Orchestral conductors seldom play an instrument in the orchestra that they are conducting. There are a few rare cases—Daniel Barenboim conducting from the piano springs to mind—but by and large, they are the exception.

That doesn’t mean that conductors are unable to play an instrument well. Most, if not all, conductors are very competent instrumentalists in their own right. So are composers. Sibelius, for example, wanted to be a concert violinist; his horrendously difficult Violin Concerto is rumoured to be his revenge on violinists for the fact that he was unable to achieve that ambition. Conductors need to be able to play an instrument to gain the respect of the orchestra. This is also the reason why chief executives without a clinical background can struggle to manage clinicians in hospitals. You must have walked the walk before you can talk the talk.

But however well they may be able to play, no conductor would leap down off the podium and take over from one of the instrumentalists. Conductor-players are also very selective about the instrument that they play while conducting. Piano or other keyboard instrument, yes. Violin, sometimes. Percussion or bassoon, no.

Understanding the importance of oversight

The reason for this holds a lesson for managers and companies.

It is because of visibility and coordination. A conductor needs to be visible to every member of the orchestra, and also to be able to see what they are doing. That is why the conductor stands on a podium at the front, with the orchestra grouped around them. Conducting from the middle or back just doesn’t work, because half the orchestra cannot see what is going on, and the overall vision is lost.

Taking over someone else’s work also does not help. The conductor who did so would have to concentrate on the score for that instrument. That would mean that they could not focus on the overall picture. Again, it risks losing sight of the vision, and reducing the whole.

So is the conductor’s contribution only as a coordinator, then? Absolutely not. And does it matter whether they can play an instrument? Yes, it definitely does.

The conductor’s contribution

Standing on the podium waving a baton may be the most visible part of a conductor’s job, but it is also an extremely small element of it. Before reaching that point, the conductor will have spent hours, if not days or weeks, studying the score of the piece. He or she will have looked at the notations in the score, read more about the composer and the period and also looked at other music by the same composer and from the same period. All this will have built up a picture of how the music should sound: a vision for the piece.

Only once this vision has been carefully built up can the conductor present it to the orchestra. The vision must then be outlined and explained, and time spent in rehearsals with the orchestra to ensure that the musicians understand the vision and can play the music in the way that the conductor envisaged. This is likely to be a two-way process, because most musicians will also have their own ideas about how it should be played—and, indeed, the technical constraints that may affect what they can do.

Only once all this work is done does the composer don evening dress and walk out to conduct the concert. In doing so, they coordinate the performance of the orchestra, but also present their vision to the audience.

They are so much more than a coordinator. They are also visionary, leader, communicator, co-creator and presenter.

Lessons for marketing

Just as conductors ‘play’ the whole orchestra, marketing managers ‘play’ the company’s marketing activities. They are the conductor of the marketing function. But more and more now, they also coordinate marketing activities across the whole company, not just the marketing function, from content marketing to contact with customers.

That means creating a vision, and explaining it clearly, to both employees and customers. Marketing content and activities are not created only by marketing managers, but co-created with staff from business units who understand their customers’ needs and know about the business. Marketing managers have a clear role in creating a vision within which others can operate.

But a marketing manager who sees themselves as ‘just’ a manager or coordinator is selling themselves, and their company, short. Their role as visionary, communicator and co-creator means being able to ‘do’, too. In a digital world, managers are also practitioners.


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