Advice from a Maestro

March 29, 2011, 9:00 AM UTC

Looking for new ways to manage your troops? Some tips from New York Philharmonic conductor Alan Gilbert.

Gilbert conducting, holding a penlight, which creates the effect in this photo.

It’s not easy to find a management book that has anything approaching a fresh idea. Maybe that’s why people looking to become change agents are turning to unusual sources for their leadership fix. Navy SEALS, chefs, and, of course, pro sports coaches have all weighed in with popular advice books.

Even musical maestros are getting in on the act. Ben Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, has devoted followers of his book, The Art of Possibility. And conductor Roger Nierenberg in his book, Maestro: A Surprising Story About Leading by Listening, “teaches executives how to turn a company into a euphonious symphony of work,” says Publisher’s Weekly.

Another conductor with a good management story to tell is Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic. Not only does he manage a large, creative crew in a pressure-cooker market, but he also had to follow, at a relatively young age, in the footsteps of legends like Leonard Bernstein and Gustav Mahler. The 44-year-old Gilbert’s appointment in 2007 raised a few eyebrows, partly because his parents were career violinists with the orchestra. (Gilbert’s mother, Yoko Takebe, continues to play under him.) Now in his second season with the philharmonic, Gilbert has won over critics, thanks in some measure to his skillful management of the 106 musicians who play for him. How does he do it?

Inspiration via democracy

In guiding the orchestra through a musical work, Gilbert has his own ideas about how it should sound, from the volume to the tempo. But his musicians have worked with many conductors and have experience playing popular classical works.

“I’d be an idiot not to make use of the experience,” he says. Gilbert gets them to buy in by asking them for help. He meets with senior musicians and section leaders, saying, “This is the kind of thing that I’ll be looking for over the next period of time from your section. Could you try to encourage that as well?” That gives the musicians a sense of ownership and responsibility, while also “planting seeds,” as Gilbert says, that will help him achieve the effect he is aiming for.

Gilbert carefully avoids the perception that he is imposing his will. Sure, his musical choices or decisions about scheduling or personnel can ruffle feathers. But he explains that he’s doing what he thinks is right “for the good of the music or the institution, rather than for some personal gratification.” It’s a delicate balance, because Gilbert knows he’s been hired to put his stamp on the orchestra. Still, “the best conducting,” he says, “happens when all the musicians are able to feel that they’re accessing their own point of view about the music as well.”

The office door is always open

Conductors and orchestras have traditionally kept a distance from each other. Many of Gilbert’s musicians, in fact, had never been in the music director’s office before he arrived.

But Gilbert doesn’t work that way, partly because he knows many of the players from his days as an orchestra brat. Still, he actively works at being more accessible than his predecessors: “I actually think it’s possible to get more out of the musicians by really showing them you know who they are and you identify with them and you trust them,” he says.

Gilbert, for instance, sits in with his musicians. Last season he played viola in a sextet with philharmonic members, and he plans to play in a chamber ensemble with them again this year. He also has opened his home to his musicians, inviting them to informal dinner parties.

Connect with your customers — and actually listen to them on occasion

Yup, it’s a cliché. But it isn’t always done in Gilbert’s line of work. In 2009, before the official start of his first season as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Gilbert conducted all the parks concerts in each of New York City’s five boroughs — a first for a New York Philharmonic music director. Gilbert also conducted the annual school day concerts during the past two seasons, and teaches classes at Juilliard.

Classical music has a rep for being too buttoned-up, so Gilbert has also tapped more informal (and modern) modes of communication to make himself accessible. Last year he agreed to take part in a series of playful videos posted on YouTube to promote an upcoming performance. During the concerts in the parks, he offered audiences the chance to vote via text message for the encore piece: Rossini’s William Tell Overture vs. the “Toreador’s Song” from Bizet’s Carmen.

Gilbert even tweets,  and his blog on the website Musical America offers a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a musical director.

Learn everything about the enterprise

Gilbert says aspiring conductors should apprentice in every part of the operation. In other words, get to know what the people in marketing actually do for a living.

Gilbert had a little business-side experience going in. He was an assistant conductor at the Cleveland Orchestra for three years, and at Harvard he took a liking to marketing and the logistics of staging a production when planning performances on campus. To a greater extent than his predecessors, Gilbert weighs in on decisions across the organization.

Why should he waste his time fussing with marketing materials? Nothing better to do? Gilbert says such things as brochures play a large role in audience expectations. He adds: “It all is ultimately feeding into the musical product.”

Managing mom

Given his long history with the orchestra, some might wonder how Gilbert separates the personal from the professional, especially since his violinist mother has a constant eye on his podium. Gilbert says that while he was conscious of her presence in the beginning, he rarely thinks about it anymore. Still, he admits, “occasionally I do go offstage and she’ll say, ‘You didn’t shave’ or ‘Your shirt’s not pressed.’ I hear things from her that no other musician would mention.”

He thinks the arrangement has actually been tougher on her. No matter how well things are going for an orchestra, it’s common for musicians to complain about the conductor when they gather in their dressing room. Now his mother gets left out of such backstage banter. “She wants me to do well,” Gilbert says, “and she wants her colleagues to like what I’m doing, so she must feel there’s a pressure.”

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