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The Orpheus Effect Revisited

March 27, 2018

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is that 46-year-old organizational prodigy known for collaborative leadership. Musicians reach a consensus on repertoire; rotate creative responsibilities; hold a voice in administration and marketing; nominate and approve new members; and play without a conductor.

Early on there was a rumor that members didn’t like conductors and so didn’t have one, as though an act of defiance, a way to link revolutions in the classical music world to, say, the release of the Pentagon Papers. But that was nonsense; many of the musicians were themselves conductors. No, the reason they chose to play without a conductor was, in the words of Ronnie Bauch, a violinist and “musical artist” with Orpheus since 1975, “because we saw the lack as a way to extend a chamber music philosophy, and because the lack of a conductor has an unusual and very appealing effect.” 

Put another way, a conductorless orchestra — and particularly one running on democratic principles — offers a rare sense of freedom and accomplishment. Such is the challenge of Orpheus. The requirement for members is not merely a matter of instrumental expertise but the willingness and instinct to lead or follow on a dime. In a word, the Orpheus business model is dialogue. It’s obligation and opportunity met not with decree but consensus, along with trust and comraderie — the founders all lived within 10 blocks of each other. But there’s something else here, something counterintuitive. 

You’d think that to make this work you’d need a certain kind of person, and that’s true.  One wrong addition and the whole organization may be compromised. This is the ultimate team sport; in tone and spirit not unlike Frisbee or basketball. But the wrong hire is not the person unwilling to scold their ego or immure their ambition. Quite the opposite. This is a system — without auditions — where the goal is to find someone with ego as needed; along with steady confidence and dependable fearlessness. Because, after all, Orpheus is always in the midst of experimentation; the meek-willed, even virtuosos, need not apply.

The Trouble With Democracy

The 24-member, Manhattan-based orchestra has an annual budget of between $3.5 and $4.5 million, depending on travel commitments. All members receive local 802 union rates; a rotating concertmaster gets slightly more to manage additional administrative duties. Orpheus’s horizontal structure has inspired the likes of A Far Cry in Boston and One Found Sound in San Francisco, as well as The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, ensembles at Juilliard and Rice University, and the National Orchestral Institute in Maryland.

Moreover, the “Orpheus Process,” as it’s known, has found applications outside of music — in start-ups, universities, spy agencies, hospitals, leadership-training companies, and IBM. The common denominator is knowledge-based organizations. At Harvard’s School of Education, Professor James Honan teaches various leadership theories. The Orpheus Process, he told us recently, can be very helpful in certain situations and organizations, “if you really want people to own their work.”

That suggests an interesting insight into the nature of democracy these days, especially for the gaunt and fragile looking republic in the mirror. The question is always how do you keep democratization going, what with the endless need to discuss, convince, cajole and decide?

And for a musician, how do you go on demanding — and getting — fearlessness and relentless confidence, from yourself and others? How does feedback work exactly? In sum, how do you withstand the temptation to seek solace from the benevolent dictator? After all, you might never abide the rages of Toscanini or Szell, but what about the persuasiveness of Leonard Bernstein?  Or, a generation apart, the charm of Gustavo Dudamel?

Notes From a Prodigal Son

One of the founding members of Orpheus is Donald Palma, a noted chamber musician and double bassist, a Juilliard graduate, and now on the faculty of the New England Conservatory (NEC). He’s also a former music director for the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. Occasionally, he still plays with Orpheus and when we spoke he was off to join them at Carnegie Hall.

After all these years, he says the orchestra has not changed much: “Nothing is new. The organization is more streamlined; more efficient; we don’t need as much rehearsal time.” He added that in the early days everyone wanted a voice in interpretation; now the group has, for the most part, settled into agreement on most pieces. “People know when it’s time to speak out and when not.”

Shortly after the orchestra was founded in 1972, Palma, then 24, left to take a chair with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He has told the story many times of how it felt to be "artistically disenfranchised." “I just hated it. I didn't like to be told what to do all the time, being treated like I wasn't really worth anything other than to be a good soldier and just sit there and do as I was told. I felt powerless to affect things, particularly when they were not going well. I felt frustrated, and there was nothing I could seem to do to help make things better.”

He promptly returned to Manhattan and settled down at Orpheus. These days Palma hosts an Orpheus-style chamber ensemble at NEC that requires students to stay committed for one year. He keeps his coaching to a minimum so that musicians can work through their experience on their own. “Sometimes,” he said the other day, “it’s not that important whether the phrase goes this way or that. The important thing is that you’ve thought about it and have an opinion about it.”

He added that the Orpheus structure naturally attracts “real musicians,” which he defined as those whose soul-happiness is to be involved with music at the highest level. “Let’s say you’re looking to build a career with a string quartet. You have to choose very carefully to find people who are like-minded, who are great musicians and dedicated to illuminating performances. If you have just one person in the group who isn’t that way, then everything fails. Of course, not everyone is able to function in this kind of democratic environment; not everyone can take criticism, for example, or possess the physical stamina to lead.”

Orpheus doesn’t hold auditions. Members are recommended, invited to rehearse, and if they fit in, and if there’s an opening, then a vote is taken. The vote need not be unanimous but invariably the feeling among members is clear. Palma’s notion is that you need a cross-section of people who meet the basic demand for commitment and, at the same time, come with neither a competitive nature, or a profit motive.

“I don’t think anybody becomes a true artist with the idea of profit. If you can sustain a respectable lifestyle that should be enough. But what does a ‘respectable lifestyle’ mean? Certainly, in San Francisco it means something different than in most other places. When we started out in the early 70s, Manhattan was actually an inexpensive place to live, and so we had a lot of time to create the ensemble. Of course, to do that now is much more difficult.”

Good Evening Sir, May I Take Your Ego?

Ronnie Bauch, the violinist with Orpheus since 1975, is the creator of the “Orpheus Process demonstration.” He goes about the world explaining the virtues and applications of Orpheus to corporations and universities, from Wharton to Cal. The essence of his pitch is that horizontally structured organizations can often do better than hierarchically structured organizations. The difference is in realizing potential.

“In a traditionally structured orchestra, you’re not using 75 percent of your potential. You’ve got people with incredible training and decades of experience. How do you maximize that potential?  How do you keep them motivated and empowered and feeling enfranchised?  This is what the Orpheus process does: it keeps people engaged.”

One aspect of engagement is the right — even the obligation — to comment and criticize, to have an opinion. Which leads to the matter of feedback.

“How does the Orpheus process have relevance outside of music? It’s about how you take criticism, how you take feedback, how you give feedback. In any organization, you have conflict but particularly in a hierarchy like a hospital where the nurse is not allowed to tell the doctor in the operating room, ‘hey, you’re cutting off the wrong arm.’

For Ronnie Bauch, what was, and remains, revolutionary about Orpheus, is that the musicians give each other permission to be critical. “We do things in rehearsal that if you were in the San Francisco Symphony or the New York Philharmonic, you’d be fired in 30 seconds.”

He described a moment during a recent concert in Pennsylvania. “This was a program we’ve been doing on tour, and I went up to the flutist and said there were certain parts that were really out of tune and she said, ‘ok, where specifically?’ And we talked about it.  Now if I’d said that to my stand partner in a conventional orchestra, I’d be taken up on charges. And just imagine if you went outside your section; imagine a string player commenting on the play of a wind player. You’re just not allowed to do that kind of thing. With Orpheus it’s not about the individual, it’s about giving the best possible performance.”

“A Compelling Direction”

J. Richard Hackman was the renowned Harvard professor of social and organizational psychology. He died in 2013 and his views on the Orpheus effect are one reason Professor Honan includes the idea in his courses.  Honan noted how Orpheus players seemed to own their work.

In Hackman’s landmark book, Leading Teams, Setting the Stage for Great Performances (2002), he proposed that the conditions in which teams most flourish include “a compelling direction, an enabling team structure, a supportive organizational context, and expert team coaching.” Simple enough; however, the obstacle is getting people in an organization with a strong enough and an informed enough conviction to do these things regardless of the opposition.

And so you wonder why the Orpheus style isn’t adopted by larger orchestras. Is it scale or the way the core group of musicians in Orpheus influences team dynamics? Or is the encrusted nature of that particular culture?

Hackman suggested to several symphonies — in the spirit of Orpheus — that principal musicians, section leaders in effect, meet with the conductor before the first full rehearsal and offer input in how a particular piece might be approached. A modest proposal thought Hackman. 

“... Something worth thinking about if not experimenting with. But absolutely no one nibbled. It would violate the labor contract I was told. Conductors would never stand for it. Players would resist. So large orchestras continue as they always have, playing great music to be sure, but doing so in a way that leaves enormous amounts of musical talent unused on the rehearsal stage and sufficing with less engagement and commitment from musicians than they could have.”

Pose the same question nearly 20 years later and not much has changed. Here and there local orchestras may tinker with process, less the philosophy of hierarchy. Yet of all the performance organizations, certainly the big city orchestra remains one of the most resistant to change. One result for musicians, beyond lost potential, is accepting a variation of the Great Man Theory of Leadership — call it the Weinstein effect — where the heart of the matter is a sense of entitlement, where title assures privilege, and where fear of losing your job insures compliance, and sometimes perhaps even brief feelings of loyalty.

Part 2 explores other applications of the Orpheus style along with ways it may affect the empowerment of women in music.

Mark MacNamara, a writer and journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, has written for such publications as NautilusSalonThe Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair. From time to time, his pieces in San Francisco Classical Voice also appear in ArtsJournal.com.  Noteworthy examples include a piece about Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast; a profile of sound composer Pamela Z and an essay on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. MacNamara recently won several awards in the 2018 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards presented by the San Francisco Press Club.  His website is macnamband.com.