Orchestra or jazz band? - Preparing you for the future of work.

Orchestra or jazz band?

Many companies are experiencing great difficulty coping with the rapid and disruptive changes they’re encountering in the world of work.

The main reason is that they’re performing as an orchestra when they need to perform like a jazz band.

I can still clearly remember the first time I experienced a live classical music concert performed by a live orchestra. I was completely transfixed by the sounds that emanated from the collection of instruments played by the highly skilled, highly professional musicians under the baton of the conductor.

The musicians in an orchestra are highly talented, highly trained, highly disciplined and highly competent. Most of them can “sight read” music, which means they can play any music that’s put in front of them and require minimal rehearsal before a performance to iron out a few technicalities. During the performance, every musician has their music score in front of them and responds to every facial expression and hand and body movement of the conductor, who has the full score with every musician’s part in front of him or her.

Generally speaking, orchestras with fewer than 50 musicians are referred to as chamber orchestras and considered “small”. Full size symphony or philharmonic orchestras feature between 50 and 100 musicians.

Up until 20 or so years ago, there were regular classical music concerts performed by live orchestras. Today, you’ll have to look long and hard to find classical music concerts performed by full orchestras.     


Because the world – and the world of music – has moved to a different space. For one, a century or so ago, classical music was pretty much the only kind of music that the financially comfortable were exposed to. Another reason is that full size orchestras are considered too unwieldy to drag around when one can perform music with a lot fewer musicians – like in a jazz band.

There are a number of similarities between orchestras and jazz bands – they both have highly competent musicians – but there are also a number of significant differences.

Many jazz musicians, like their classical counterparts, can read music, but almost all jazz musicians have something that classical musicians don’t have and, even if they had, would not be allowed to use it.

That ”something” is improvisation skills. Improvisation means you are able to make something up as you go along, and that’s what jazz musicians can do that classical musicians can’t or aren’t allowed to do. You see, classical musicians are trained to play what’s put in front of them and they know how to do that very well because they can sight read very well.

Regardless of whether jazz musicians can or can’t read music, they DO have an excellent understanding of the way music works. They understand the many different scales in every key. They know what chords apply to which keys, and they also know and use a multitude of different chord formations which make their music unique and interesting. Then, too, they not only understand timing (as do classical musicians), but they also understand syncopated timing which gives jazz music its distinct character and appeal.  

With their knowledge of scales and chords, jazz musicians can take pieces of music to new heights with their own interpretation of the music while orchestral musicians may not deviate from the music in front of them.

Companies who still operate in an old paradigm perform like orchestras. They have one leader (the conductor) who makes sure that everybody does what they’re told to do. I repeat … what they’re told to do – as per the agreed strategy (music score). There’s no scope for personal expression. Not so in a jazz band. For one, most of them don’t have or need conductors. They’re much smaller than orchestras (you’ll never find a 100 piece jazz band) and everybody knows what the key, chords, tempo and style of each song is and gets on with it. Jazz musicians routinely use their understanding of the rules of music, not the music score, to produce inspiring music. They give one another space to express themselves by allowing each musician to take a music break when each musician takes a solo with their instrument while the others play a supportive role, referred to as “backing” in the business.

Do you see where this is going?

In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, one fixed strategy will not work. There is no longer a clear highway on which the CEO (the driver of the bus, as Jim Collins called him in his book Good to Great) steers the company (the orchestra) to where he/she thinks they should go.

Today’s leaders have to be highly collaborative and less prescriptive. During an orchestral performance, everybody – musicians and audience – knows who the conductor is. In a jazz band, the musicians know who the leader is but the audience doesn’t necessarily. And the jazz band leader leads in a very different way, but still succeeds in getting the jazz band to produce inspiring music through musicians who play with passion, unity and skill to achieve their goal of entertaining their audience.

Outdated companies are performing like orchestras playing what’s on the score and nothing else then wondering why they’re losing customers and market share. If you want to adapt to the new world of work and produce something unique that grips and inspires people, stop performing like an orchestra and start performing like a jazz band!

For more information on my “Innovative Leadership for Executive Teams” programme in which I use my classical and jazz musician skills to show executive teams how to make the shift from orchestra to jazz band, email me at alan at hrfuture dot net.

Alan Hosking is the publisher of HR Future magazine, www.hrfuture.net, @HRFuturemag, and helps business leaders learn to lead with purpose and poise.


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