STRONG AND WISE leader is not afraid of vulnerability. In fact it may even be embraced. A strong leader, director, conductor, etc., is comfortable in their own skin and self-confident—if not because they are perfect or their musicianship is beyond reproach—but because the very pursuit of creating great art is a fluid and evolving work of a lifetime.
A sure sign of an insecure leader is one whose first instinct is to blame others when something goes wrong. This is bad leadership in part because it alienates the very people working very hard for a common cause.
As a musician, I know I have enormous deficiencies and weaknesses. I identified some of them years ago, and I have to work extra hard on some things to achieve the same results others do with ease. Other things come more easily to me. Getting better as a musician and teacher is work that will never end in this life.
I often remind my choirs that I make more mistakes than anyone else. It’s the result of much multitasking. But if something goes wrong in a rehearsal, and it’s my fault, I make sure the choir knows. Why? I don’t want them to think they need to make an adjustment that will simply make things worse.
Another observation I state from time to time in rehearsal: “It seems you sing better when I conduct better. Hmmm. Maybe I should just conduct better!” And I do, and we sound better.
Forget about me. I have two stories:
HE FIRST IS ABOUT the great film composer and maestro, John Williams. As the former conductor of the Boston Pops, I know a number of musicians who have played under his baton. One of my friends tells a story of him commenting to the orchestra about his own conducting, “I need to be more clear with that phrase. Someone who routinely conducts the London Symphony Orchestra had to admit that he needs to conduct better. Consider that this admission came from a man who makes more money while taking a nap (collecting residual checks) than most of us dream to make in a year.
It is no wonder John Williams is universally beloved by so many top-flight musicians. He’s a leader who is secure enough to admit his imperfection. He is a leader who cares enough about the final product than protecting his own ego.
HE SECOND IS ABOUT Yo-Yo Ma. Over twenty years ago, I was asked to transcribe a piece on notation software and into modern notation. (Very few people knew the software in the early to mid-1990s.) It was a work by the 13th Century French composer, Philippe de Vitry.
When I met with Mr. Ma, he gave a quick analysis of the rhythmic breakdown and how to divide the measures, given that the original had no bar lines.
But here’s what happened. When I later analyzed the score, I realized the rhythmic breakdown was far more simple than Mr. Ma indicated. He appeared to be wrong. And I had to make darn well sure I did this correctly. I studied and consulted and made my case, having to explain to one of the greatest cellists who walks planet earth that he made a mistake.
As this was the pre-internet and pre-cell phone era instant communication was non-existent. He was off to Asia and then flying to France where the score needed to be faxed in forty-eight hours for a private concert. I could not call or text or even email. I was a lowly grad student hoping not to screw this up. Trust me, I was freaking out.
A few weeks passed and his manager told me, “By the way, Yo-Yo said, ‘Tell Richard he was right.’”
I still make more mistakes than anyone and will make a lot more. But these two greats show what a positive influence one can have when not trying to project invincibility, but humanity. Plus, it’s not about us. It’s about the music. It’s about God.
Soli Deo gloria