Sydney Symphony Orchestra co-principal double bass Kees Boersma reflects on the necessary skills and attributes for successful leadership


Having the opportunity to lead a section of motivated and talented musicians in an excellent symphony orchestra is a great pleasure and privilege.

It is my good fortune to be a co-principal of the double bass section of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a position that brings both a tremendous amount of artistic satisfaction and musical stimulation, generated by the music and the many wonderful colleagues I share our stage with.

There are many personal and musical rewards. Top of the list is performing magnificent symphonic masterpieces on a weekly basis with a roster of today’s pre-eminent conductors and soloists. What makes this even more special is that my orchestra is in Sydney - it’s simply not possible to tire of rehearsing and performing in the iconic Sydney Opera House; it’s a pretty special place to call my office…

To try and articulate the attributes that are needed to be an effective section leader, I reflect on my official job description. This states that I should strive to maintain responsibility for the performance standard of my section, maintain rehearsal discipline, assist the conductor in realising interpretive directions and give feedback and relevant performance indications to the members of my section. On top of this are the obvious requirements to play the solo passages when they occur in the repertoire, make the necessary decisions about bowings and, not surprisingly, sit at the front of the section!

The quest to maintain the highest possible playing standards should always be at the top of the list of aspirations for any section leader – this starts with the level of ‘homework’ that is brought to bear on whichever piece is on the programme. Knowing the piece well means much more than just learning the notes…

Equally important is clarity in leading and good communication skills - it’s in the area of communication that problems can often arise.

We spend years striving to be the best we can on our instrument and, of course, this is essential to have any chance of success as a musician. Interestingly though, I consider the greatest challenges I have faced in my 25 years of being a section leader  as having come from issues in effective communication and people skills.

A section leader is responsible for a team and when that team is dysfunctional, the result is going to be considerably less than what it could be. For each player to understand both their role and value in that team is essential and it is the challenge of a leader to encourage this feeling of individual value amongst the players in a section.

Encouraging input from all players when discussing musical details during rehearsals (this can be challenging when our rehearsal environment relies on relative quiet across the orchestra - conductors dislike too much chat!) keeps everyone involved with the creative process; decision making should not just be the domain of the section leader. Encouraging  each player’s contribution rather than stifling it, avoiding  singling out individuals for criticism and finding  a creative or humorous way of dealing with whatever needs to be said in an inclusive manner are all strategies that can help keep everyone working together constructively.

Staying on good terms with colleagues also allows communication lines to stay open  - you don’t have to be best friends to work well together but it sure helps to be able to say ‘Good morning’ to the people you work with so closely!

We have to remember that the art of being a musician is one of communication – that of the music, through you, to the audience; it is at the heart of all that we do.

The challenge of communicating the magic of our great symphonic works is one of harnessing the collective energies of the group. When that happens, with musicians who have the exacting standards we see nearly everywhere in the world today, you can really enjoy being at the helm of a fantastic, engaged and vibrant section.

Watch Kees Boersma conduct a Symphony Symphony Orchestra double bass audition masterclass.

Photo: Steven Godbee

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