Sunday, August 27,1999
Friday Life section: Page 2

Conduct yourself well

What can a conductor teach corporate chieftains about leadership? Plenty, judging from the enthusiastic response to maestro Ben Zander's seminar

CHARISMA sells and travels - world wide, Ben Zander demostrated this very potent gift at a seminar on Wednesday night, when he stirred up his audience of 500 business and arts community leaders and had them eating out of his hand and singing their lungs out by the end of the two-hour session.

The seminar at the Ritz Carlton Millenia Hotel was organised by the Ministry Of Manpower Academy, together witht he National University Of Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Using, the orchestra to work out a Beethoven overture and Brahm's Symphony No. 1, Zander showed how some out-of-the-box thinking could transform what would otherwise be a competent effort into one that was carried out with gusto and passion, and how it could be fun for all.

It was not all neat and tidy and safe, but why should it be? That was the whole point of his exercise.

The show-and-tell lessons were, of course, meant to be strategies for the workplace.

They sounded like simple, commonsensical truths, but in this age of jargon and techno-speak, they sure could use the showbiz pizzazz of someone like him to drive home.

He was part huckster, part strip-club barker, part showman and part call-and-response preacher.

He was also a master manipulator. But in the end, he was clearly the consummate conductor who could, in one short session, persuade those who do not know music enough why an orchestra must absolutely have a conductor.

Here are some of his points.


THE leader tells his people the story.

Zander had the NUS Orchestra play Beethoven's Coriolan Overture on its own, which sounded all right to the untrained ear.

Then, he got individual sections to play and he told them — and the audience — the story of Coriolan, the Roman general, who had led the enemy to his own people and was prepared to kill them all.

But at the gate of the castle were his mother and wife, pleading with him not to do it.

The general was torn between anger with his own people who had rejected him, his implacable will to win and the tender pleading of his two women. In the end, he killed himself.

It was also a deaf, anguished Beethoven projecting himself into the story.

When both the orchestra and the audience were clear what the overture was all about, suddenly the music became clearer and a whole range of emotional colours could be seen.


EVERYBODY gets to be heard. For Brahms' Symphony No. I, Zander made the various sections stop playing and start listening to each other.

The string and wind sections were made to play separately and later, together, so as to reinforce the idea of a dialogue.

This meant listening, as well as playing. The orchestra ended up sounding as discernible individual parts in a harmonious whole, as it should be, where previously all the audience could hear was a collective sound.


INDIVIDUALS play (or work) better when made to feel they matter.

In Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, the conductor singled out the oboist and egged him on to play his solo, standing up.

Lim Soon Lee, conductor of the NUS Orchestra, said of the gesture: "By making the player stand up, Zander was making his musical entry important and making him feel important; that he mattered.

"Of course, the oboist ended up playing more musically and passionately."


MAKE the prima donna listen to others. Zander says: "Everybody asks me how I deal with prima donnas, and I tell them — give them more space to sing, and to listen!"

By giving the prima donna a chance to do her own thing and let go, you are also giving her a chance to listen to others, to what they can do.

This, in effect, turn her into a better team-player who can blend her voice with the orchestra.

"The greatest prima donnas — Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland — they didn't just sing, they listened," he says.

"Every moment, they were listening out for the orchestra and responding to the nuances."


THERE is a place for time keepers and controllers.

In a section of the Brahms, Zander got the cellists and bass players, who were keeping time, to see how a certain rigidity on their part could affect adversely the singers, in this case, the string and wind players.

He let the singers loose without the constraints of the time-keepers and observers of rules; let the latter take in the difference in the music; and then made them play together again.

The exercise showed vividly how even though there must be time-keepers and makers of rules, they can afford to be less rigid, to let go and place their trust in the singers.

True harmony comes when members of the team are happy playing their music — as opposed to working.


SO MUCH for the talk and demo. But is all this not just common sense, albeit packaged with slick showmanship?

Lim, for one, finds Zander's new angles of approach highly interesting, but a bit on the showy side.

"It would be great if he could do more rehearsing and performing instead of talking through the workshop. I think it would take a long time to learn a new work if we did this in every rehearsal."

Then, there was the question of finding order in the sudden chaos of energy that was released.

One thing which perturbed the orchestra members, as well as Lim, was the lack of a steady pulse in the tempo.

Says Loh Kim Swee, 23, a chemical-engineering student and horn-player with the orchestra: "There is no beat in Mr Zander's conducting, so it can be confusing to follow, although he is very expressive.

"Mr Lim had actually rehearsed the pieces with us before, so it wasn't so difficult to go along. If we had started straight, it would have been really bad."

Lim adds: "I guess it's like a Monet painting. Certain sections are very unclear, but you see the picture when you stand back."

Finally, there is the issue of whether Zander's rah-rah "high" could be sustained the day after—in a real environment.

Says associate professor Victor Savage, head of the geography department at NUS: "There were interesting points, that one should do things with a degree of passion rather than doing them correctly and exactly.

"But I don't know in a situation in management, where there are so many unforeseen factors — whether these theories can be applied.

"It may be nice in theory, but in a live situation these principles might not work."

For some, though, the session was a breakthrough of sorts.

As orchestra member Loh says: "I think what he says makes a lot of sense now — it was definitely inspiring. Before, I was just playing for the sake of practising.

"I think it will last — for how long I don't know. Only time will tell."


Archive 1

21/11/99 Hit me with the Blues

31/10/99 No chaise longue, just chaise daybed

17/10/99 Tell your tale and watch it take off

03/10/99 Goodness, its been 25 years now

19/09/99 To have a productive day off

27/08/99 Conduct yourself well

08/08/99 Liberalisation and the small man

27/06/99 An ATM at home that knows me

30/05/99 Why fleshy hips and jiggly thighs

16/05/99 A dressing-down for the interns

02/05/99 I've the best seat in the house

04/04/99 I may take China, drop my 'mistress'

21/03/99 When the lens harden

07/03/99 Among dreamers and risk-takers

07/03/99 Lives will be transformed

17/01/99 Look for me at the movies

03/01/99 Hardy, hungry, but a cause for worry?

15/11/98 Goodnight Irin, while I think of New Orleans

01/11/98 'Sexy' and 'Cool' is what sells today

04/10/98 Letter from melancholic anonymous

20/09/98 Men behave like sperm

01/08/98 Global is good, but local matters too

26/07/98 4 books I can't renounce

28/06/98 49 and the genes are calling

14/06/98 Beep beep for every kid

31/05/98 Soft goods, soft power rule

10/05/98 Be still--and be open to constant change

05/04/98 Fight heat at home, then soar the skies

15/03/98 Bond Breakers and my brother and sister

15/02/98 If you love her, set her free

18/01/98 Romancing Cambodia