If this country worked like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, we wouldn’t have an Ebola czar.

Buried among all the stories of quarantines and quarrels in this morning’s news was a review of the Carnegie Hall season opening for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. This orchestra is widely known for performing for decades without a conductor. They don’t have a boss to organize things and tell everyone what to do. Yet, as this morning’s reviewer pointed out, audiences continue to be amazed at “the unanimity of the playing … [and] … the degree of nuance these players achieve in their interpretations” with no conductor.

As described on the orchestra’s website, the radically democratic Orpheus Processis so unique that it’s trademarked. The orchestra has been studied by business schools, such as Harvard and Stanford, and by large companies and non-profit organizations.

The Wall Street Journal no less published one of the best and most explicit descriptions of how the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra makes such wonderful music without a conductor. The players elect an executive committee that picks the concertmaster for each piece. The concertmaster assigns the leaders for each section (strings, percussion, etc.). These leaders form a “core” who rehearse the piece and work out “the broad themes of interpretation, tempo and phrasing.” If this sounds like just another form of hierarchical, top-down organization, think again. When the entire orchestra rehearses the pieces, “each player is encouraged to speak up. Everyone is expected to know the entire score. During rehearsals, players take turns walking out into the auditorium to check for sound and balance and then report back to the ensemble.”

Obviously, there’s division of labor. Violinists do not play the flute, nor vice versa. But string players are expected to be aware that there is a “small time delay in the sound production of wind instruments” when they cue the winds to come in, and “wind players join in on discussions of bowing patterns.” This work process requires musicians “who can work well with others but who can also stand their ground.”

Because each musician takes “responsibility for the moment-to-moment music-making,” the orchestra has an “exceptional sense of rhythm.”  And because the musicians are always listening intently to each other, this bottom-up organization makes for a much more flexible group. When someone makes a mistake (they are human, after all), the group can adjust without having to wait for the conductor to tell them what to do. One violinist tells the story of the time that the pianist skipped the whole introductory section of a Mozart concerto. “I looked around and saw some raised eyebrows, and then the entire orchestra—every last person—jumped to where he was and finished the piece. The pianist wasn’t even aware of it.”

Kǒngzǐ (aka Confucius) is usually associated with the cumbersome organization and processes of the Chinese imperial bureaucracy. But, like many great teachers, his original insights became buried under layers and layers of commentary and factional use of his thinking among the layers and layers of bureaucrats. With this in mind, and in the context of how the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra works so well without a conductor, it is appropriate to recall that Confucius praises the emperor Shun for doing nothing:

The Master said: ‘If anyone has managed to rule by doing nothing, surely it was Shun. And how did he do so much by doing nothing? He just sat reverently facing south, that’s all.’ (Lúnyǔ xv.5, Hinton 172)

For the Daoist, not-doing means opening into processes that unfold spontaneously, but as they are what they are. For the Confucian, not-doing puts us in the right place in “the web of social responsibilities that bind a society together.” (Hinton xxvii, 247) By being in the right place we let the “weave of human community” continue “its self-generating process.”

As much as I like the Daoist openness and critique of government interference, at this juncture I think we could do with more of the Confucian sense of social responsibility from the emperor down to the lowest peasant. As I first mentioned in the case of Nancy Snyderman and has unfortunately been demonstrated repeatedly since, we could all do with more loyalty and consideration.  I cannot think of a better example of Confucian loyalty and consideration in practice than the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

One Comment

  1. Truly a human symphony. Its natural when there is just trust and faith in the team member without selfish or self absorbed considerations. You r right about us needing more loyalty and consideration – but these are not admired qualities and individuals who possess them are considered an “aberration”

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