Interview | Igor Gruppman

The violinist, conductor, professor and LEAD! mentor will be teaching as part of the Aurora Festival, taking place in Stockholm this month. Here he shares his thoughts on what it takes to be a good musical leader.

“There are many young people out there who are ready for this sophisticated conversation, both musically and beyond”

Igor Gruppman is the Concertmaster of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, the Principal Conductor of Orchestra at Temple Square, Salt Lake City, and appears as a soloist and guest conductor around the world. In addition he works as a Professor at the Rotterdam Conservatory and is the Director of the Gruppman Institute. The LEAD! team is thrilled that he will be participating in its first collaboration with the Aurora Festival, from 18th-26th August.

-Which qualities, musically and personally, must a musician have to be a good leader?

IG: You must have the qualities that make a good leader in any field: you have to know how to empathise, feel the energy of others, and understand the needs of those around you. As a musician you must also understand your role from a musical point of view; where you fit in, where you are the most productive, and you must understand the full breadth of musical styles. You must also be a good psychologist! In addition, you must also be a good colleague, friend, supportive to the other leaders in the orchestra, as well as of the conductor, you must have excellent administrative qualities in order to be efficient in meetings, for decision-making, and dealing with questions of personnel. On a personal level you must be open, humble and flexible.

-To what extent can musical leadership be taught?

IG: Musical leadership is a combination of innate qualities and experience. Innate qualities are very important, and I try to spot these in a person. Sometimes, good musical qualities displayed by an individual are not necessarily indicative of a good leader. Humility is important, and so is understanding the seriousness of your function. You must know instinctively how to lead and follow at the same time. Some display a clear talent for leadership, but haven’t thought of becoming a leader. Leadership qualities manifest themselves differently in different individuals. Someone might unexpectedly come out of their shell and show what they can do.
I haven´t had so many opportunities to train leaders. However, in the case of someone on a year’s probation in a principal role, I might have a chance to mentor and guide. You can tell a lot about someone from the tone of their voice, and how they guide and make comments to others. Mostly, an orchestra will come to an agreement about a leader — they have what you might call charisma, or positive force. It is the leader’s role to make the orchestra unite — they have to have the desire and the ability to project that. This can not be learned, but it can be brought out in a person. It´s the desire to connect everyone to a musical idea. It’s about being true to the art, to the medium that we all share, and this is immediately recognised by everyone.

-What are the most important factors in teaching musical leadership?

IG: You can only teach by example. I can and I will share every idea that I have. You do need to have some innate leadership qualities as a foundation. Then you need to understand the instrumental language perfectly. If you don´t have a connection to the collective you will be ignored. Understanding common human values are important too; then people will trust, and follow. I try to be generous, allowing. I have sat in many positions in the orchestra and felt the various needs around me. When I became a leader I felt a camaraderie, a connection to the collective. When I lead, I lead for the people on the last stand. It´s more important to inspire than control.

-What was the most important influence on you in growing into the leadership roles that you now have – as concertmaster, soloist and conductor?

IG: I’ve had many different influences. When you work as a soloist it’s a solitary thing; you have mainly the influence of teachers. It’s just you and the instrument, which you understand intimately. As an orchestra leader, you can qualify and quantify your collective experience as a musician and use this. As a conductor, you might borrow unique ideas from the great conductors you come into contact with! Yet, in my mind, I never thought of leaving the violin. Everything I do on stage is a study of unity, and this has made me a better leader. The idea of leadership in all my roles is really one and the same.

-How do musical leadership skills extend beyond orchestra and performance?

IG: Musical leadership skills equip you be better at dealing with people, and they also improve your administrative skills. Through these skills, you´ll gain the qualities required to build your own orchestra, festival or similar. The core of it really is, if you find people to share these particular qualities and your experience with, sparks can build a fire. There are many young people out there who are ready for this sophisticated conversation, both musically and beyond. There are many out there who share these ideas and understand well what is involved in the synergy of leading.

-What are the most important aspects of your teaching philosophy when it comes to teaching musical leadership skills?

IG: Mostly having humility, and a broad understanding of what you can bring. The language of psychology and understanding human relations are important aspects of it. Humility means not tak-ing yourself too seriously, which opens up possibilities for you to learn and grow. There are many details involved in instrumental teaching — not only showing how to produce a beautiful sound, but also demonstrating other tools of making music. There is not much difference whether I’m teaching soloists or orchestra musicians. The mechanism is about teaching an instrumental language to a group. It’s about how to receive ideas; a conductor’s point of view, for example. It’s how to translate complex ideas without saying a word. You must address every issue. You have to reveal your humanity, and be honest, respectful. This applies whether you are working on a phrase or being in the difficult situation of having to fire someone. It´s about being true to yourself.