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June 4, 2015

Stanford student group reshapes music-making hierarchy

Twenty-four musicians experiment with collaborative leadership in their new conductorless ensemble, SCOr.

By Robin Wander

The Stanford Collaborative Orchestra works without a conductor to tap into the full creative potential of every musician in the undergraduate ensemble. (Photo: Allison Semrad)

The goal was to create an opportunity for students to develop their skills and become better communicators, listeners and facilitators who will apply what they've learned to future personal and professional settings. These are not business school students, but they are entrepreneurial, and they are experimenting with an alternative organizational model, albeit in the music arena, not the boardroom.

Twenty-four undergraduates make up the student-run Stanford Collaborative Orchestra (SCOr), a symphonic ensemble employing a democratic model of collaborative leadership in an orchestral setting. By tapping into the full creative potential of every musician, SCOr's mission is to engage in a novel process of music-making to deliver dynamic performances as an orchestra of the students, by the students, for the students.

With early expert advice and financial support, plus recruitment throughout the student body, this startup student group is poised to move forward next year and beyond. The members will conduct an open forum discussion before the end of this academic year to talk about exploring group identity and establishing protocols for standard processes like recruitment and repertoire selection for next year.

Linda Yu, one of the SCOr founders, reflects on the whirlwind launch of the group. "Perhaps what mattered more than our performance in May was what we learned this past quarter. We implemented various leadership models and found that some worked for us, while others didn't. The way we ran our last rehearsal was already more efficient than our first. There are still so many ways for us to grow, but I think we can be proud of the progress we've made in such a short amount of time."

Inspired by Orpheus

Peninsula neighbors since high school and now classmates at Stanford, Stephen Koo, Jeffrey Kwong and Yu are three founding members of SCOr. They were inspired to form a music ensemble after learning about the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble that rotates musical leadership roles for each work and famously performs without a conductor.

Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer wrote about Orpheus in his column for Business 2.0 magazine in 2006 after the ensemble's managing director, Ronnie Bauch, spoke to his class. In Pfeffer's column, titled "Why Employees Should Lead Themselves," he wrote of Bauch's contention that valuable insights are sometimes lost because team members quell their own voices under a dominant baton. Also, subordinates learn to focus solely on their own roles, ignoring opportunities to develop new skills.

Pfeffer wrote: "Because people pay attention to one another instead of to one leader, they become more involved. Taking on broader responsibilities, they develop real leadership skills. (Some Orpheus members double as conductors and professors in other organizations.) The result is a sense of ownership that delivers the biggest benefit of all: a collective mind and spirit that comes through in the music."

Without the benefit of Pfeffer's class or Bauch's lecture, SCOr members came to similar conclusions.

"Without a conductor, logistically you have to open your ears. You have to play with an ear tuned to everyone else. Eyes on everyone else," said Koo.

SCOr members stress the importance of collective awareness and speaking up. They feel it is a duty to think about how they want to shape a piece. With a traditional ensemble, musicians learn their part of the piece, show up and follow the conductor, who gets to do most of the experimenting and interpreting.

Fast track

In March of this year, Koo, Kwong and Yu sought faculty advice from Chris Costanza on forming a collaborative group. There is none better to help them get started than the cellist with Stanford's ensemble-in-residence, the St. Lawrence String Quartet. "Their idea seemed compelling, and I agreed to help in any way that I could. I have some experience with conductorless ensembles," he said. "I play in one on a daily basis."

Remarking on his sans baton experience, Costanza acknowledges that a group of four is almost always conductorless, but he said that once every so often, the St. Lawrence String Quartet expands forces by adding Stanford students and faculty members to create the Stanford Chamber Strings, performing at various locations on campus. "This group, of varied personnel, is always conductorless and embodies the spirit of other such ensembles throughout the country and overseas, such as Orpheus."

With recruitment under way in early spring, SCOr applied for and won a Spark! Grant, sponsored by the Stanford Arts Institute. The grant is intended to enhance the rich and varied cultural landscape throughout campus by supporting the creation of arts projects by students, specifically extracurricular live and recorded arts projects. Yu said the grant provided invaluable financial support, covering operational needs such as music rental costs, purchasing music scores that are shared during rehearsal and printing performance fliers and concert programs.

Fast-forward just two months from the early idea days and SCOr is an official Stanford Student Group and has already performed before a public audience at Toyon Hall.

In true democratic fashion, the members voted on their first performance attire and the program. They debuted without ties, and the program they collectively chose was Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring and Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 in D major.

Yu praised her fellow musicians on their sprint from inception to performance. "Our performance was a testament to the hard work and talent of our musicians. We had two months to pull off a challenging program, and over the course of only eight full rehearsals were able to learn the music while experimenting with a new rehearsal model," she said. "I have so much respect for the musicians in our group and am incredibly grateful for their open-mindedness, honesty, perseverance and enthusiasm throughout this process."

Costanza concurs. "I've been impressed with SCOr's incredibly democratic, level-headed and organized approach to achieving their musical goals," he said. "They are a true student-run ensemble, and I respect their desire to approach musical challenges on their own, without regular faculty input.

"I think that going forward, the group will provide a unique and desirable musical outlet for Stanford students; I wish them the best of luck, and I hope to be able to maintain some involvement in helping them achieve their artistic aims going forward."

Experimentation with organizational models aside, cellist and junior Kwong, who will continue with SCOr next year, said the best part of the group is making music with great friends. "Stanford's music community is diverse, but close knit. The performance represents how far we've come, but the process and rehearsals have been the most rewarding."



Robin Wander, University Communications: (650) 724-6184,

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