Harmonizing Success: Valuable Lessons Learned from a School Orchestra Practice Session

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My daughter is in Grade 7 and is a member of her school orchestra. During the school’s music week, parents were invited to attend music lessons. I attended the orchestra lesson and observed several valuable lessons that are worth sharing.

Be passionate

The kids start their orchestra lessons at 6:30 am, an hour before school starts. They are so passionate about their craft that they are happy to wake up early to attend lessons. You must love what you do.

Embrace the chaos

For the first 20 minutes, the kids were free to do what they needed to do. They used the time to set up, get their own chairs and sheet music stands. Although it felt chaotic, the kids were self-organizing and sorting themselves out.

Self organise, with a little direction

While the kids did self-organise, when they were finally set up, the chairs were spaced a little too far apart. The music teacher only asked them to get in a little closer.

Sitting closer together can help to improve communication and coordination among the different sections of the orchestra. When musicians are sitting close to one another, they are better able to hear and respond to each other’s playing, which can help to create a more cohesive and unified sound.

They all then skootched in a little tighter.

The teacher did not tell the kids where to sit, merely to sit closer to each other.

Having a shared vision and some direction is key in business. It aligns people on the “What” but not the “How”.

Tune your instrument

During this time, the kids also needed to tune their instruments. The orchestra teacher assisted all the students with tuning and was versatile enough to help tune all the instruments.  This took some time, but it needed to be done. Playing with an untuned instrument will not yield the right results.

At work, we, too, have to have to tune our instruments. As knowledge workers, our primary instrument is our brain, and we have to take some time to tune it to unleash creativity and focus. Meditating a few minutes a day is a great way to tune your brain and help it achieve higher levels of performance.

Know your role

In the orchestra, each musician had to listen to the music and find their section that needed to be played. They then clapped the tune for their section, highlighting the importance of knowing one’s role.

This concept is crucial in any team setting, where understanding each other’s roles and expectations is necessary for success. One useful exercise to achieve this is to write down each team member’s role on a piece of paper and ask others to write down their expectations for that role. This process goes around the team until it reaches the person who wrote the role, who then clarifies any statements by agreeing, disagreeing, or adapting them for better understanding.

Personal Mastery

While all the orchestra players come together to play music, each of the musicians has their own music teacher, who teaches them how to play music individually. One can’t arrive and expect to learn how to play an instrument in an orchestra.

Peter Senge, in his book the fifth discipline, looks at this from two of the five disciplines of organisational learning, that being “Personal Mastery” and “Team Learning”.

According to Senge, personal mastery refers to the continuous process of self-improvement and self-discovery, with the aim of achieving one’s highest potential. Just like the music teacher, a coach or mentor is an important facet to help achieve personal mastery. A coach can provide guidance, support, and feedback as you work to develop your skills and abilities and can help you identify areas for growth and improvement.

Start slow and gradually get faster

As the orchestra practiced, the teacher set the tempo with two wooden batons. He started out with a slower tempo, getting the kids to understand the notes to play. They gradually increased the tempo until they reached the right speed.

In organsiations, we often hit the ground running with expectations to deliver. Going too fast, too early slows down learning. We can make more mistakes, and the unintended consequence is that sometimes it takes longer to get things done. When doing new things, we have to accept that we have to go slow to begin. As we learn and improve, we will get faster.

Servant leadership

There was another teacher in the room who played the piano. This teacher was incredibly quiet and barely said a word. She listened to the orchestra teacher and played the piano, setting the right tone, pace, tempo and providing guidance for the rest of the orchestra.

She did not have the limelight, she sat on the side, behind the piano. She was measured, listened, and supportive.

A servant leader is a good listener and is able to provide a safe and supportive space for their team to create.

A servant leader has humility, and puts the needs of others before their own. They are not driven by a desire for personal power and recognition.

A servant leader is committed to building strong relationships with their teams and works collaboratively to achieve a shared vision.

A servant leader empowers their team members by providing them with the resources, support and guidance they need to achieve their full potential.

A servant leader has compassion and is committed to creating a supportive and nurturing environment.

Have fun

It so happened that, at the time, the Head of Junior School was having a meeting in the room next door. The teacher said to the kids in a softer-than-normal voice. “The Head of Junior School is having a very important meeting in the room next door, so today, if the kids can, they must play as LOUD and as beautifully as possible”, emphasizing the word loud, very loudly. The girls smiled and found it funny, as they thought the teacher was going to ask them to play more softly.

The kids felt happy, engaged, and encouraged. We must have more fun at work. Serious play allows increased creativity, improved synthesis of ideas, helps us connect the dots, and makes us better problem-solvers. Additionally, play reduces our stress levels while making the workplace a little happier.

These lessons from the school orchestra are valuable for anyone looking to improve their personal and professional development. Being passionate, embracing the chaos, self-organizing with direction, tuning your instrument, knowing your role, personal mastery, starting slow and gradually getting faster, servant leadership, and having fun are all essential aspects of achieving success and fulfilment.

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