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From Mahler to the Movies: Physical Empathy in Orchestral Leadership

The Physicality of Leadership: Gesture, Entanglement, Taboo, Possibilities

ISBN: 978-1-78441-290-6, eISBN: 978-1-78441-289-0

Publication date: 24 November 2014


Few organisations exhibit the importance of physicality in leadership as explicitly as the symphony orchestra. While usually attributed to the direction of the conductor my own experience suggests that leading in orchestral performance is grounded in physical relations between individuals and among instrumental groups across the orchestra as much as in the interaction between musicians and maestro. In order to further interrogate this experience while enhancing our understanding of onstage relations among orchestral musicians, I recently undertook research that employed an autoethnographic methodology underpinned by the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty (2002, 2004) and the sense-making ideas of Weick (1995, 2001a). Using this method while drawing on ideas such as kinaesthetic empathy (Pallaro, 1995; Parviainen, 2002), the picture presented in what follows is one of leadership embedded in physical interaction among colleagues.

This interaction is, I suggest, based on sense-making and sense-giving activity that occurs in a ‘kinaesthetic loop’ that draws on and is generated by auditory, visual and gestural information given and received by individual musicians. This activity in turn mediates the acoustic space between musicians and thus, ultimately, determines how leadership and coordination in the orchestra are constituted. Rather than being disembodied products of dictatorial direction dispensed through the orchestra’s hierarchy, orchestral performance and leadership emerge in this more nuanced account as co-creative processes in which all the musicians on stage share responsibility.



Gilling, D. (2014), "From Mahler to the Movies: Physical Empathy in Orchestral Leadership", The Physicality of Leadership: Gesture, Entanglement, Taboo, Possibilities (Monographs in Leadership and Management, Vol. 6), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 109-133.



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