Normally Lax Musicians Step to the Beat of This Director

By Sarah Klein

Oct. 4, 2007

The key: Always stack the deck in your favor.

The leader: Cliff Colnot, conductor and arranger

The challenge: Getting the best performance out of creative people, some of whom are accustomed to lax schedules and tremendous personal freedom.

The techniques: Set high expectations, make rules clear and enforce them. Also, hire the right people and take responsibility for your actions.

Musicians who are used to rolling into jam sessions late would never dream of doing so when working with Cliff Colnot, a renowned Chicago jazz arranger, educator and conductor of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNow Ensemble.

The penalties are too severe. If you aren’t more than 15 minutes early for a recording session or a rehearsal, you’re late. Colnot, 55, won’t hire someone who can’t arrive at the appointed hour. As for his students at DePaul University, the University of Chicago and elsewhere, they lose a letter grade for every late arrival.

Colnot makes no apologies for the policy, which grew out of his years of experience working in recording studios and under union rules, where time is money.

“This is business,” he says. “I am going to hire you to play on these gigs, which are very sweet. The environment is excellent, and I try to make it challenging and interesting. I want to be ready to go 15 to 20 minutes before. If you can hang with that, great. If you can’t, I am not going to hire you.”

Such rigid scheduling is just the beginning of Colnot’s strategy for getting the best out of creative personalities.

Good leadership, he says, also requires good casting. “What I have always tried to do is cast someone in a setting in which they have a high probability of succeeding. I wouldn’t put a night person into a daytime recording session. There is a risk that the person may not be able to reach their potential because I have made a tactical error in scheduling or staffing or location,” he says. “If I hire the wrong person for the job, that’s my fault.”

To cobble together the right combination of musicians, and to stack the deck in his favor, Colnot pays attention to nuances of personalities to make sure they match. In the old days, that meant not putting a musician who could read music next to one who couldn’t. It was too embarrassing, even for musicians who were seminal influences in jazz.

“Cliff is brilliant when it comes to the psychology of these situations,” says Ryan Cohan, a professional jazz pianist in Chicago who has known and worked with him for 16 years.

The key? Leaders must always demonstrate respect for their subordinates, which is critical to Colnot’s approach. “You have to make it clear you have tremendous regard for their contribution, that they are not just a cog in the big production,” he says.

Nor does he play dictator to get his point across. Colnot often cedes musical decisions in rehearsals to the most experienced musicians—the lead trumpet or first tenor sax player, for example. “It’s better to have three of me in a recording session,” he reasons. “It’s also more efficient.”

More important, this diffusion of power leads to a sense of ownership in the work among musicians, which Colnot believes produces a better product.

All that pays off in his performance, says David Bloom, owner of the Bloom School of Jazz in Chicago and a frequent collaborator with Colnot. Colnot can produce the musical track for a one-minute commercial in just 25 minutes, using 57 musicians, a remarkable feat, Bloom says. “I consider myself a damn good musician, but when I see Cliff direct, I feel like I fell off the turnip truck,” he adds.

Colnot says it took years to achieve his level of leadership, and he’s learned from his mistakes. For one, he wasn’t always so sensitive. “When I was much younger, I would act as if the ends justified the means,” he admits. He’d bark orders. ” ‘Go here. Do that.’ People later said to me, ‘You were a little insensitive,’ ” he says.

Experience has taught him the benefit of being more considerate. At a recent recording session, Colnot held his tongue when one musician was having trouble with a difficult technical passage, even though he thought the problem was the man hadn’t practiced the part.

Instead, Colnot patiently asked the musician to try the figure several times before calmly resorting to other face-saving strategies, such as having him play it with other musicians and quietly considering ways to correct it in final mixing. Had Colnot yelled or criticized the musician in front of the group, he would have created even bigger problems.

“It would have ruined the vibe in the room immediately. It is not about this one guy—it’s about all the other musicians in the room,” he says.

It would also have required him to apologize to the musician, or vice versa, to restore their working relationship.

Once again, it all goes back to respect, a philosophy that Colnot believes works on the bandstand as well as in the boardroom or storeroom. “It is much better to treat people with dignity.”

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