Raising energy, conflict and why learning never stops

Professor Gernot Schulz tells Work. magazine how encouraging a strong sense of shared responsibility in a team can help conflict manage itself.


When I said I wanted to play the violin my teachers thought I was crazy, and urged me to do a ‘proper’ job. But I knew I had music in my blood. I was 12 when a critical moment in my life occurred. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra was playing at my local concert hall and I was desperate to see them. Tickets had long sold out, but I knew someone who worked there, and I persuaded him to let me hide in a secret place. I still remember every moment. I knew then that this was the career for me. I’ve been a freelancer all my life, as that’s what working as a conductor really is.

Conductors are often thought of as the very worst types of leaders – tyrannical dictators, who must be followed precisely at all costs. This is far from the truth. All the things that are important for a performance – presence, sparkle, brilliance – are things that can’t be commanded – and I would say the same holds true in organisations today. I have to create the right conditions so that players ‘feel’ these feelings deeply from within. My role is actually about transformational leadership. Mostly I’m there to ‘move’ my players emotionally. Orchestras in fact have totally transparent cultures; we have a clear error management culture. We rehearse and, if we make mistakes, that’s fine, because that’s why we rehearse.

On a lifetime of learning 

People think conducting is a repetitive act, where you literally ‘go through the motions’ time and time again. But there can be no presenteeism in this job. To conduct is to accept learning never stops. Even if I’m conducting a piece of music I’ve led 50, 100 times before, I still want to find a new piece of detail each time. I try to go as deep into a score as I can, to try and put myself in the same mental state as the composer. A score isn’t as detailed as people think. An instruction for a crescendo is just that. You need to work out if it’s a short, sharp one, or one that grows. Conducting is 80 per cent homework, 19 per cent practice and just 1 per cent playing.

On work’s most underrated skill 

I think the most important job I have is to be a ‘perceiver’ – of people’s energy. If energy goes down I have to raise it; sometimes I have to raise just one section of the orchestra, other times all of it. That’s what everyone at work needs to do too. But what I also do is empower others to be perceivers. If they can pick up on the vibes of those around them, and think something needs to change, I say do it yourself, because you know the desired outcome too.

On managing conflict 

At-work conflict is just as common in creative sectors as it is anywhere else – if not more so. I once had two players who literally couldn’t stand the sight of each other. However, once the curtain came down, they played exquisitely. That’s because they understood that they were working towards a common outcome. When you have a strong sense of shared responsibility, conflict sort of manages itself. 

On equality 

Statistics show female participation – as players but also as conductors – is shockingly low. But while it can often feel like progress hasn’t been made, it has. I can remember playing at venues where women weren’t even invited to be in the audience. Part of the problem is young people nowadays wanting other, more ‘safe’ careers, which affects who applies to music schools. So where you still see that more than 50 per cent of trumpet, or trombone, players are men, you’re already at a disadvantage to make your orchestras equal. But music equality waxes and wanes – some years there are more men, and some years there are more women.

About Gernot Schulz

An orchestra conductor and former member of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Schulz was an assistant to Leonard Bernstein and Georg Solti. He is now a sought-after guest conductor for orchestras including the Seoul Radio Orchestra and the Budapest Philharmonic, and is honorary professor at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Hamburg.

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