Leonard Bernstein: Why is he regarded as the best music conductor?

You go to listen to a symphony orchestra with 80 musicians playing their hearts out in perfect harmony. But the person holding a baton and waving his hands in front of the musicians gets all the applause. This person who plays no musical instrument of his own is called the maestro. Why is the conductor given such high regards? Why is he even needed?

The history of the conductor

The middle ages and the Renaissance period had no orchestra. Fairly small choirs played the music. But in the middle of the 17th century, during the Baroque period, the choirs started becoming bigger. And bigger. And bigger. And as they became bigger, they started facing a unique problem: who would lead the musicians? Who would keep them on track and get them to follow the same beat?

Even though the individual musicians would be extremely skilled, the ensemble would not play the music together and things would sound worse. Someone was needed to keep track of the beat and help everyone play in harmony.

In 1752, Bach recommended that the pianist should play the role of keeping everyone in harmony. The next year, his colleague Quantz recommended that it should be the violinist. For a lot of years, the pianist and the violinist wrestled with each other to gain control – sometimes during the concert itself!

It was only in the 1820s when Louis Spohr changed things. When he was invited to the London Philharmonic Society, he controversially got up with a baton. And just helped the players keep the beat and play in sync. He played no instrument of his own unless it was absolutely required!

Out of all the musicians, Spohr was the most talented. But he considered that instead of playing any instrument, his job was to play the musicians. To get the best out of them.

And thats what a good conductor does. Gets the best out of his musicians. And the most important part of his role is played behind the scenes: during the rehearsals. Where he interprets the music and gets everyone on the same page.

During the concert itself, his main job is to count the beat and keep everyone in sync. To let the musicians know with his gestures what is required of them. 

How can you get the best out of your musicians?

Itay Talgam is a pianist who became a music conductor in Israel. He tells us the story of Ricardo Muti. Muti was a very well known conductor and people loved his concerts. The energy was sublime. But he was made to resign from La Scala in Milan because all the musicians rebelled against him. Why? Because while he was extremely talented, he kept an ironclad control on the musicians. The musicians had no autonomy. They had no space to experiment and grow. It was very dictatorial. The music was great but it was not upto the best ability of the musicians!

On the other hand was someone like Herbert von Karajan. People loved his concerts too! He would close his eyes and conduct the concerts. He focused on getting good musicians on board, and then giving them complete freedom. “The worst damage I can do to my orchestra is to give them a clear instruction. Because that would prevent the ‘ensemble’, the listening to each other that is needed for an orchestra.” Karajan’s style would leave room for uniqueness to show up in the concerts. Magic would be created. But it would leave a few musicians frustrated. Because not everyone can follow without guidance. Not all his musicians reached their epitome.

What sets Leonard Bernstein apart from these conductors? Bernstein is widely regarded as one of the best music conductors. And he took the middle road. To find the balance between complete control and individual creativity. Because that’s how you can get the best out of the musicians!

Bernstein’s technique

Bernstein famously said: “technique is communication.” He spent hours communicating with his musicians and helping them out to become better. After every concert, they would replay the video and see how it could have been made better. 

Every conversation with Bernstein was a partnership. Because he didn’t instruct the musicians. He asked them for their opinion. He created dialogue.

But the most important thing that Bernstein did is get all the musicians on the same page. How did he do that? Bernstein would start the process by going beyond the score. He would attempt to find the deeper meaning in the musical composition. What did the music make people feel? He would then share his meaning with his musicians. And then help them find the experiences in their lives that would help them bring these emotions out!

“I cannot tell you how to play this oboe solo in the Brahms; I can only project my own feeling about it – sweet! But then I need you to come with everything you know about sweetness, your love for your dog, your sweetest childhood memories, everything!”

Bernstein got his musicians to share the same meaning from a song. He channeled their feelings and their emotions. And that’s what made them play so well together!

Action Summary:

  • As a leader, your main job is to get the best out of your people. You can find people to set goals and to execute and to problem solve and to sell the heck out of your product. But you have to lead. You have to keep the team in sync. And get the best out of everyone.
  • Getting the best out of everyone requires you to get them to share the same shared purpose. To feel the purpose in their bones. Because only then will they give it their all.
  • Once you have got great people on your team, and they share your purpose, then trust them to do well. Don’t micromanage. Give them creative freedom.