The Sound of Successful Leadership: The Conductor and His Orchestra

May 20, 2022


A contribution by Florian Schönwiese on excellent leadership makes great orchestras.

As an orchestral musician, I played full-time for many years in successful, world-famous orchestras. I therefore worked with many different conductors: from young students to the most famous and best conductors in the world, such as Sir Colin Davis, Gustavo Dudamel, or Nikolaus Harnoncourt. I worked with him in his orchestra for about 20 years.

My motivation to prepare well, do my daily routine work and rehearse with full vigor and commitment always depended on several aspects:

  • the music we choose: Does our work’s ” content ” appeal to me?
  • the payment, which varies significantly in the freelance environment
  • the level of the orchestra, i.e. also, the level of the challenge
  • the performance venues: a concert in the Golden Hall of the Vienna Musikverein?
  • my colleagues
  • my plans

But all that can fade into the background when I get the opportunity to work with a conductor who interests me artistically and personally! Because I know that the result of this collaboration can be good and unique in any case! As every active concert-goer can confirm, the orchestra’s sound, the character of an orchestra, changes with every conductor – even though an orchestra prepares for a concert with a conductor for a maximum of one week!

The Sound of Successful Leadership

Dirigent dirigiert sein Orchester

The reason for this fact and what we can deduce from this condensed observation has occupied me for decades. With the insights gained, I developed a successful concept for the workshop “The Sound of Leadership” more than ten years ago to further develop leaders from business, sport, and science. I will now also outline some aspects here in this article.

When I was a student in London, I was already fascinated by the effect of different conductors on us orchestra musicians. Depending on who stood before us, we were either concentrated and full of devotion or undisciplined, sometimes simply resistant! And resistance is not uncommon even in professional orchestras!

Already then, I began to wonder why. Years later, when I was managing cultural enterprises myself and came into contact with managers from the private sector as part of my MBA programme, it slowly crystallised for me:

A symphony orchestra and its conductor are an ideal example to observe successful leadership processes, attitudes, and values.

It’s a beautiful metaphor for a high-performance team and effective leadership – both theoretically and practically.

Two primary conditions are unique to our classical music world:

  • The structures are transparent, areas of responsibility precisely defined, hierarchies established, and roles distributed – in all orchestras globally and for more than 200 years now. So the situations are easily comparable, and above all, there is no excuse: success depends on the people acting! As in most areas of the Western world, we also assume a certain level of quality and competence; what ultimately makes the difference are values and attitudes.
  • Music is happening in the very moment and, like any art, represents the essence of being human: therefore, the effect of leadership is immediate, and the result can be experienced by everyone immediately – it cannot be delayed.


After particularly close observation, both sitting in the orchestra and as the leader of two companies, I have formulated important aspects of successful leadership, which I call the “Maestro factors” – here is an excerpt:

# Preparation: Guidelines + Creativity = Vision

Konzertvorbereitung - Beethoven_missa solemnis_HarnoncourtEvery conductor, like every other leader, has to act with guidelines. In our world, they are exact and clearly notated in the score, i.e. the music written down by the composer. In it, the composer’s idea is put on paper as precisely as possible: the exact instrumentation, the pitches, volumes, speeds and many, many other details. Now it is up to the conductor to figure out what is really behind those black dots and lines on the paper, what they might mean, why they were written, the basic mood, and much more. A pure execution would be the death of music.

For this purpose, it is necessary to develop one’s path to a personal interpretation/vision of this work: through research, analyses, observations, conversations – and above all through listening inside oneself. And this is not only meant musically. To be convincing, leaders have to internalise their ideas, direction, vision, values and attitudes. At the end very personal, almost intimate aspects! Classical music can support you in strengthening the clarity of your values, visions and attitudes. In one of our workshops, we support you in this process and your focus on this “introspection”: the workshop is called “Listen & Lead – the art of listening“.

 If the conductor approaches the composer’s instructions creatively and openly, over time he/she will have internalised a clear picture, interpretation or vision of the work to such an extent that he/she can then compare it with the orchestra’s “offers” at any time during rehearsals in order to adapt it accordingly and shape it into a special result.

 By the way: this preparation is one of the most important tasks of a conductor. Nikolaus Harnoncourt spent up to two years preparing a piece of music before he started working with us!

# Universal communication

Music is considered an international language, but we cannot speak it. Therefore, in order to be able to communicate their interpretation/vision from the smallest detail to the big picture, conductors need to find a meta-level of communication that fits both their personality structure and profile and at the same time reaches all the diverse types of people in the orchestra. As in any human system, there are the ambitious ones, the temperamental ones, the quiet ones, those who seek the least resistance, those who are particularly enthusiastic about themselves, those who constantly doubt themselves, and so on.

Of course, there are no rules about how to communicate with us. The personal way needs to be developed – and that takes time. That is why it is so helpful to study conducting and to practice and explore the responsibility of leadership at an early age. As a result, we witness personalities like Claudio Abbado, who was quiet, taciturn and modest, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who liked to talk a lot and enthusiastically, always in stories, images, and in search of new insights, other conductors who play with humor, serious and precise ones, and all combinations, colors and gradations.

But what all successful conductors have in common is that they find a language that conveys their inner convictions and visions into images, stories, and metaphors that everyone understands and wants to support.

# Personality

According to those great differences, there are no role models for how to lead orchestras. Of course, there are traditions, techniques and good examples, but primarily you have to develop your own personal way to achieve the best result together with the orchestra. With the focus on content and goal, the respect for the composers and the performing musicians, and the awareness of the role of the conductor, the leadership personality develops over the course of many years, ideally into someone who is convincing and can get the best out of the musicians.

And this is where my definition of leadership comes into play:

Leadership is about making others better through your guidance and presence!

It is exactly this combination of very personal guidance and a clear framework (presence) that will give us specialists the space to contribute and that gives us as a unity, the whole orchestra the opportunity to develop.

In our world it is so clear: the conductor does not sound himself! It is us musicians who “make” the music, but we definitely need someone to tell us which direction to take this time and to shape the final result with their personality.

# Do not disturb

As important as it is to give energy to the team, drive them, and lead the way. it is also important to ease from time to time! Sometimes the specialists need their space, the focus on their detailed work, and the possibility to become active on their own! It’s the same with us in the orchestra, even in concerts, in our performance! An inexperienced concert-goer may not recognise it immediately, but often a conductor virtually turns away from musicians who have to focus on a solo or other important contributions to the orchestra, so as not to disturb them.

Knowing and feeling when the team needs input and when it is better not to disturb is the fine art!

# Practising and common (rehearsal) structures

Foto: Claudia Jörg-Brosche

As you know, musicians practice at home, rehearse together with their colleagues for days, and then there is a “short performance”, the concert. For us orchestra musicians, it is incomprehensible that in other areas one has to “perform” permanently. Where is time and space for rehearsing and practicing in the business world? They exist, but often not consciously.

 Rehearsal times are just as important as practicing at home: we can rehearse together for a maximum of 1.5 hours at a stretch because our work is highly complex, multi-layered, and demanding. After 1.5 hours at the latest, the concentration can no longer be maintained in order to achieve good results and developments. Therefore, there is a 20-minute break before we continue again. And in this break, (almost) all colleagues put away their instruments and walk out of the rehearsal room! A real switch-off.

 After the next 1.5h, there is a longer (lunch) break and then there is another 3h session with a break. That’s all you can do – and that’s enough! Those who like and are still able to will practise alone at home anyway.

Finally, a recommendation:

our world of classical music is the only one I know of in which you can observe leaders in their everyday work.

 There are videos of every great conductor rehearsing with an orchestra, i.e. working with a team of experienced specialists. No business executive has been filmed in their everyday work, no football coach can be observed getting the best out of his stars. Conductors have no problem with that. Not least because they know that their work is very personal and special and cannot be copied anyway. Browse a little on YouTube and let yourself be inspired!

Contributed by Florian Schönwiese

About Florian Schönwiese

Florian Schönwiese – The Sound of Leadership Foto: Stefan Schweiger

Florian Schönwiese has worked with many of the most important conductors of our time, from Nikolaus Harnoncourt to Gustavo Dudamel. He studied violin in Vienna and in London. He began his career as a freelance musician. As a soloist, chamber musician (e.g. member of the Anton Webern Quartet) and orchestral musician (almost 20 years in the Concentus Musicus Wien under Nikolaus Harnoncourt, in the German Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, and in the Klang Forum Wien) he travelled the world and played in the most important international concert halls (from Carnegie Hall in NYC to Santori Hall in Tokyo).

The completion of an MBA program and the successful management of two companies allowed him to unite the world of management and orchestra. His training program goes beyond traditional leadership and executive coaching: As part of The Sound of Leadership, he gives lectures and workshops at internationally successful universities (Norwegian School of Economics, Aalto EE University in Helsinki and University of St. Gallen) and offers training and development to companies throughout Europe.

Together with his musician colleagues, he has worked with over 700 executives from all over the world (China, Singapore, Afghanistan, Europe, South Africa, Brazil, USA, and Canada). Meanwhile, he continues his successful international career as a violinist.

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