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The Best Teams Act Like Musicians

The Best Teams Act Like Musicians
Published April 22, 2015 by Allison Eck
In September of last year, The New York Times produced a video using 3D point capture that rendered members of the Kronos Quartet as "dot clouds," flickering in and out of existence in accordance with each musician's participation. The result was a beautiful electronic illustration of the dynamic "ecosystem" that is the string quartet.

It’s no coincidence that the Times picked a string quartet (a small musical ensemble of four players: two violins, one viola, and one cello) as opposed to a choir or symphony orchestra (which are both much larger) for its multimedia project. Musicians in groups like the Kronos Quartet are masters of communication. They have an intimate rapport that makes them intriguing subjects—models for business leaders and working creatives alike. Why? Because every aspect of their success hinges on real-time collaborative communication.

Juxtapose a conductor-less group like a string quartet with a symphony orchestra. In a symphony orchestra, a conductor guides the ensemble and determines its overall artistic mission. The string quartet, on the other hand, is a musical metaphor for conversation; each group has its own rhythm, style, and way of coming together as a whole. And they develop specific patterns of interaction that directly influence the quality of the music.

Slightly larger ensembles without conductors work this way, too. Take the Grammy-nominated, Boston-based group, A Far Cry. Comprised of 18 string players (violins, violas, cellos, and basses), A Far Cry is what’s called a “chamber orchestra.” It’s not as small as a quartet or quintet, but not as big as a full-size symphony orchestra.

Without a conductor, A Far Cry arguably behaves more like a quartet than a symphony orchestra; the group relies on consistent and clear communication amongst its members to keep the music going. Not all chamber orchestras are conductorless—but the conductorless model is an emerging trend in 21st century music entrepreneurship, likely because it encourages democratic values as well as a kind of scintillating energy that you may not be able to find in a symphony orchestra. “We have a pretty unique dynamic,” violinist Miki-Sophia Cloud told me.

I spoke with Cloud and a few other “Criers” (as they call themselves) about how they organize rehearsals, communicate during performances, and deal with conflict. Here’s what groups like A Far Cry and the Kronos Quartet can teach us about the functioning of a healthy, innovative team.

Switch Chairs (and Roles) Often

Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco
Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco

Musicians in A Far Cry sit or stand in a different spot for every piece. Not only does this give the audience some variety in terms of the visual experience, but it allows the musicians to engage with the music in various ways throughout the course of a concert. Even during rehearsals, they play musical chairs.

“We switch places to take on different roles and embody them fully,” says Sarah Darling, a violist and one of the founding members of A Far Cry. “Then we can drop them very easily, pick up a different role, and continue to be comfortable in that space.” That kind of flexibility strengthens the group as a whole and it cultivates confidence in a higher percentage of the people involved.

You can take this either literally or figuratively when it comes to team strategy. On the literal end, you may want to try physically swapping seats—the change in perspective could garner fresh insights. Figuratively speaking, teams can “switch chairs” by letting new people take on leadership roles during meetings. The result will likely be a shift in the group’s collective personality, a newfound nimbleness, and a tolerance—even eagerness—for the unexpected. 

“The aggregate personality is really crucial, and it’s something that you have to address with a group culture that is subtle and trusting enough that collective personality will naturally come into being,” Darling says. “It’s fun for us to have access to the whole set of different characters. Without that, the entire thing would be pointless.”

Play Your Part

This is a basic rule of thumb for musicians, but it’s a helpful reminder that playing your part is more than just doing what’s written on the page. It’s your interpretation that matters.

“In music, it’s impossible to remove the fact that everyone has a very specific role to play,” says Darling. “Playing your role beautifully and with absolute conviction is one way to help the group as a whole.”

For creative teams, it’s important to remember that doing your job well entails more than just “going through the motions” (the equivalent of merely playing the notes on the page). You might complete every assignment on time and with attention to detail, but just because you did it correctly doesn’t mean you interpreted it. Even the smallest tasks need human thoughtfulness.

The reason why professional ensembles like A Far Cry are so accomplished is that they spend countless hours scrutinizing their individual parts: how should I play this note? Why did the composer mark this passage as piano (soft) and not forte (loud)? Should I let another instrument take the lead here or should I shine through? What is the intended musical “gesture” at this particular moment? In other words, what are these 3 or 4 or 20 notes trying to say? Without interpretation, music isn’t nearly as convincing (though some modern composers like John Cage, have historically disagreed).

An oft-cited concern in the workplace is that people feel they’re not sharing their opinions frequently enough—or worse, that their opinions don’t mean anything. But worrying about the legitimacy of one’s contributions leads to a lot of unnecessary anxiety. Instead, understand that interpretation is embedded in the nature of the job itself. A robot isn’t doing your job—you are. Every aspect of the work requires your human intellect and emotional sagacity to seamlessly integrate your company’s moving parts. Without it, you’re not making music.

Don’t Compare

Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco
Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco

 Sometimes comparison can be good. In a creative environment, there’s inherent tension between the desire to “be yourself” and the need to imitate others to get by. We all have influences, no doubt—and sometimes emulating those we admire is an effective way to realize our own inner strength. But it’s a balancing act. Essayist Meghan Daum wrote in her newly published book The Unspeakable  that “life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally—and sometimes maddeningly—who are.” We should always be comparing ourselves to others in order to expand our sense of who we are and who we might become.

But some types of comparison can quickly become crippling. A musician can improve by taking lessons or by imitating a favorite virtuoso—but ultimately, she is at the mercy of her equipment, her physiology, and sometimes even inane things like the weather (which influences pitch, quality of sound, and so on). In the heat of a musical moment, pros have no other choice but to work with what they’ve got. And on some level, imitating another musician distances you from the music itself. One of the most critical lessons we can learn from musicians is that it’s necessary to let go of comparisons.

This means you should remind yourself once in a while to just play the music. Put simply, stop comparing yourself to others and recall why, deep down, you care about the work in the first place. If someone is seemingly smarter or more talented than you are, accept your current limitations and work with what you’ve got (after all, that’s what the other person is doing, too). Also, be picky about your influences. Focus on specific qualities you admire in people rather than their overall personalities, speech patterns, résumés, or CVs. A musician is usually an aggregate of all his previous teachers’ musical philosophies and tendencies—but the sound of the music is still uniquely his.

Distribute Your Energy Wisely

These days, it’s popular to talk about authenticity in the workplace—the idea that you can bring your whole self to the table and expect to be accepted for who you are. That’s a noble goal, but the hardest part may come after that: How does your personality fit into the group’s collective temperament?

“If you’re not playing in a way that animates yourself, there’s no point,” Darling says of playing in A Far Cry. “But the question of how you bring your authentic self out of that and connect it to the larger intelligence… You just have to figure out where to tap in, where to put your energy. There are times when it might be easier or more natural than others.” 

Karl Doty, a bassist in A Far Cry, agrees. “You can waste your psychic energy if you put it in the wrong places.”

In a string quartet or a chamber orchestra, a violist might realize that his part is similar in spots to the first violin’s part—so naturally, he would put his energy into adding depth to it (since the violist is lower in pitch than the violin). Or it might occur to a cellist that her part is a variation on the melody played in the first and second violins—in which case she would echo it but also give it her own spin. On top of that, they’re also working to identify which of their peers are good at “catching” this energy and receiving it. They have to ask themselves, “who knows me well enough to understand my inclinations both as a human and as a musician?”

Non-musicians can ask themselves similar questions while at work. In what situations are my contributions most appreciated and most useful? Who responds with positivity to not just the content of my ideas, but also the way I present them? Decide for yourself which colleagues are best at listening, who engages with you in fluid, stimulating conversation, and so on. Knowing where to put your energy can save you from burnout—and it’ll be healthier for your team overall. 

Anticipate Needs

Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco
Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco

It’s easy to become reactive or explosive when under stress. But anticipating people’s actions can make communication much more fluid. Musicians have to watch one another intently to sense where they’re taking the music and how the rest of the group should support that. 

“Ideally, you don’t want to be just following the person; you want to be leading with the person,” says Darling. “What you want to do is sort of 75 percent anticipate what they do, and 20 percent wait for them. Hopefully the last little bit will come from them anticipating themselves.”

In non-musical settings, anticipation is part prediction, part preparation. You predict what the person is going to say (even if it ends up being totally off-base), and you prepare your response accordingly. This strategy is often more effective than mere reaction because it’s typically less self-involved. You’re focusing on how to roll with whatever’s about to be said—not push against it.

Don’t Assign: Nominate

Assignments in the workplace are pretty much unavoidable, but it helps to branch out from standard practices a little. Instead of relying on higher-ups to delegate tasks, or waiting for others to volunteer time, try nominating someone once in a while. A Far Cry does this when choosing principal violin, principal viola, and so on for a particular concert. There’s no single person who decides which musicians are best suited to a specific genre or composer; rather, individuals are given the chance to nominate someone who they think is good for the specific project at hand. 

Sound Check Often

Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco
Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco

Designate one person in your group to do a “sound check” every so often—during a meeting, during an event, or even mid-conversation. For a musician, a sound check necessitates walking to the back of the performance space or up to the balcony to get an objective sense of what the group sounds like.

For your team, this means stepping out of your role and your personal needs for a minute, and surveying the project as a whole. A sound check means you can be frank: what is the most glaring thing that needs fixing? What would you say to inspire your colleagues to do better?

Know the Score

Do you actually know what your colleagues work on all day? Make an effort to learn how the people around you spend their time: what’s their workflow like? How do minutes spent on little projects add up to the full eight hours? Truly understanding your colleagues’ responsibilities can help you forge new creative alliances with them. In music, this is called “knowing the score,” and it’s especially relevant to chamber music. Without a conductor to point out changes in harmonic or melodic structure, each musician has to have a thorough understanding of what the other players are doing. That way, each person sees where he or she needs to play out, echo, draw back, move forward, hand off, or complement the other musicians’ notes.

Embrace Uncertainty

Music is immediate, exacting, and often deeply emotional. That means a person’s rational self-restraint and passion need to be working at the same time—an immensely difficult task.

“There’s that sort of moment of paradox: everyone is governed by this desire that has to be able to express itself in real time,” Darling says. “You have to be inspired enough that you want to be leading it, and yet most of the time, you can’t.” 

Sound familiar? We all want to take charge sometimes, but usually we can’t. It’s not our place, or we’re not in a position of power. But that’s okay—we can still take ownership of projects without overstepping professional boundaries. The hardest part comes in accepting this delicate balance, and being comfortable expressing oneself even within the confines of someone else’s vision.


Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, and Rosamund Stone Zander, psychotherapist, argue in their book The Art of Possibility that leaders are found all over a symphony orchestra—not just on the podium. In other words, instrumentalists aren’t just serfs obeying commands from their Lord Conductor. The principal cellist of a symphony orchestra, for example, will talk to his section members about the proper bowing technique for a tricky passage. The piccolo player will make sure her sound is crisp, pure, and in tune with the other high woodwinds. The Zanders call this “leading from any chair.” It’s a powerful concept for young professionals in the workplace: no matter where you sit, you can be a leader.

Statistical studies are just one form of proof. A 2014 paper in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface analyzed tiny tempo fluctuations in members of two string quartets. They found that in one group, the first violin was the obvious leader in that she adjusted to others’ tempo changes less frequently than other musicians adjusted to hers. In the other quartet, the amount of correction and adjustment was spread more evenly throughout the group.

Sometimes, though, the realities of teamwork are much more complicated. A more recent paper in Frontiers Psychology by a handful of the same researchers noted that in a string quartet, there is a “unidirectional dependence of the viola on violin I, and of violin I on the cello,” and that there is a “bidirectional dependence for the relationships between violin II and cello and violin II and viola.”

So for ensembles without a conductor, like the Kronos Quartet, leadership often doesn’t tell the whole story. Members of these groups don't just lead from any chair—they improvise, listen to one another, and thrive on a network of dependencies. This, it turns out, is the secret to truly effective communication. 

More about Allison Eck

Allison Eck works for NOVA, the award-winning PBS documentary series, where she works on social media and editorial content for NOVA Next, NOVA's new longform science journalism platform. A Hamilton College alum, you can find her playing clarinet with the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra, browsing local bookstores, and researching her next story. Tweet her at @allisonceck.

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