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What makes a good musical leader?

I remember a rehearsal just before getting my first full-time orchestra job in which the conductor suddenly indicated a dramatic increase in tempo. The orchestra didn't catch it immediately, and it was ten or twelve measures before everyone was up to speed.

Flash forward to that evening's concert. We got to the same spot and the conductor hit the gas. I was ready this time: eyes on him, I locked on to his tempo, anticipating that 70+ other musicians on stage would follow me to a successful performance.


Within a fraction of a section, I was ahead of everyone, the conductor was staring at me with a wide-eyed “What are you DOING?!” expression, and he'd slowed his tempo to rejoin the majority of the orchestra, leaving any attentive listener thinking I had gone rogue.

I was confused: I had always heard that the timpanist was supposed to be a leader in the orchestra, the conductor was giving a clear indication which I had followed, and yet somehow it was my fault that the orchestra hadn't followed me?

The qualities that make a good musical leader are seldom discussed, and while this skill can be as challenging to explain as it is to master, there are some principles that I've found helpful in understanding why my early leadership attempts failed and how I could become a greater asset to my colleagues.

1. Be reliable

It can take a little bit of time to earn the trust of your colleagues, and the only way to do so is to be trustworthy. People won't lock into your rhythm if it's imprecise, they won't rely on you for time if you rush or your placement is behind the beat, and they won't adjust their pitch to yours if you're not consistently in tune.

Some of these things can be addressed in the practice room but you can only get feedback on others by talking with colleagues or listening to recordings of yourself with the group.

The better you know and trust your instincts, the more comfortable you'll feel taking charge when necessary, and the more your colleagues trust you as a musician, the more likely they'll be to buy in when those moments occur.

2. Play with authority

I have been fortunate to work with some musicians who became role models as musical leaders. They instinctually knew when to take over and play in a way that made it impossible not to follow them. If there was a lack of clarity either in the ensemble or from a conductor, you could count on them to set a tempo or a character that would get the whole group on the same page.

Playing with authority doesn't necessarily mean playing louder; it could be a byproduct of articulation or the poised placement of a note. The key is to know when your leadership moments are and to step into them with confidence.

3. Make yourself followable

Imagine you're headed to check out a new restaurant, and your friend tells you to get in your car and follow them. The problem is they're bobbing and weaving through traffic, getting way ahead of you, and speeding through about-to-turn-red lights. A better leader in that situation would keep track of where you are and not make sudden or aggressive moves that might make it difficult for you to keep up.

Similarly, if a musician is making too many drastic changes, they're unlikely to be helpful to those around them. If you want to be followed, it may be worth considering these two things:

Average things out. The larger a musical group gets, the less agile it will be. Think of an orchestra like a cruise ship: it turns, accelerates, and stops much more slowly than a smaller craft could. Great orchestral leaders are like a ship's rudder: passengers are likely unaware of its work even as it's guiding them smoothly to their destination.

For example, when a conductor abruptly shows a much faster tempo, that's often best understood as what is going to happen rather than what should already be happening. The best action could be to subtly push the tempo ahead, inviting others to follow you, until the desired speed is reached, spreading the increase over a few beats or bars. Snapping directly to the new tempo, as I did in my example of failed leadership, can be a recipe for chaos. Awareness of how the musicians around you are reacting will be a guide as to how much you can push.

Don't be unpredictable. A feeling of spontaneity can be a critical component of a great performance. That said, there's a difference between playing with flexibility and making it impossible for your colleagues to guess your next move. Someone once told me, “If you listen to great musicians, you can tell exactly when they're going to play their next note.” It's not because they're boring or uncreative - they're leading you; the sensation of freedom comes from the way the entirety of the line is crafted rather than from the unexpected placement of a note or two. (Even if a musical moments is meant to be surprising, the surprise should be for the audience rather than our colleagues!)

Embracing this is helpful both when accompanying others and in making musical decisions when you are being accompanied.

4. Be flexible, not stubborn

A misconception about leadership is that it involves staking out a position and then not backing down. This can spell disaster in a musical situation (and likely most others).

When you're performing in an ensemble you're either together with everyone else or you're wrong. Sticking to your guns – alone – because you feel you're right is unlikely to turn out well.

For example, there's often a fine line between helping to combat a tendency for a passage to rush and allowing some time and space for a musical line to "breathe." You'll have to depend on clues from the musicians around you to determine which choice to make. Much of this is trial and error on an extremely small scale during a rehearsal. You're feeling out your colleagues for non-verbal and perhaps even subconscious feedback.

I think of this as taking very small samples to get as much information as possible without being disruptive to the work everyone else is doing. If you think you spot an opportunity to lead and, after a beat or two of trying to seize the reins, realize that no one is coming with you, it's probably best to back off. Likewise, if it seems like a critical mass of your colleagues are already on the same page, it's best to lock in with them. Did slightly adjusting your placement in a full-orchestra chord the last time result in the orchestra adapting to you and being more together this time, or were the results worse? Once you have the answer, you can proceed accordingly.

If you find that your "leadership" attempts are bringing rehearsals to a halt or earning you nasty looks from the front of the orchestra, some work may be needed on this final principle:

5. Be a great listener

This may seem counterintuitive – if you're leading, shouldn't people be listening to you? – but the common thread running through the ideas listed above is awareness.

Playing in an orchestra is like being in a super-charged chamber ensemble. Not only are there many more voices to listen to, but communication happens on several levels: we need to play together with our section, but our section needs to connect to the larger ensemble as well. You're often playing together with someone who you can't see or who is unable to see you and the sheer number of musicians involved means the volume of available data informing your musical decisions can get overwhelming if you don't know where to direct your attention when.

Doing your homework will help. Score study and consulting recordings will make it easier to pick the most helpful information and quickly recognize whether or not things are fitting together as they should.

A keen understanding of what's happening throughout the orchestra will also help you make better decisions about when to lead and when to relinquish that role. Different members of the orchestra will take over at various times during a performance, and it's critical to be aware of who everyone may be following at any moment.


None of this is about imposing your will on your colleagues or about showing everyone else how right you are. Instead, it's about being a better collaborator, and about finding the most effective way to do your job to achieve better outcomes for your ensemble collectively.

Like many other aspects of being a musician, growing as a leader is an evolution: you'll make some choices that work out well and others that don't. You're never done with this stuff, though the frequency of your good choices will hopefully improve over time. Every situation is an opportunity to hone your instincts, build your knowledge, and add to a bank of experiences you can draw from so that each performance can be a little bit better than the one before.•

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