This world-famous conductor has a provocative way to think about loving what you do

Jeffrey Schindler conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra last year, for ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’. Photo by Robert Catto (Instagram: @robertcatto)

Jeffrey Schindler knows more than most about accomplishment, talent, and leadership on the global stage — in both the broad sense, and the more literal one.

Schindler has conducted some of the world’s elite orchestras, including the Seattle Symphony, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Czech Philharmonic. He’s also been involved in many of the movies you’ve watched, as composer or conductor on scores for a range of movies including the X-Men series, Talladega Nights, and Anchorman. He also conducted the orchestra for the documentary March of The Penguins.

He’s just been in Australia to conduct Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, leading the full Sydney Symphony Orchestra through the movie’s score in real time along while the action — including the dramatic spider chase at the end — plays out on a screen.

Ask Schindler who his favourite composer is, and he’ll say Rachmaninov.

But ask about who he likes to conduct most and you’ll get a different answer.

Rather than picking a favourite piece of work to conduct, Schindler says this: whatever you’re executing or “perfoming”, that needs to be what you find most interesting at that point in your career.

Essentially, it’s about commitment, he says — and it’s a fascinating insight on attitudes to work at a time when many people are feeling anxiety about the future, especially with of the threat automation poses to millions of jobs around the world.

“At the moment you are performing a piece, whether you are a cellist, a pianist, a conductor leading an orchestra, that [piece of music] should be to you, at that moment, the greatest piece of music ever written,” Schindler told Business Insider.

This commitment to being a leader or performer of a musical piece, Schindler explained, “goes beyond just playing the notes”.

He said professional commitment, in his view — and at least for orchestras — means not just understanding the technical challenge, but the circumstances that led to the creation of the task that has been set. Why does a work task (the piece of music, in the case of conducting) exist in the first place?

With music, Schindler said this means “one should ask should research who the composer is, what their personal, social, economic situation was. What were they trying to express? Or where did this particular piece of music come from?

“And then of course to actually throw yourself into it, and commit to it.”

Best assistant gaffer in Hollywood

“It’s actually a very Hollywood kind of thing,” Schindler said. “You may only be an assistant gaffer on a production, but you can be the best assistant gaffer there ever was.

“We should commit to that, even if it’s something that we view as a stopping off point as part of the journey.”

Company leadership and orchestra conducting may look nothing alike on the surface, but they have many things in common and it’s no surprise to hear senior executives say occasionally they are “merely conducting the orchestra” when they talk about their jobs.

This is because conducting an orchestra involves:

  • Getting many highly trained, capable, creative people
  • To work in perfect partnership
  • On hugely complex tasks.

And have that accompanied by:

  • A need to give people a lot of room for creativity and interpretation
  • And a huge huge set of rules, set mainly by the composer’s score but also the conductor’s interpretation of the music.

There are two key implications in Schindler’s comments for the business world. The first is to give your current assignment or role everything that you’ve got, because that’s what it means to be a professional.

The second is that if you don’t love what you do, maybe you should think about something else – not just a job in the same industry, but an entire career change.

It’s essentially a call to “go hard or go home” – as Australian kids are urged in Saturday afternoon sport – but with a professional lens.

It lines up with the current trend in business leadership and also general psychology towards “mindfulness”, a huge trend in coaching over recent years that encourages people to be more focused on “being present” in what they are doing at any given moment. It has also been shown by research to lead to better organisational performance in a range of areas, especially teamwork.

Schindler is effusive in his praise of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

“I don’t know what they think of me, but I would drop anything to come back here,” he said. “There’s just an amazing spirit of good sense of community with the orchestra. There’s a combined sense of quality and consistency that is just at the highest level. They never let themselves fall below the very very highest professional standards.”

Schindler said after his first performance of the Harry Potter event, “there were moments there where I thought there was going to be smoke coming from off the end of my stick. It was like letting loose an incredible thoroughbred stallion or something like that, with the energy, the power, the intensity, the inertia in the sound that they build up – it’s just a part of who they are. It was amazing.

“But what’s also amazing and incredible is, they can turn on a dime,” he said.

“It’s just astonishing, like a race car. They’re so responsive and so spot on, all the time. Never intonation problems, never ensemble problems, and that innate sense of musicality and line and inner rhythm, and inner tempo, that I think is really extraordinary – and not all that common in many professional symphony orchestras.”

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