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Marching to a beat besides yours

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Most people think of musicians as creative individualists, but in fact, musicians in a symphony orchestra work within a rigid hierarchy that allows little or no personal expression.

They’re told precisely how to perform, how to sit and stand, when to take breaks. They can wear any color as long as it’s black.

Despite its ironclad structure, the San Francisco Symphony—led by musical director Michael Tilson Thomas—has managed to develop a reputation for creativity and innovation. Here’s how:
  • Musicians are prodded to play for the audience, not for the music director or themselves.

  • They’re given a creative outlet. A new chamber music series outside the regular schedule lets musicians organize and play their own programs.

  • Tilson Thomas established a musical advisory committee in which players meet with the directors and resolve artistic concerns.
“No longer are they just cogs in a 104-person machine,” notes the symphony’s executive director. “Instead, they see themselves as highly trained, highly skilled individuals who have something to say.”

Couldn’t you play a few notes from the San Francisco Symphony’s score?

— Adapted from “San Francisco Symphony: Innovation Despite the Odds,” Knowledge@Wharton,

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