Wednesday Live: Striking a Chord

For last month’s Wednesday Live Breakfast Club we were joined by Odaline ‘Chachi’ de la Martinez, the first woman to ever conduct at the BBC Proms. Chachi drew a comparison between the pyramid-like structure of many large corporations, and the shape of an orchestra. She also noted that successful female business owners tend to break this mould, favouring a ‘spider’s web’ structure. She left us wondering whether leaving behind the rigid pyramid in favour of a more innovative structure could be the key to success for orchestras and large corporations alike.

There are two different hierarchical models that businesses tend to take- one being a pyramid shape, with the CEO at the top and junior workers at the bottom, and the other taking more of a spider’s web form, with the CEO in the middle and the rest of the employees forming a supporting grid around them. Chachi informed us that this binary opposition is in fact often gendered, with female founded businesses favouring the spider’s web, whereas male-led companies tend to take a pyramid form.

 A pyramid:
• Has the director of the company at the top
• Has a sliding scale of power and influence from those at the top to those at the bottom
• Has more employees in lower ranking positions than in higher ranking positions
• Communication travels up and down the pyramid, usually without skipping a rung

A spider’s web:
• Has the director at the centre of the structure
• Lines of communication move between levels
• Has a more fluid structure
• Is less hierarchical

As far as industries go, the field of classical music has traditionally been one of the most fiercely-protected citadels of male prejudice and dominance. Reminding us of this, Chachi also showed us a diagram of an orchestra which, when turned upside down, bears an uncanny resemblance to a pyramid. In a way that is analogous to a typical, rank and file company, the conductor sits at the top of the pyramid, with the principals of the orchestra existing to facilitate and filter communication between conductor and musicians, passing instructions all the way back to the percussion section.

This system was implemented in order to optimise orchestral cohesion and harmony. Decisions such as concurrence on bowing- whether the strings are played upwards or downwards – and phrasing are dictated from the top by the principal violinists, and the concert master (the conductor’s number two) is responsible for the cumulative sound and the discipline of the orchestra.

Chachi pointed out the inefficiency of this system, which was founded decades ago upon the principles of practicality and excellence. In fact, working in this way only serves to foster a sense of detachment for those at the back of the orchestra from the conductor at the front – surely counterintuitive to productivity, and certainly not encouraging the sense of collaboration which is vital to the harmony of an orchestra. If nothing else, the Chinese whispers of questions being passed through principal players may be unnecessarily time-consuming, and create an anti-communicative environment.

An alternative approach, then, would be to consider the spider’s web structure favoured by female businesses. In creating an environment which is less linear, less military, less rank and file, and moving away from the strict hierarchy to something more innovative, there is scope to flourish. A more collaborative and communicative workplace is never a bad thing, and is often a necessity in the modern world. It is time for businesses and orchestras alike to adapt to modernity, and leave behind traditional and often out-dated structures, in order to maximise their success.