It is all about the base: how to build a team

Anyone who has ever played in a musical ensemble will tell you there is a hierarchy of sound.  The base sounds of the brass, double basses and bassoons, for instance, should be prominent to create the depth.  As you progress up the octaves to the wind and stringed instruments, their role changes to creating the melodies and harmonies softly and delicately on top of the base.  It lays the groundwork for a much-desired full sound and the conductor modulates the sections to produce light and shade.  When done properly, it creates something magical – upwards of 60 people producing one cohesive sound.

This was a lesson I was taught in high school.  I was a clarinet player in the Senior Concert Band and we were very successful if I do say so myself.  In fact, my high school band had won the regional music championship so many times that other schools requested we play against adults rather than our age peers to give someone else a chance of winning.

Our conductor drilled into us that he wanted a star team not a team of stars.  It was clearly a successful strategy which has produced some of Australia’s leading musicians – not me though!

In fact, it was a metaphor for my entire high school experience.  It was a state-owned and run school which educated its local constituents then opened spaces to students who excelled either academically, on the sports field or as musicians.   For five years, I went to school with intellectual giants; kids who disappeared for months to compete at the Commonwealth or Olympics Games; musicians, composers and artists; and the run of the mill kids who just happened to go to the school there.  By virtue of our inner-city location, the student body represented a myriad of nationalities, socioeconomic status and, clearly, abilities.  It is possibly the only high school which has a Wikipedia page dedicated to its most successful alumni.

It could have been a pressure cooker of ‘them and us’ on many levels but it never was.  We were a star team in which everyone played their part not a team of stars.  This early experience shaped my understanding of what a team should be.

Since leaving high school, I have had the opportunity to work with one such team.  We each had our part and played it – some the base notes and others the high melodies.  I perhaps did not realise it at the time but with hindsight could see our differences, which very often caused strain, were in fact our strengths.

We were successful not quite like my high school music experiences, but we did succeed in doing what others had failed to do previously; others who were better resourced and considered more expert.

Like my concert band, this team propelled some of its members into exciting careers and we all remain in contact with fond memories of our combined effort.  And like high school, we disbanded but not because we had finished our formal secondary studies but for personally motivated reasons.  On reflection, I think the school concert band was so strong, in part, due to the inevitable matriculation.  We knew we had a limited time with each other and limited opportunities to win.  Yet each new generation took up the baton (pun intended) and continued the tradition.

Is it unrealistic to expect the same people in the same team configuration to keep the momentum to be a star team indefinitely?  I think perhaps it is and would likely lead to groupthink or complacency.  So there needs to be renewal and regeneration yet an effort to keep those base notes constant.  Only then can a group of people magically produce one cohesive sound for decades if needs be.  The new members can build on the previous generations challenging themselves to aim higher whilst respecting the team successes they have inherited.

For my own part, I will continue to seek out these teams knowing they will sharpen my skills and inspire me to the greatness I felt at 17 playing Verdi’s La forza del destino as second clarinet.

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