“The First Note Touched My Soul”

How can music so passionately communicate ideas and feelings?

Posted Jul 02, 2018

As Sandeep Das recently remarked that, “the first note on his cello touched my soul.”

That note was played by “the man on the big violin,” aka the cello.  It was Yo-Yo Ma.

Sandeep had been invited to the United States to play with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra nearly 18 years ago.  He was and is one of the world’s most accomplished tabla players having received two Grammy Awards.  When Yo-Yo Ma formed the Silk Road Ensemble, he invited highly talented artists from around the world to come together.  The Ensemble is not a fixed group of musicians but rather a critically acclaimed collective of composers, arrangers, artists and storytellers primarily from Eurasian cultures.  The film “The Music of Strangers” portrays the group and is a testament to the power of culture-transcending music.

Sandeep was asked during his visit with the New York Philharmonic to play a musical piece with a score.  He demurred that he did not read music from a traditional score.  He proposed that he would simply listen to it once and would be fully capable of playing it with the orchestra.  The standard communication vehicle that musicians use, sheet music, was not the way he learned to communicate when studying with his guru in India for a decade as a boy.

The score primarily communicates “what” is to be played, but not necessarily “how” it is to be interpreted.  This alternative communication mode among artists who are deeply committed to connecting with one another is magical.  It produces a musical product that is unique and hooks the listener emotionally.

Sandeep and the Silk Road Ensemble underscore the importance of communicating and connecting emotionally via a combination of visual and auditory techniques.  Listening to each other intently is the key to a powerful team/ensemble performance.  Intently watching each other’s body movements, eyes, facial expressions connects each musician powerfully with the other.

While music is the common denominator with the Silk Road Ensemble, our own work and social settings cut across a much wider range of topics and settings.  But we can learn from the Ensemble and from Sandeep.  They use fundamental communication skills that can enhance the performance of your teams whether in the conference room, the basketball court, or the stage.

What can we apply to business?   To begin with, Sandeep comments that “Yo-Yo has encouraged all of us to lead from the stage with our audiences.   We do not have conductor. We play as an ensemble so each of us is leading at different times, in different parts of a piece.”  And, it’s not just the front row that Sandeep is striving to reach, “it’s the person in the back, eating peanuts that I want to engage with my music, that I want to communicate with and connect with emotionally.”   In the business world, in a flat hierarchy we can each play a role in connecting with both the front row people as well as those in the back row -- we want to reach everyone and make them feel a part of the team.

Sandeep describes the experience of performing with such an energized group of musicians: “So, with the Silk Road Ensemble, here you have kind of an all-star team, as most of us are pretty well known in our own countries. With Yo-Yo however being who he is, I would say we have a very flattened hierarchy. Nobody at any given time is assigned a leadership position, but as the moment demands, starting off-stage from when a new piece of music is initially brought in, right up to when it is being performed, people take charge or take on leadership roles as the situation demands. It’s an absolute collaboration – it can be an authentic, 3,000-year-old Chinese piece of music which is suddenly being arranged by an Indian, an American, an Iranian, a Chinese, and an Azerbyjani musician – and it just wouldn’t be possible if someone was assigned to be our leader or captain, without that kind of equal feeling that anyone could be in charge at any given moment.”

We all communicate in different ways through words, gestures, imagery, humor…even silence.  How we communicate is much less important, however, than the intent and clarity of our messages.  And the only way we know if we have successfully communicated our message is via feedback:  only when we see acknowledgement in another’s eyes, a head nod, or a verbal confirmation of our message are we certain that we have been understood.  It is simple but powerful.  Establish and practice the skills necessary to build credibility through effective communication and optimism.  It works.


Learn more about the Four Cornerstones and "Leading From Wherever You Are" in The Catalyst Effect, Emerald Publishing, 2018 which includes more about Sandeep Das and the Silk Road Ensemble.