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Roger Nierenberg ’69 with his orchestra. Nierenberg sees a connection between orchestrating music and orchestrating business.

July 17, 2002:

Music as metaphor
Roger Nierenberg ’69 teaches leadership skills from the conductor's podium

Maestro Roger Nierenberg’69, music director of the Stamford Symphony Orchestra, and conductor laureate of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, is at home in concert halls around the world. But unlike most orchestra conductors, he wields his baton in the marketplace as well. Nierenberg founded the Music Paradigm, which he describes as "an innovative, interactive learning experience for organizations." He imparts management savvy to business leaders by exploring the similarities between business organizations and symphony orchestras.

He invented the Music Paradigm "as a means of expanding the audience for my orchestra, both in Florida and Connecticut. I hoped to attract greater interest and support in the community for symphonic music, and that remains one of my most important purposes.

"After having created it, in 1994-95, I found, somewhat to my astonishment, that it was a very potent business tool. It grew slowly, by tiny increments. I, and others, began to discover the power of music as metaphor."

Nierenberg’s burgeoning client list now includes the Bank of America, Clairol, Mattel, the Boston Consulting Group, the New York Times, the BBC, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Lockheed Martin, Merck & Co., Sears, Deutsche Bank, and Starbucks.

Here’s how it works. A group of managers is invited to a meeting. When they walk in they find, not rows of chairs facing a screen or board and a lecturer prepared to talk at them for an hour, but a full symphony orchestra, in formal attire. The orchestra on deck will be a local ensemble, whether the event be in Phoenix or Barcelona. The participants do not sit as an audience, but are invited to sit among the musicians. Maestro Nierenberg, in white tie and tails, takes the podium.

After a short concert segment, he points out the similarities between an orchestra and any other organization: Both have divisions and teams. Then he leads the participants through various exercises, designed to model teamwork and leadership.
"I ask the participants to watch any particular musician, and tell us what they see. They will say something, like ‘Her fingers move so fast!’ This leads to a discussion of technique. It’s not pleasant to work to improve technique, but it is very pleasant to play in tune without errors. You put up with the hard work because you get results."

If an organization is having problems with its divisions holding to the same standards, he may illustrate that issue by "asking the wind section to tune down a quarter tone. It takes about 30 seconds to a minute for the wind section to accommodate to its new pitch standard, and then they play well together. However, when I ask the whole orchestra to play together, it sounds horrible." Nierenberg points out, "We have a room full of professional people here, each one doing an outstanding job; yet the result is a disaster. The reason is, they are holding to different standards."

Nierenberg typically beckons several participants to the podium so that they can experience the orchestra not only from the perspective of an individual musician, but also from the perspective of the conductor.
"There is access to more information [on the podium]. When the orchestra plays, you hear the total effect," says Nierenberg. He reminds his participants that, "Each of you occupies a podium. You realize that the information accessible to us here may not be accessible to people out there."

The podium, he says, "is all about leadership and its responsibility." He likes to demonstrate the effect of different styles of leadership. He may conduct very loosely, leaving the orchestra unsure of what to do. He may then control the orchestra strictly; participants can hear that the music is now technically perfect, but sounds mechanical.

The conductor, Nierenberg points out, "doesn’t hold in his hand the instruments that make the sound, but creates a space in which that sound can exist. You have a vision, and the organization takes it up and makes it happen."
Although businesses and orchestras are not exactly alike, Nierenberg believes that the Music Paradigm "provides an opportunity for an organization to look at itself in the mirror in a completely nonthreatening way. It invites people to question their assumptions about organizational issues in an atmosphere that is nonconfrontational."

Nierenberg, who began playing the trumpet at age nine, started composing a year later. After concentrating in composition in Princeton's music department, he earned a diploma in conducting from the Mannes College of Music, and a master’s degree in conducting from the Juilliard School. Stamford Symphony director since 1981, he also directed the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra from 1984-98; from 1974-84 he led New Jersey’s Pro Arte Chorale.

He has appeared as guest conductor with many of the nation’s major orchestras, including the Detroit, St. Louis, and San Diego symphonies, as well as at the American Opera Center, the Dallas Opera, and the Mostly Mozart Festival in Lincoln Center. Further afield, he has conducted the London Philharmonic, the Czech Radio Orchestra at the Prague Spring Festival, the Shanghai Radio Orchestra, and the National Orchestra of Mexico. The Music Paradigm was the subject of a broadcast on "The Money Programme," the BBC’s financial and current affairs television program.

To Maestro Nierenberg, the satisfactions of The Music Paradigm (what at first seemed to him "an improbable idea") are several: "Working with many different orchestras (50, so far); introducing great music to people who hadn’t ever really felt it, and seeing them deeply affected; and feeling that I am doing some good for musicians by helping orchestras build new links to their communities."

By Caroline Moseley

Caroline Moseley is a frequent contributor to PAW.