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What Can Music Teach Business Professionals?

Article written for Go Canada, Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Czech Republic

In the era of globalization, communication is of the highest priority for successful management, and this will remain so in the future. We seek to understand the qualities of teamwork and to identify all available resources in order to enhance communication in our workplaces as well as in our personal lives.

Executives and musicians face similar issues when working in teams, dealing with change, seeking to achieve performance value and competing to succeed. The world of music provides many examples of people working together to create great things. Music can thus be seen as an appropriate metaphor for our understanding of leadership and teamwork.

Throughout my career as a musician, from early childhood on, playing together with other musicians was the most natural thing to me. My first collaboration was with my sister, a pianist three years older than me. My first lesson was to understand that I was not the leader and my sister an obedient accompanist, but that we were equals working together to perform our very best for our teachers, family and friends. We had to learn how to match our tone and our ideas, and at the same time be able to lead or quickly switch to accompany the other.

One of the first essential things one has to learn as a musician is good manners: when one player gets lost, the others have to stop to give him or her immediate support so that they can continue together, not just carry on because they know where they are with their own parts.

To this day, these first lessons have guided all my further collaborations with other musicians, whether I play together with my pianist or guitar player or within a larger ensemble.

When a music group starts to work, the initial A is played at the beginning to “tune in” the ensemble/ team. It expresses a vision of partnership, teamwork, and relationship. In giving the A, “the tone”, the manager and the employees become a team tuned to accomplish the extraordinary.

In a musical team, each member knows his or her part; they are all highly trained in their respective skills, and they are responsible for delivering their best. You must know what your role is, and how you fit in within the whole structure. Flexibility is required as there may be various situations generating a need to improvise, to help a colleague, to restart and play on. Depending on the music score (or business plan) you have to be ready at any time to take over leadership, pass it on or share it collaboratively. It is a constant give-and-take situation. Working together extensively, people in a group learn one another’s moves, and this shared learning creates a platform which produces a successful team.

String Quartet

The best example of teamwork in music can be found in the string quartet – an art form that developed in the 18th century primarily for amateur musicians, but later became a platform for professionals to excel in their musicianship. In the course of its development, the string quartet has become immensely popular. Only a few generations ago almost every educated person played a musical instrument and many would perform in a family or friends’ quartet.

The string quartet gives us valuable insights into how high-performance teams are able to organize themselves in order to succeed. The characteristics of the quartet apply to larger groups as well, but the principles of organization are the same. The string quartet has four members with very distinctive functions. The 1st violin is the leader and carries the major responsibility within the team. The 2nd violin is the reliable support, providing reinforcement to the 1st violin as well as the viola. It is considered the real leader, with all the inner rhythms and harmonies given with clarity and authority. The viola has its individual voice, provides support and reliability, brings special colour to the quartet. Last but not least, there is the cello, the foundation of the quartet with its steady individual voice, ready to take over leadership tasks at any moment.

Good communication in a string quartet is of the greatest importance. First of all, the individual instruments must achieve an integrated sound. This is accomplished through constant dialogue between the members. Observing and listening to one another are imperatives. The process enhances sensitivity, creativity, imagination and understanding.

Teamwork in a Music Ensemble

Effective communication is the key to success and is made of many qualities: speaking, observing, watching, sensing, understanding, and, most importantly, listening.

Paying attention

Listening is an art and it is the first essential tool musicians use, noticing not only the words that are spoken but also the manner and tone, and interpreting body language as well. Listening within a team of musicians is also achieved through eye contact. Silence is an important feature in the listening process too. Silence gives us the time to think and process what has been said. Come to think of it, my long- time music partners and I have more of a silent dialogue taking place during our rehearsals.

By paying attention to our colleagues we learn more about the people and the work being done.

Talking to each other

Another essential tool is learning to talk to one another. One must accept criticism and and appropriate ways of commenting on one another’s performances, point out deficiencies, e.g. remarking if one is late or not playing correctly while keeping the overall tone positive and constructive. And, likewise, voicing praise if someone is working well. In such an atmosphere, one values the other’s opinion.

Relating to one another

It is surprising how we tend to be confined to our little worlds, turned away from the others in the group without realizing it. Musicians are very easily inclined to hide behind their music stands. Similarly, members of business teams participating in teambuilding exercises based on music were surprised to discover how their performance suffered while they were turned away from one another, and how establishing consistent eye contact helped improve team performance.

I believe the most valuable lesson we can learn from music is that each of us in a team has something special to give, that we must become aware of and find joy in other people’s achievements and strengths. The result can only be a successful, winning and empowering team.

The ultimate goal of teamwork from the musical perspective is to achieve an “upper, outer voice”, a corporate personality that is more than the sum of its parts. As Steve Jobs using the Beatles, a quartet, as a model for business pointed out: “4 guys who kept each other’s negative tendencies in check, they balanced each other, and the sum was greater, the total was greater than the sum of the parts. And that’s how I see business.

By Bibi Pelić

The author, an individual member of the Chamber, is a violinist. She also lectures on the history of music as well as on music as a source of inspiration for successful management.

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