The one word that can make or break you as a conductor and leader

There is one word that immediately creates division, disconnection and a power imbalance within our ensembles. And we use it so often on the podium, we often have no awareness we're saying it.

Think back to the best moments you've experienced on the other side of the podium, as a player or singer. How did you feel?

United with others. Part of something bigger than yourself. Giving your all alongside your colleagues.


It's what makes ensemble music-making so exciting, joyful and life-affirming.

Now think back to the worst time you've spent inside an ensemble. How did you feel then?

Bored? Unengaged? Frustrated? Victimised? Bullied? Out of your depth? Ostracised? Shamed?

What do these have in common?


Disconnection from the leader, and disconnection from the other musicians.

As conductors we set the cultural tone of our ensembles

We are significantly (though not wholly) responsible for whether people experience connection or disconnection in our rehearsals and performances.

There is one word that immediately creates division, disconnection and a power imbalance within our ensembles. And we use it so often on the podium, we often have no awareness we're saying it.


"I need you to play less here" says you're asking the musicians to do it for YOU personally. Not for the good of the ensemble, or the music, or the audience, or the composer, but you. It sets a tone that the purpose of the ensemble members is to please your personal tastes.

"I need more trombone"

"I want it more staccato"

"I can't hear the melody"

All these statements put all the decision-making power and responsibility on the conductor. They rob the musicians of the opportunity to make musical decisions and judgements themselves.

It positions the conductor as the central fount of all knowledge and expertise.

I statements are fundamentally disempowering to the ensemble.

So what's the alternative?


"We need need less violin here" brings the ensemble's needs into the picture.

Following it up with why will give the violins even more perspective: "...because we need to protect the cello line here".  This empowers them to become aware of the cello line, understand and manage their relationship to it.

"We need..." implies that everyone is responsible for and part of creating the music. We are doing this together. We are making this music. And We need it to be great.

If you're looking to mix it up even more with your leadership language, try:

"The music needs us to..."

"The composer wants us to..."

"The audience needs to hear..."

These also incorporate the collective 'us'. Furthermore they set an agenda that the ensemble has a responsibility that extends beyond the conductor and each other to the composer, the music and the audience.

It enlarges the circle of who's important beyond just the conductor, out to the ensemble, and through time and space to include composer at their desk in the past to the audience in your performance space in the future.

I'm eternally grateful to the conducting teacher, John Hopkins, who taught me this important lesson very early in my conducting journey. He demanded we use 'we' and never 'I', and as a result I feel an almost allergic reaction whenever I hear conductors doing the opposite.

Now you know, you won't be able to 'un-see' this fundamental difference in how one word influences the entire dynamic of rehearsals and relationships.

Want to empower your ensemble even more?

Scrap the instructions and statements altogether and ask questions instead. Every time we give an instruction we have to ask ourselves:

Instead of saying what I hear, could I ask the musicians what they hear?

Instead of giving a fix, could I ask the musicians if they have a solution to try?

The more we can hand responsibility and control to the ensemble, the faster they learn concepts they can apply to every piece, rather than us giving endless spot fixes that don't result in long-lasting, transferrable learning.

Be a 'we' leader

Leadership is about relationships - our relationships with the team we're fortunate to lead, and our team's relationships with each other.

It's our job to nurture and build culture and positive working relationships within our ensembles and organisations.

By scrapping 'I' and leading with 'we', we set the expectation that each person in the room is a valuable and important contributor to the music making, and that together we're all responsible for making something special.


Ready to practice, learn and implement more lessons like this? Leadership language is just one of the topics we'll be covering in the upcoming Online Conducting School from 2-5 July.

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