A Defining Trait of Great Musical Leaders

By Miranda Wilson


Working both as a member of professional ensembles and a coach of student ensembles, I often have cause to wonder what might be the single the most important leadership quality in rehearsing and performing ensemble music. In a recent post at my book website, I argued that a good ensemble musician takes personal and group responsibility for mastering the task at hand, offers criticism constructively and accepts it graciously, and seeks to make others in the ensemble sound good.

The more I thought about this, the more I wanted to add one more thing, and I think it’s the most important one.

A great musical leader knows how to adjust to others.

Good musicians show up to rehearsal knowing their part. Great musicians show up knowing the entire score. Great musical leaders know the entire score so well that no matter what happens, they can adjust to whatever situations may arise in rehearsal and performance.

Because here’s the thing: no matter how much you’ve practised and rehearsed, something can go wrong that never went wrong before. I see lots of memes and motivational slogans about practice, like this one:

it can always go wrong
Look! I fixed their meme 😀

Nope nope nope. It can always go wrong.

Sometimes things go wrong for external reasons. Your endpin slipped and you missed an entry. A colleague got such a bad cold that his ears stopped up and he showed up to the concert even though he was shivering and could barely hear.

Sometimes the inexperience, unpreparedness, and anxiety of colleagues are the reasons things go wrong. No one comes out of the womb a perfect musician, but the fact is that some people are simply better than others, and unless you’re Yo Yo Ma you likely have to play regularly with musicians who aren’t as skilled as you. (Then again, everyone is less skilled than Yo Yo Ma, so maybe he isn’t exempt either.) People of any skill level can get stage fright, but it’s people who are less experienced or less prepared who are more likely to completely choke under pressure.

When this happens, it isn’t the low-skill musicians who should be able to fix the problem. It’s up to the high-skill ones to adjust and adapt. The fact that mistakes happen isn’t the noteworthy thing here, it’s being able to recover from them that counts. Part of being the more skilled musician is knowing how to adjust and move on.

I can think of times in my career when I rescued colleagues from mistakes. Once, in the performance of a recitative in a Baroque oratorio, the harpsichordist with whom I was playing the continuo line suddenly went double speed, throwing the vocal soloist into a panic. In confusion, the harpsichordist stopped. I motioned to the singer to keep singing the recitative, because I knew when to come in. And when I did, the harpsichordist could see and hear my pitch and start playing again.

Other times, I was the colleague who needed rescuing. When I was two months postpartum, two friends asked me to perform in a chamber recital. (I realize now that I could have said no, but at the time I was desperate to prove that motherhood hadn’t turned me into a slacker. New mothers, please be nicer to yourselves than I was!) I was underslept and exhausted, and this slowed down my mental and physical reflexes.

One very modern piece on the program had a long passage of complicated rhythm, a thing that has always been one of the most challenging aspects of musicianship for me. I needed a lot of extra help in rehearsal to get the tricky section down. The night of the concert, I was even more bleary-eyed than usual, and in the middle of the troublesome passage I went completely blank, forgot everything, and started counting at half speed.

My heart stopped.

I knew that I’d done something wrong, but my slower-than-usual brain couldn’t figure out how on earth to fix it. I was flat-out lost. I figured there was nothing for it but start again at the place I’d left off and hope the others would rescue me. My two colleagues, hearing and instantly understanding what I’d done, both simultaneously jumped back two measures and “caught” me. Thanks to their leadership, we didn’t have to stop. No one in the audience knew anything was amiss.

(On both occasions, it seemed as if time slowed down and I was moving in slow motion. An eerie almost-calm seemed to take over. Sometimes performance anxiety helps you that way.)
In contrast — and it pains me to admit this — there have been occasions when I was a prideful jerk. I knew someone else had miscounted or come in wrong, and had to let everyone know about it by rolling my eyes, sighing heavily, and playing extremely loudly to show my colleagues and the audience how great I thought I was. I’m not proud that I’ve sometimes been that person. If I can offer one piece of advice to anyone, it’s this: don’t be that person.

(Click here to read my essay on how I learned not to be a jerk.)

And yet there are a lot of jerks around. We all have the story of the person at the gig who decided they were the “correct” one and everyone else was wrong and should adjust to them, and accordingly blasted away oblivious to the needs and nuances of the situation. I recently sat wincing and cringing through a student performance of a piece in which it’s easy to get lost, and in which the person playing the moving line got a beat off from the person playing the bassline. The person who’d miscounted was obviously panicking, but the person on the bassline stuck immovably to what was “right,” visibly sneering, refusing to rescue their colleague.

That is not being a good leader. A good leader adjusts. Always.

Is it fair that the better you get, the more you have to strive to be the fixer and the bigger person even when it was someone else’s mistake? No. Is it easy to control your annoyance at lesser musicians? No. The humility required to back down from being “right” is a hard lesson to learn. It’s a bit like turning the other cheek. It puts me in mind of a line from W. H. Auden: “If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me.”

Adjusting to the needs of others is, after all, a kind of love.


2 thoughts on “A Defining Trait of Great Musical Leaders

  1. Excellent as always and so very timely for me. Yesterday, the day you posted this, I coached a cello 4tet in the morning on listening to each other to find the time (rather than tapping your foot and thinking you alone have the right beat). And I told them how our perceptions change when we have some rests; that our brain may perceive the tempo differently when we’re not actually playing. Then in the afternoon I joined 2 other members of my usual string 4tet to work with a different 1st for a charity concert. This lady tapped her foot while we played, counted out loud at times, and actually entered one beat early after her bar’s rest telling me I had slowed down. We have to make music, make art, not fix a car or create some perfect equation, and that requires empathy and respect for all participants.


    1. Murray, yes! The tapping foot is one of my pet peeves. I always feel that keeping good time should come from within, not from the foot. Just yesterday I was (affectionately) teasing a foot-tapping student that she was doing a My Little Pony impersonation…


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