Posted by: Dorianne Cotter-Lockard | 19 December 2008

Organizational ethos and the string quartet

Some might ask, what does the string quartet have to do with organizations.  My answer is “plenty!”  I just wrote a 30-page paper entitled Transition from Rehearsal to Performance: the string quartet as exemplar of organizational form. I dug deeply into the topic of organization studies, studying the string quartet as an organizational form and applying my personal experience as a professional musician and as a Fortune 100 company executive.

The paper contains a broad set of topics:

  • Roles, including the leader-democracy paradox and the paradox of the second violinist (Murnighan & Conlon, 1991)
  • Interdependence and interaction
  • Self-management
  • Rehearsal and learning process: knowing the musical score, creating a balance, reading each other’s cues, interpretation and decision processes
  • Performance: interdependence and trust, state of mind and spirit, and musician as simultaneous performer, observer and audience

My favorite part of the paper is around the performance topic.  There is some recent research and writing on organizational aesthetics and the application of concepts from the arts to business organizations.  Here is an excerpt from my paper on the topic of performance – I believe it provides a lot of food for thought regarding how we approach our work in organizations.

During a performance, quartet members are hyper-alert, using their senses in a very deep and intense way.  Arnold Steinhardt describes the concert stage as “colored more vividly, another state of mind, fabled” (1998, p. 100).  The musician’s mind processes huge amounts of input information while she simultaneously plays her instrument.  Hours of rehearsal allow the music to flow seamlessly through all dimensions related to the musical performance.  Malhotra (1981), in her phenomenological study of symphony musicians, said “musicians are involved in multiple acts of consciousness, which are layered, shaped, and pulled together in the joint act of making music” (p. 123).  Analogies can be drawn to other professions, such as military SWAT operations, air traffic controllers, space missions and surgical teams that also require multiple layers of consciousness combined with intense action.

Awareness extends beyond normal visual and auditory inputs.  A quartet musician must also sense the energy of her or his colleagues.  Schutz (1962) refers to this process as a “mutual tuning-in relationship” through physical proximity, intense listening and response to non-verbal cues.   Davidson and Good (2002) contend that musical performance is a product of socio-cultural factors and interpersonal dynamics of the musicians.  They leveraged a conversation analysis framework (Clark & Brennan, 1991) to evaluate interactions between players during a performance.  Through observation and interviews, Davidson and Good found that conversational dimensions of co-presence, visibility, audibility, co-temporality and simultaneity apply to small-group musical performance.  I suggest extending the meaning of co-presence further than the standard definition of “sharing the same physical environment” (p. 189) to include sensing non-visual and non-auditory energy movement within the physical space.

Otto Scharmer (2007) describes the five steps in his “theory U” as co-initiating, co-sensing, presencing, co-creating and co-evolving.  Co-sensing involves listening deeply with both the mind and the heart.  The string quartet develops and ingrains this process as they work and perform together.  Scharmer suggests that people within business organizations develop this ability in order to set the stage for innovation and creative problem-solving.  Presencing is the process of allowing an “inner knowing to emerge” (p. 7).   The individual lets go of their small-self or ego and opens up to transformation.  This concept is similar to the experience of “letting go to become the observer” during meditation (Cotter-Lockard, 2008, p. 10).  According to Scharmer, as individuals go through this process in an organization, the group begins to function at higher energy levels that invite new possibilities (2007, p. 7).

Performing in a string quartet demands intimacy and it results in personal transformation.  In a study on collective virtuosity in organizations (Marotto et al., 2007), a violinist in the orchestra, relating a peak performance experience stated, “we were all like a single heart, we were connected to the same heart, the same pulse, the same thoughts and we were all one” (p. 395). Steinhardt states, “It is on the concert stage where the moments of true intimacy occur.  When a performance is in progress, all four of us together enter a zone of magic somewhere between our music stands and become conduit, messenger, and missionary” (1998, p. 10).  Marotto et al.’s study explored this intimate and magical connection, claiming that “individual virtuosity becomes collective in groups through a reflexive process in which group members are transformed by their own peak performance” (p. 389).   One of Scharmer’s (2007) key leadership capacities is the ability to play “the macro-violin,”  which includes the music hall, or environment surrounding the performer.  Applying this concept to the business organization requires seeing the creative context from a macro perspective.  Scharmer calls this “seeing and acting from the presence of the whole” (p. 12).


Clark, H. H., & Brennan, S. E. (1991). Grounding in Communication. In L. B. Resnick, J. M. Levine & S. D. Teasley (Eds.), Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Cotter-Lockard, D. (2008). Higher Consciousness States Through Meditation: A Phenomenological Study. Paper presented at the Society for Phenomenology and Human Sciences.

Davidson, J. W., & Good, J. M. M. (2002). Social and Musical Co-Ordination between Members of a String Quartet: An Exploratory Study. Psychology of Music, 30(2), 186-201.

Malhotra, V. (1981). The social accomplishment of music in a symphony orchestra: a phenomenological analysis. Qualitative Sociology, 4(2), 23.

Marotto, M., Roos, J., & Victor, B. (2007). Collective Virtuosity in Organizations: A Study of Peak Performance in an Orchestra. Journal of Management Studies, 44(3), 26.

Scharmer, C. O. (2007). Addressing the Blind Spot of Our Time. from

Schutz, A., & Natanson, M. A. (1962). Collected papers. Hague ; Boston: M. Nijhoff : Hingham Distributor for the U.S. and Canada Kluwer Boston.

Steinhardt, A. (1998). Indivisible by four : a string quartet in pursuit of harmony (1st ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.



  1. Hello,

    Could you please tell me where I can find your paper: From Rehearsal to Performance: the string quartet as exemplar of organizational form

    Thank you very much

    • This is an unpublished paper with the exception of this blog post. I am however using it as the basis for my dissertation (surprise!). My dissertation will be finalized in the May/June timeframe and I will make it available via this website in June or July. Stay tuned!

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