Keeping Your Team in Tune

An orchestra can be seen as the ultimate team. Every member is integral to the whole; every individual must be in tune with the larger group. When the pandemic hit, many of us took home our notepads, monitors, and office coffee mug. Orchestras had to learn to work remotely too. Concert halls closed and musicians went home with their violins, flutes, cellos, and bassoons. In the second episode of Remote Works, we'll visit the Colorado Symphony and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra to explore how technology has enabled remote work for even the tightest of teams.

PODCAST | 20m
S1:Ep2
May 27, 2020

Executive summary

  • Creating new ways of working together as a distributed team
  • Calibrating workplace technology to encourage collaboration

Melanie Green (host):

My producer's mother has been retired for about 10 years. She always wanted to play an instrument. So at the age of 74, she took up the saxophone. She even joined a band.

Everyone thought it would last a couple of months, and then she would quit. That was six years ago. Playing the saxophone became like an exciting new job. And when the shelter-in-place kicked in, she had to do it all at home. Producer Erin Pettit decided to check in on her mom to see how her work at home plan was going.

Erin Pettit:

Hi Mom.

Erin's mom:

Hi Erin. How are you? Have you had a busy day?

Erin Pettit:

Yeah, it's been a busy day. It's been a good day. How was your day?

Erin's mom:

Very good. Thanks. Yeah.

Erin Pettit:

What did you do today?

Erin's mom:

Well, I started out with a walk this morning and then prepared for my music lesson on FaceTime, which I do every Tuesday afternoon with my band leader, Emily.

Erin Pettit:

Where does Dad go when you're practicing your saxophone?

Erin's mom:

Well, he goes for a walk often or he goes downstairs on the computer and I have all the doors shut so he doesn't hear me, or he'll go out in the car.

Melanie Green (host):

When the shelter-in-place kicked in, the thing that Erin's mom missed the most was the thrill of playing with the band. So she and her band mates did what millions of us have been doing to connect. They leaned into technology. Each of the band members recorded their part. Someone mashed it all together, and voila, the band is back.

My name is Melanie Green. You're listening to Remote Works, an original podcast by Citrix.

Businesses and organizations of all types are adapting to this new reality by looking at problems in new ways. For a lot of us, making the switch to working at home was pretty sudden. We adapted on the fly. But now, a lot of us are settling into it. We're getting up, making a cup of coffee and bracing ourselves for our long commute down the hall to the home office.

Look, every organization has their own obstacles to overcome. And when it comes to remote working, here's one of the biggest: how to keep the group connected while they're working apart, especially when your work requires synchronization. Everything we're doing has to mesh together even when we're apart. To do that, we have to use the right tools and technology.

Which is doable for a lot of organizations. But for others, it can be a little tougher, you know, for those work teams where everyone has to perform in time with each other, everyone has to be reading from the same page, you all have to be in tune. No missed notes, or it will all fall apart. Yeah, that's right, these guys. If there's one group that no one would have thought could have made the shift to working from home, it's an orchestra. Their challenge goes beyond that of a typical remote workforce. Their job is to be totally in sync.

When the pandemic hit, as we went home with our notepads, monitors and office coffee mug, musicians went home with their violins, flutes cellos, and of course, bassoons. We all made this new commute from in-office to home. Symphony orchestras plan their sessions far in advance, sometimes years ahead. They're not designed for quick shifts in planning. They're used to performing together. They need an audience and they need a conductor. A full abrupt migration to remote work seemed impossible because their version of connectivity relies on being together. They are redefining what connectivity means to them today.

Yumi Hwang-Williams:

We often sort of forget the individual players because we really are a team, and when we play in the symphony, our main goal is to play as a cohesive unit.

Melanie Green (host):

Yumi Hwang-Williams is a concert master with the Colorado Symphony. Back in March, when concert halls around the world were closing their doors, the Colorado Symphony shut down, too. It was tough for Yumi. She missed her friends and colleagues. When you're sitting together practicing for hours a day, you form some pretty powerful bonds

Yumi Hwang-Williams:

Because a symphony orchestra is a living organism that creates music in realtime, in real space with specific action and reaction and cause and effect in nanoseconds, so what we do is truly by osmosis at its highest level.

Melanie Green (host):

When you're a part of a team that tight, what do you do when you can no longer work side by side, no conductor, no fellow musicians, no audience? You find another way to make music.

Colorado Symphony's artistic team decided that even though they had no shared stage and no audience, the show must go on, so they put together a virtual performance. They chose Beethoven's Ode to Joy from Beethoven's Symphony Number 9, each musician performing alone. Their performances were then merged and turned into a video that went viral.

Yumi Hwang-Williams:

With a project like Ode to Joy, first of all, you're dealing with a piece that is universally known and certainly universally known to musicians. Really, probably of the earliest tunes that you would know and learn is the Ode to Joy. We had a click track that allowed us to follow the same tempo so as to not create our own interpretations without it. And then it was digitally put together magically by the tech people in our staff, who did a wonderful job.

Melanie Green (host):

While the members of this orchestra, can't wait to get back together, this experience with remote work has been thinking about new possibilities.

Yumi Hwang-Williams:

What do we do and how are we going to come back together? When we do come back together, will it be in the full symphony setting? Will it be perhaps more chamber music, smaller, broken up groups that will still represent the Colorado Symphony? Will it be more virtual educational outreach? Will we be able to maybe make more virtual recordings in separate sections? We don't know yet, but I think if we can continue to just stay open-minded and positive, that more good can come out of this as well.

Melanie Green (host):

Yumi is asking questions that we're all asking ourselves. Maybe it's not chamber music or figuring out how to score the next piece. We're trying to figure out answers to equally challenging questions. How do you transition a team to working fully remote quickly and securely? How do you stay productive when your co-workers aren't sitting by your side? Who makes the coffee? We're still figuring out the answers, but I'll tell you something. When it works, it can be as beautiful as this.

Meanwhile, a thousand miles north of Colorado over the Rockies and across the Montana Plains and up into Canada, the work from home beverage is not coffee, but...

Janna Sailor:

I do a lot of hot water with lemon to try and stay hydrated.

Donovan Seidle:

And the odd turmeric latte.

Janna Sailor:

Oh, I make a really good turmeric latte. Really good. If anybody comes over, I'll make one up for them.

Melanie Green (host):

Donovan Seidle and Janna Sailor live together in Calgary. Like Yumi, they are both classical musicians. Donovan is an assistant concert master of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. Janna is a conductor and violinist. When the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra went home to work, they set up their home office. In this case, computers and musical instruments commingle, as did the work-wear in comfy pants.

Janna Sailor:

The secret's out. Even in the videos that I've been making, I've been wearing my sweats on the bottom and a jacket on the top, and usually slippers or even better, bare feet, if the house isn't too chilly.

Melanie Green (host):

Usually, this is the time of year that the orchestra would be right in the midst of their season. They had a night of Beethoven lined up, a Bach concert and a special presentation of Broadway tunes. All that was put on hold. the entire orchestra was laid off, and then they were hit with more bad news.

Donovan Seidle:

Well, we had just been laid off and so lots of feelings come with that. In addition, our music director's father had recently died.

Melanie Green (host):

So they came up with a plan, a virtual performance to comfort their music director. And then things just kind of started growing and they created something that connected with music lovers around the world.

Donovan Seidle:

It's a real risk when things go into a hiatus like this where you lose contact with your audience, and we're thinking about what happens afterwards, and we want to still have an audience to come back to. We want them to come back to us, so it was important to us to make an effort to connect, to choose a piece that embodied strength and resilience and love.

Melanie Green (host):

What they came up with was The Quarantine Project 2020, the virtual performance that brought together members of the Calgary Philharmonic and the Edmonton Symphony. The learning curve for this project was steep. And without Donovan's technical skills, it wouldn't have been possible. With multiple audio editing tools, external microphones, and the ability to send and receive video from his colleagues, Donovan got to work. They chose a piece called Nimrod, Variation 9 from Elgar's Enigma Variations.

Donovan Seidle:

Yeah, it's just such a lovely, heartfelt movement. It really just gets to you every time and makes you think about your own struggles and the struggles of your group, whatever community group you belong to and the struggles that you have and overcoming those struggles.

Melanie Green (host):

Putting together their Elgar video was painstaking. Donovan had the technical expertise to take it on. The first step, video Janna conducting and send it out to 32 musicians.

Donovan Seidle:

What ended up happening is I wrote myself sort of a modified arrangement of this variation and played all the parts that I needed in order to be music for her all the way through.

Melanie Green (host):

Donovan played the entire score on his violin while Janna conducted him, all at home, just the two of them.

Janna Sailor:

We could have just done it with a metronome, and some ensembles have chosen to do that, but it just wouldn't have worked for this particular piece, we felt. It needed a much more kind of human connection and the players needed to feel connected to me. It made it so much easier to conduct through once Donovan was actually playing and we could co-create rather than just, like I said, conducting kind of statically without that interaction.

Melanie Green (host):

Each of the 32 musicians recorded themselves playing to Janna's conducting and sent their video back to Donovan. He edited together the videos into a virtual recording of a full and finely tuned orchestra.

Donovan Seidle:

It was three or four days straight that I was editing and tweaking and putting additional audio tracks on that came in late. And you have to adjust the whole project when more things start coming in, so I was doing that. I was trying to keep up to all the videos coming in, and it was certainly a sense of relief and release when we posted it on YouTube and it was done.

Melanie Green (host):

So what does Elgar and all that have to do with working from home? Well, there are times when we don't really know exactly how we're going to get things done, but we just have to do it.

Donovan Seidle:

It's easy to feel very, very isolated. Have your work time, but try and reach out and have some social time, either online or go for a physically distanced walk or get outside for sure. That's one takeaway that I even have to tell myself from time to time, because I'm not great. I can sit down at my desk and just stay there for the whole day and work, and that's not so good for me. You realize your own limitations and what is good for you and what's bad for you. Try and approach your work with balance because it's hard when you're home. There's no barrier from work life to home life because it's the same space.

Melanie Green (host):

The Colorado and Calgary Orchestras pulled their teams together online. Technology saved the day for them. For them, video, click tracks, sophisticated editing software created the feeling of immediacy and connectivity that they needed to perform in sync. You might think it would have been impossible, but we have the tools. We can create networks and connections across all sorts of distances and barriers.

That's true teamwork. But what about people who are used to working autonomously? Andrew Lu is a teacher used to working on his own at Hart Middle School in Pleasanton, California. Ironically, it's this remote work from home that's brought Andrew together with colleagues he wouldn't otherwise have met. Here's what that sounded like.

Andrew Lu:

The first week of our shelter-in-place, one of my colleagues at another middle school in the district sent me a text and said, "Hey, I think it'd be cool if we did a virtual ensemble sort of thing. It'd very cathartic and uplifting." And he was just wondering if I had the skills to do it.

Melanie Green (host):

The project pushed Andrew and the others into new territory as teachers.

Andrew Lu:

We ended up reaching out to all of the music teachers in the district, and we just saw who was interested. And before we knew it, we had 15 people signed up and we just started getting to work.

Melanie Green (host):

Andrew was feeling the effects of being apart from his students and not being able to make music with them.

Andrew Lu:

Not being able to hear everyone else feels very lonely, and it makes you really think about the kinds of interactions we have live as musicians. We're always responding to one another as we play non-verbally.

Melanie Green (host):

But the technology they used helped. Andrew worked on the music video as a gift to his students in the hopes it would lift their spirits.

Andrew Lu:

This was the first time that we have all collaborated on such a large scale on a project like this. And it was really a lot of fun to get to meet new people virtually and create a whole new network of friends. I don't think something like this would've come together if we weren't all stuck at home. I think it's such a kind of a silver lining of our situation.

Melanie Green (host):

Logistically, there were challenges. Luckily, people had their instruments at home, but there was still some room for innovation.

Andrew Lu:

Most of the instruments that were played were traditional band instruments like flutes and trumpets and trombones. But because of the shelter-in-place, we had a little bit of trouble finding some standard percussion instruments. And so instead of trying to find those instruments, we found alternative instruments, such as water bottles with rice in them to create a shaker or trash cans. Someone also used a spoon and a pot to create a cowbell.

Melanie Green (host):

At the end of the music video, the teachers had messages of hope for their students.

Miss Phillips:

Hi everyone. It's Miss Phillips. I teach at Hurston at Minich Hills and I've done so for 18 years. I miss you all very much. Everybody out there, keep making music. See, I'm sitting at my piano, and I just played that and a trash can. You never know where you can make music. Bye.

Melanie Green (host):

For Andrew, the response to the video made the long hours spent on the project worthwhile.

Andrew Lu:

The feedback has been so positive and so rejuvenating. I spent a lot of time working on editing the video. I estimate that I spent maybe 36 hours total on all of the organizing and editing, and to see such a positive response, to hear from colleagues, to hear from other teachers and to hear from our students and families, local and nationally, even though it's such a terrible and not ideal situation, it made me feel a lot more willing to give it my all.

Melanie Green (host):

The video's success has given Andrew some new ideas for when he goes back to the classroom.

Andrew Lu:

It's really made me rethink the lessons I'm giving my students. This video has kind of acted as a model for our students and how I want to proceed with them in my lessons, so I'm having all of them do a virtual ensemble, much like this.

Melanie Green (host):

While Andrew waits to go back to his students, he's sheltering in place at his parents' home in Palo Alto, California.

Andrew Lu:

Yeah, we all get along, luckily. We don't have any family drama. It's nice to have interaction and to have people who you can cook for, you can do baking experiments with without having too much left over, having to eat all the cookies and feeling bad about yourself.

Melanie Green (host):

You get to bake cookies and be the office hero. That's working from home. And here's what I learned from our musical MacGyvers. We've all been forced to change the way we work. Whether it's Elgar or engineering, Beethoven or business, music and technology are the synergies in these stories. And without technology, these collaborations wouldn't have been possible.

Industries have transformed the way they get things done. And yes, there have been a few glitches along the way. After all, failure is a part of success, but we're doing it. We are working from home and we get to bake cookies. You know what else I've learned? If an orchestra can succeed at remote work, then any of us can.

You've been listening to Remote Work, an original podcast by Citrix. For more best practices, lessons learned and the realities of supporting and enabling a remote workforce, visit citrix.com/remoteworks. We'll be back with more.

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