hands- off, from autocratic to participatory. On one exasperated occasion Toscanini claimed his incontrovertible authority over the orchestra: "God lets me hear the music, but you get in the way." Eugene Ormandy jollied his players with a ditzy humor - at one rehearsal telling them: “I guess you thought I was conducting, but I wasn't”.

What’s most remarkable is a conductor’s routinely inspiring an organization of over 100 independent professionals to engage in a collaborative enterprise, under a spotlight - with the customers in the same room. The conductor is singularly responsible for the whole product. And, a conductor must be accountable to the score - the composer’s vision - in much the same way that a business leader must be responsible to a corporation’s values and mission. For the best music, the orchestra has to move beyond individual needs and perspectives and beyond rivalries and personality conflicts. When that happens, the music can be magical – a unanimity of sound that transforms and exhilarates musicians and listeners.  How a conductor develops an orchestra into a high performing musical team speaks to us about the skillful blending of differences of talent and ability –in other words, how to lead, regardless of setting.

Sidebar 1:

A musician calls up the Orchestra’s administrative office to confirm the rehearsal time. Alas, the secretary has sad news.

"I'm sorry, but the conductor died last night. The rehearsal has been cancelled. There’s a memorial service tomorrow."

The musician mumbles a few regrets and hangs up.

Five minutes later he calls and asks, again, about the rehearsal time. The secretary, assuming he may not have heard, repeats the rehearsal is cancelled, that the conductor is deceased; etc.

The musician thanks her and hangs up.

Well, a short while later he’s back on the phone asking about the rehearsal time.  The secretary is puzzled and a little irked. "Listen, why do you keep calling back? I've already told you the conductor is dead!" 

"I know, I know, I just love to hear you say that!"

End sidebar 1

Simone Young, Opera Australia

At 40, Simone Young (illustration) is but an adolescent on the age scale for conductors. At around 70 years a few conductors may be termed maestros. While she has 30 years to go, she is heralded as one of the music world’s rising stars. In January 2001, following acclaim for her musical interpretations in European opera houses, she returned to her native Australia as Musical Director and Conductor at Opera Australia. Her place of work – the architectural icon of the 20th century – the Sydney Opera House.

Ironically, while Simone Young is a pioneer among female conductors - the first woman to conduct in Berlin, Paris and Vienna  – many journalists comment extensively on her dress, down to the stilettos she favors while conducting. Once she was asked if her baton was different from that of her male peers. After a moment of silent consternation, she replied, that, indeed, her baton “sported a fetching pink bow”.

This trivializing is not limited to the press. One of the Opera’s musicians was miffed about the glitter butterfly on Simone’s bare shoulder at the New Year’s Eve Verdi Gala, “Some of us,” he told me,  “do not approve. She has let her hair down.”

What’s understated in the media coverage is her leadership, that she gets excellent results from singers and instrumentalists. Nary a report concludes that these good results come by way of her incandescent intelligence and the collaborative way she works with musicians.

She could impose an iron-fisted will but that can leave you with musicians who play without heart or understanding – a form of making music by the numbers. To inspire musicians to join her in momentous music making, Simone Young speaks from the heart and mind, with clarity and conviction. There’s risk - like any leader who tells it like it is she becomes vulnerable to those who differ with her interpretation. Tread on enough toes and your rising star may falter and wane.

Throughout a two-hour rehearsal at the Opera’s workshop facility in Surry Hills, a Sydney neighborhood, many of the 70 or so musicians are vigorously erasing old instructions on their musical scores and penciling in the new. They’re replacing the previous conductor’s interpretation with those of their new boss. These jottings are tangible reminders of how the new leader wants the music played - tempo, tone, and emotional emphasis. The musicians do question and make comments, but for the most part what’s written in is a record of her vision, as musical architect.  “I am an advocate for the composer – my place is to bring the will of the composer (in the most honest way that I can interpret it) to the minds of the musicians and on to the hearts of the audience”, she says.

While there are a variety of interpretations of any musical composition, it is essential that the conductor’s interpretation be one she believes best serves the composer. “I become … the medium through which the composer speaks to the orchestra,” says Young. To do that means knowing and expressing what you, as leader, want the sound to be and why you want it. Even with her enhanced ability to hear the music because of her perfect pitch, Young understands she may lead the orchestra astray. Yet she must do what she believes. “I don’t have all the answers, but I have to be sure that the answers I am giving the orchestra are the right ones for me now – are the rights ones for them now”. Were she not to speak with conviction she “would not be able to demand the musical and emotional honesty from my performers that is essential to realize the composer’s intention”.

A decade ago a musician in an orchestra for which she was guest conducting, demanded of her, "Tell us what you actually want the music to do." Clarity is what musicians most want from conductors just as workers want clarity from bosses. When Simone took on the task of answering her musician’s challenge, she recognized she’d been given sage advice. She considers that a pivotal moment in developing her leadership modus operandi.

But clarity is not achieved by speaking your mind at someone. Mutual understanding is what successful communication is about. Success in telling “us what you actually want” requires convincing communication. If you’ve prepared thoroughly enough you will have the knowledge to articulate the “why” of your decisions. Admittedly this describes a competent and confident leader. And, to her credit, Simone also happens to be a leader who can be influenced by her 14 year-old daughter’s declaration that a production “is boring”.

Telling a large group of people what you want done so they can play it back, improved, requires an array of communication techniques.

Characteristically, Simone Young mixes humor with constructive criticism. When the Gypsy singer languishes on the stage floor directly in front of the conductor’s space, she quips:  “It’s lovely to see you but I’d appreciate some distance.”

Start sidebar 2

Telling what you actually want: Simone’s words

To Explain:

There’s a power struggle between mother and son - put the struggle in the sound, (a) pungent, sobbing, vibrato to it; there’s a pleading quality.

This part needs a buoyancy, otherwise it is dull….Very nice!

To Direct:

A little more from basses, a little less from everyone else.

Play it like someone’s pulse, a bit feverish.

I want a long short note. (This gets a laugh and the improvement).

Your playing needs much more ‘line’, I’m hearing separate notes.

To Encourage:

Good! Very nice, when dark tones are brought out.

Sure you can, you guys can do anything! (To an all male orchestra).

End sidebar 2

Saving face:

“The worse the conductor the more the confrontations” is how Tobias Foskett, Young Artist conductor, explained to me why some conductors may be in a perpetually prickly state. The tyrannical conductor is music’s counterpart to the cartoon world’s worst boss, Dagwood’s Mr. Dithers, whose atonal leadership is kicking people in the pants. Simone Young deliberately eschews personal attack, browbeating or other fear-inducing tactics. When she has personal criticism for a singer, she climbs out of the conductor’s space and gets up on the stage to talk with the singer. Or, she moves the discussion into the deserted Opera House hallway. She keeps individual criticism one on one, “to save (the performer’s) face” – rather than shouting it out from the conductor’s box for all to hear. Tearing someone down destroys trust. The more trust in the Opera Company the better the music.

Simone Young embraces the concept that we all “get better by making mistakes.” She makes clear that rehearsals are for trying out different sound textures, tempos, and variations to find the best one – rehearsals are for re-hearing. If nothing else, she wants the musicians to play up! Timidly done music undercuts everyone’s ability to learn from mistakes on their way to an improved process. Young gives permission to mess-up: “Just try it”.

“Time, ladies and gentlemen”

In opera, there are remarkably few full dress rehearsals where singers, orchestra, chorus, conductor and directors come together. Much of the opera is rehearsed in seemingly unrelated segments in different locations at different times, starting early in the day and going up to ten o’clock at night. And, invariably, two to three other operas, each with their own rehearsal needs, overlap.  In the Green Room, far beneath the soaring sails of the Opera House,  Il Trovatore’s exotically costumed nuns mix with the amazingly costumed chorus members of the Gypsy Princess.

Rehearsals stop and go. Unless you are “on” it is easy to stop paying attention.  The conductor’s task is to be alert to what is going on and somehow be able to sort out the few significant details from among the irrelevant dozens, while grabbing a dinner of fries and a diet coke. For example, does the 48-member chorus wear or carry its hats? That decision is an easy one – there’s too little space in the wings for them not to wear their hats. Or, at what speed should the curtain come down during a concluding and dramatic aria? It matters because the faster the curtain comes down, the more noise the motor makes, breaking the moment’s aesthetic spell.

Rehearsals are highly efficient, calibrated to within a few minutes. Union rules about length of rehearsals apply to musicians and stagehands. To get a sense of labor’s power, recall that strikes, stopwork meetings, “go slows” and other types of militant industrial unrest delayed the completion of the Sydney Opera House for thousands of hours from the start of construction in 1959 to its completion in 1966. When the stage manager calls “Time, ladies and gentlemen” that’s a full stop. Only an extraordinary appeal will prolong a rehearsal: the opera director’s raising her skirt and flashing the stage manager gained a few more minutes.

Simone Young is not one to “muck around” musicians told me. That’s understandable given the time constraints, but it is another facet of who Simone Young is, regardless of the time available.

During a rehearsal in the Opera House, Simone Young halts the action: “Quiet, please”. The house grows quiet except backstage, where the technicians are working.

Her polite request is now an imperious “I must have quiet!”

She is hearing a ping-like noise directly over head.

Only her ears pick up the noise, at first, but then a few others hear it. No one knows the source or quite what to do about it. After the stage manager assures her that the ping will be eliminated the rehearsal continues.

Some minutes later the company takes a break. As the stage empties, the electricians, carpenters and other stage crew – eleven all - cluster together, no doubt about tracing the ping. One of the crew makes the unmistakably cojones grandes gesture, admitting a begrudging respect for Simone Young’s resolve.  

The stage manager whom I saw struggling to accommodate Young’s certainty about what she wants, told me: “She does not appreciate the limitations I work with. Instead of listening to me, it’s a command,  ‘You must do this!’ ” He feels unappreciated. The Sydney Opera stage is notoriously tiny with only 4-5 feet from wall to fly in the wings. He’d like to hear more of what she says to the orchestra, “Let’s meet in the middle”.  

Perhaps because she is now more attuned to bruised feelings or simply more aware that everyone has a stake in the opera’s success Simone Young is quick to build bridges among all participants – after one of the performances, she congratulated the stage crew for their good work.

As well, one player told me Simone Young’s early-on temper tantrums have matured into a greater patience and willingness to listen to and consider other views. She can make the hard decisions – some singers are not back - and she can change her mind. The chorus master’s job was on the chopping block, but after consideration, Simone relented.

The stories catch Simone Young’s “narky” side. (The word is Australian for what can be an ill-tempered perseverance). When her standards fail to be met, she’ll explain what needs fixing (no ping!) and won’t go on until she is satisfied.

When Simone Young pushes her viewpoint, she is prepared to “walk the walk”, to take responsibility for a required action. If the conflict cannot be settled in a collaborative way, she may ultimately walk out, as she has twice in her career,  with no intention of returning. Simone Young takes responsibility for pushing.

David Whyte, the poet and business consultant has a phrase for it, putting “fire in one’s voice”. He finds too few people in boardrooms willing to speak up about what they believe, especially when in conflict with powerful people. It’s as if we play our corporate music all too timidly. Our timorous voices offer little resistance to the table-thumping executive bully, demanding buy-in to the latest scheme.

Simone Young achieves a seeming paradox: she convinces players they are free to innovate and express themselves, while getting them to accept her vision for the music and follow her direction. How does she do it? By encouraging each person to feel they have the power to express themselves, without ever surrendering her power, her vision, or her responsibility. “If I can inspire the musicians to actually play the music the way I want to hear it, then everyone is happy!” Does this merely gloss over a fear driven relationship between a strong leader and her subordinates? Not really. What I saw was collaboration among highly skilled people. Simone is confident in her musical interpretation but genuinely open to better ideas.

It’s a manifestation of the Taoist adage: “The more power you give away, the more powerful you become”.  A singer told me: “One does not feel like there’s a cage around (Simone Young) or that there is a heavy creative borderline. You can put your stamp on (what you do); there’s freedom. It’s like she’s saying, ‘Show me what you can do’”.

Simone Young’s genuine awareness and concern for people, her ability to “talk to you as another human”, help gain trust, the must-have for creative freedom. A few musicians I interviewed used the same phrase, a “nurturing quality”, to describe Simone Young’s support. It’s this nurturing quality that invites performers to place themselves in her hands. Musicians told me they regard her as “being with you”, that “she is fighting for you”. Unlike some conductors who prefer distance, Simone Young overtly develops trust relationships through, for example: post rehearsal drinks with a few musicians; separate rehearsals with the brass (one of many orchestras “benignly neglected” groups); and, individual talks with musicians.

Her human-ness was illustrated to me one hot February day in Sydney. One of the conductor’s perks is a cab from the Surry Hills studios to the Opera House on the water.  Simone Young’s cab sat curbside, waiting for her. Mine was nowhere in site. While getting into the cab, she called out, “Let’s share!”

We talked of cricket (one of her passions) and women’s basketball (one of mine), how her dad volunteered during the 2000 Olympics to greet visitors at St James’ Church, and of a cabby who recognized her from a picture in the paper. “You’re the Manly girl!” he exclaimed, (to her genuine delight) referring to her hometown of Manly Beach, across the harbor.

Those touched by her camaraderie desire to excel: “I’m willing to do the best I can for her”, one musician told me.

Show time 

Milou de Castellane (OAs publicist) asked me, casually enough: “If we could arrange it, would you like to sit in the orchestra pit tomorrow night? You’d have to wear black.”

Would I?

I rushed out to the department store and instantly acquired the requisite black. The next day’s e-mail brought the good news. “All arranged.”

And there I was, ensconced among the horns, the tympani behind me in their own pit. The stage floor is suspended over all but three of the 7 rows of musicians - the music has a ways to travel.

It’s an awful pit everyone tells me, but I have the best seat in the house.

Gazing out, I sense and share a growing anticipation among the audience. Tonight is this season’s last performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore.  The house lights dim. The spotlight beams down on Simone Young’s entry to a swelling applause. All eyes in the orchestra pit are fixed upon her. Now, with the curtain about to rise, she adds another ingredient to the magic of the evening - her style.

Simone Young conducts, literally, from the toes to the tip of her baton with a dynamic, infectious energy and enthusiasm. Her commitment is “boots and all”, leading at a prestissimo pace – no one has worked harder, studied longer, or understands better the composer’s intention.

Her eyes at key moments become hypnotic – summoning a unanimity of sound. Her love for the music, her passion for the sound elicits and commands the best from the musicians. She shushes the strings, encourages the brass, smiles. She gestures for more, for less, with a slight frown followed by another frown with a touch to her ear or a smile, a thumbs up, “Good on you, mate!”.

When Simone Young conducts the music sings within you and through you. I find myself gladly swept along by this gathering of musical forces. Quintessentially Simone, during a non-musical moment in the opera, she jokes with the first violin and gives the musicians two thumbs up. This is fun!  Perhaps that is the one most transformational quality of a great leader – expressing joy in what she does.



John Lubans, the author, writes about leading and teamwork. He facilitates leadership workshops drawing upon his research and career as a university administrator with 100 and more staff. Biographical information is available at his website:

The Opera Australia web site:

In September 2002 Simone Young conducts Los Angeles Opera’s kick off production of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West with Placido Domingo in the lead.

Opera Australia’s concertmaster told me the dead conductor joke. The best irreverent conductor joke:  “How is a bull different from an orchestra?” “The horns are in front and the ---hole is in the back.”