The Art of Assembling and Leading an Orchestra – Insights from Sergey Bogza

Sergey Bogza on NextGen Nonprofit Leadership with Tommy Thomas

“Every generation brings something to the orchestra.  With baby boomers, you get a work ethic.  They know how to get things done.  They show up on time and are diligent in their work.” -Sergey Bogza

[00:00:00] Sergey Bogza: Obviously there are strengths and weaknesses in each generation.  The conductor is how to utilize the strengths. Every generation brings a perspective. It’s certainly a fascinating process working with the baby boomers, so to speak. The work ethic – you’re going to get stuff done with baby boomers.  They just know how to get stuff done, and they know how to work, and show up on time, and be diligent in their work.


[00:00:38] Tommy Thomas: Sergey delves into the unique dynamics of working with different generations within an orchestra, highlighting how he leverages the strengths of each age group while minimizing their weaknesses.

He discusses the strategic process of assembling and leading an orchestra, emphasizing the importance of understanding each member’s skill set before making changes.

He also reflects on the balance between rigorous rehearsals and the freedom of live performances, sharing his philosophy on leadership and creativity in the fine arts.

This episode is a deep dive into the art of orchestral leadership and the life lessons that come with it, making it a must-listen for anyone interested in leadership, teamwork, and the performing arts.

Let’s pick up where we left off last week.

[00:01:40] Tommy Thomas: I want to go to I guess how you assemble an orchestra like, and we’ll just take Panama City.  When you came to town you had a group of people that I suppose were members of the symphony. How do you build the team?  Did you have to go out and bring new people in? Did you have to release some that weren’t up to what you thought might be possible?

[00:02:07] Sergey Bogza: Right? There’s a little bit of both. And what I didn’t want to do is to be a one-chapter hero or a one act hero act, or I don’t know the best way to describe it.

And it all started with, first of all, trying to understand everyone’s skill set and not making any changes right away. I wanted to become an informed, compassionate leader first, before initiating any changes, before releasing anyone, before recruiting anyone. I wanted to give everyone a fair shot.

[00:02:54] Sergey Bogza: I also wanted to give myself a fair shot of getting a clear understanding of where we are as an orchestra from a leadership perspective, from talent depth, and get a few concerts under my belt to see here’s where we are and to be able to assess and get a clear understanding of where we are as an orchestra.

And then only after that, start making strategic decisions. How do we become a better orchestra? So, the first three, four or five months I was in the data collection phase of talking to people, interviewing orchestra members, and having chamber concerts with selected orchestra musicians.

And after I got a clear picture of where we were, only after that, we started making strategic moves, whether it was by way of an audition, or by way of closely working with people.

[00:04:00] Tommy Thomas: I want to ask you an innovative kind of question, as it relates to the orchestra. Is there room for the orchestra members to innovate or be creative, or is that pretty much in the hands of the conductor?

[00:04:17] Sergey Bogza: It’s a little bit of both, frankly. And it’s more on the conductor. The conductor will shape more, for example, with a piece that the orchestra has never done, or with a brand-new work that nobody knows. A world premiere.

It’s the conductor that has a thing called the score where everyone’s parts are in it and the role of the conductor is to take all of that data and assimilate it into a vision and then communicate that vision to the musicians or traditional works.

For example, classical works that everybody has played.  It is a much more collaborative process. Everybody brings something to the table. It’s a collaborative process and they offer and then we kind of mold together into one vision that we present to the audience. So, it’s a little bit of both. If I’m being 100 percent honest.

[00:05:17] Tommy Thomas:   Over the years, you’ve worked with people from probably the boomer generation, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z.

Have you noticed any differences in the generations in terms of when it comes to working together as a team. Is there any group that does it better or any group that says, no, we’re not going there? Or am I being too general?

[00:05:42] Sergey Bogza: No, I don’t think you’re being too general.  I suppose in my position, especially in the world of fine arts, you work with all groups of people. And I would say that the four groups that you’ve described have some similarities. There are some overlaps.  Obviously there are strengths and weaknesses in each generation.

The conductor is how to utilize the strengths that every generation brings and perspectives. It’s certainly a fascinating process working with the baby boomers, so to speak. The work ethic – you’re going to get stuff done with baby boomers.  They just know how to get stuff done, and they know how to work, and show up on time, and be diligent in their work. 

But there is also value in millennials and Gen Xers. In our family, my brothers and sisters span about 20 years. So, I’ve got a chance to get to know each of those generations quite intimately.


[00:07:04] Tommy Thomas:  If y’all invited me to one of your practice sessions and after a while I convinced you to let me have some time alone with the orchestra. And I asked them two questions. I’d like your response. What would they say is the most challenging aspect of working with you?

[00:07:24] Sergey Bogza: That I’m too punctual during the process. But too free during the performance.

[00:07:34] Tommy Thomas: You want to unpack that a little bit.

[00:07:36] Sergey Bogza: Sure. Probably during our rehearsal some musicians would probably criticize and say that it’s too surgical work, that it’s too detailed and too punctual, and we’re going to start here. We’re going to end there. And now we’re going to take a break and now we’re going to work on this and now we’re going to work on that. And it’s very, it’s super structured and organized and buttoned up.

But when the performance comes, I’m a free man and people will say hold on, we’ve done this punctual work and then it comes to the performance and then we just sail free and the performance and the sailing free can feel sometimes a little dangerous or on the edge.

[00:08:29] Sergey Bogza: And that’s what I live for. That edge in the performance. I feel I can be free in the performance, but for the musicians, they want to keep some of that structure that we’ve had in rehearsals. So as a leader, I’m still learning how to balance those, how to put the group together and give it that freedom, but not for us to fly during the performance.

But not to fly dangerously, I love to fly dangerously during performances. It’s what I live for, but it’s not always to everyone’s comfort level.

[00:09:03] Tommy Thomas: But you couldn’t mean you couldn’t have that comfort. I don’t imagine if you hadn’t gone through all the rigor of what you just described in the first two or three minutes of this piece that you’ve practiced.  I’ve heard basketball coaches say that the ball games are won in the practice session. Dean Smith used to say that at Chapel Hill, they won or lost before we got to the game.

[00:09:25] Sergey Bogza: 100%. And that’s my philosophy. We set the boundaries, or we set the structure during the rehearsals, but in the performance, we just fly.

And sometimes I like to fly too dangerously in performances. And so that’s probably if, when it comes to some of the criticism of musicians, that’s probably one of the things that would say is that, things that we thought were all going to be this loud in rehearsal are now twice as loud in the performance because a spirit has taken over or some things we thought that we were going to take play this fast in rehearsal are now a little slower in performance or now a little faster in performance. But in the performance, you adjust to the spirit of the night rather than the spirit of rehearsal. And that is where the magic happens in performances.

And I’ve always felt that I’m a much better performer than in rehearsal.  As a coach in rehearsals, I tend to be too tedious, too formulaic.

[00:10:39] Sergey Bogza: And then like a switch happens when there’s an audience and I can’t help but to be free. After all, it’s what everybody else came to see. They came for the magic, for the wonder of music. And if we perform where the scenes are seen, where the work that the orchestra has put is obvious, where people can see the effort, we’ve missed the mark.

It needs to feel effortless.  When you fly too dangerously, it’s sometimes uncomfortable to some people, but it’s what we do.

[00:11:28] Tommy Thomas: So, on the flip side, what would they say would be the most rewarding part of being a member of your symphony?

[00:11:37] Sergey Bogza: The rewarding part, whether it’s working with the symphony, the board or other musicians is that we complete projects that we start. And we don’t take on projects that have a low chance of success. When we get together and we agree to do something, the majority of cases people know one way or another, this project will cross the finish line.

And I think for most people, it’s a rewarding aspect. How many times have people started something and never completed it because of the determination factor that didn’t come through or somebody else didn’t complete a portion of their role with the symphony? We like to do projects that we have a good feeling that we’re going to complete.

[00:12:36] Sergey Bogza: And when working with the symphony, whether we do concerts or music education projects, our goal, and in most cases when the people sign up, they internally know that this project will cross the finish line. And instilling that confidence that what we work on will be presented eventually, it will complete.

This is not a vanity project that will just patter out because of lack of focus or lack of enthusiasm. I think it’s what gets people going and people are willing to contribute so much more when there’s this confidence that we will cross the finish line together.

[00:13:23] Tommy Thomas: A quick question, maybe two, about the pandemic.

I can’t even imagine what the pandemic was like for an orchestra or a symphony. And then maybe the second question, what did you get out of the pandemic that’s a lesson that you can take forward? What was the silver lining?

[00:13:41] Sergey Bogza: Time is valuable, and time is fleeing. That’s what I took away from the pandemic. And for me, I remember even before the pandemic, people would often say, if I had the time, I would learn a new language. I would travel. I would spend more time. I would learn a new skill. I would discover composers I’ve never heard before.

And then the pandemic happened. And people have all this time and to my surprise, more often than not, whatever people said they wanted to do when they had the time, people didn’t pursue those things for one reason or another. So, my thought was like, okay, you must make the time.

[00:14:33] Sergey Bogza: One must find the way to achieve your dreams. Because as I’ve said, during the pandemic, everybody had so much time on their hands to develop new skills, whatever, to achieve some portion of their dreams, but utilizing time to your best advantage is a skill. Probably the time I’ve learned from the pandemic is that time is valuable.

You never get it back. So might as well utilize it to the best of your advantage and use it for your own or your good and to do something valuable with it. That’s the lesson I took away from that pandemic.

[00:15:11] Tommy Thomas: It is said that we learn most from our failures. If that’s the case, why are most of us so afraid to fail?

[00:15:33] Sergey Bogza: I’m trying to give an answer to this, but I’m having a hard time coming up with the right answer because strangely I’ve got used to failure. It’s part of my DNA and I suppose I’m not afraid of failure. I hope it’s not coming off, sounding too proud. But I wish more people would take on projects that would make them scared.

There’s so much reward on the other side and embracing, I don’t know, maybe it’s getting comfortable with fear.

[00:16:13] Sergey Bogza: Once one finds a way to be comfortable with fear, whether it’s fear of public speaking, of doing something difficult, of doing something where you might embarrass yourself, there’s such a reward and beauty on the other side when you can talk to that version of yourself that is fearful.

It’s the reason why I feel I’ve taken up endurance sports. During the endurance run, I always come across that weak, pathetic version of Sergey that says, go home, practice your piano. Why are you here in the middle of the mountains running? Your knee hurts. Your head hurts. You’re a musician after all. What are you doing here?

And when one meets that, and gets to understand those evil thoughts of one’s weak, pathetic version of themselves, and one gets comfortable with that part of yourself, and one learns how to have that conversation, that I know that voice. Whether it’s music or any other field that says maybe this is not for you, maybe you don’t belong at this level, you’re not meant to achieve these things.

And one learns how to confront that and have an honest conversation, or at least be on equal terms. There’s so much freedom on the other side of fear.


[00:17:58] Tommy Thomas: I’d like you to respond to a few quotes. This is always a fun part of the podcast to me. And here’s one that would certainly be in your area. It’s from Ben Zander, the Conductor of the Boston Philharmonic. He says the conductor doesn’t make a sound. The conductor’s power depends upon his or her ability to make other people powerful.

[00:18:22] Sergey Bogza: I could not agree more.  Adding anything to that quote would be taking away from it.

[00:18:35] Tommy Thomas: Here’s another one. No matter what job you have in life, your success will be determined 5 percent by your credentials, 15 percent by your professional experiences, and 80 percent by your communication skills.

[00:18:54] Sergey Bogza: I have no response except to say, keep them coming. Those are wonderful quotes. Communication is, I suppose everything. And in a world of conductors, where we make no sound at all, and we communicate without gestures, with our eyes, where we communicate nonverbally, where we communicate how we dress, how we look at people, our postures, our demeanor, our facial expressions.

Our orchestras often say within 10 seconds of the conductor on the podium, even before they give the first cue to start, we know the type of person they are.  And if we’re going to have a successful concert.

[00:19:48] Tommy Thomas:  Phil Jackson, the former coach of the Lakers, the strength of the team is each member. The strength of each member is the team. Another one. No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it.

[00:20:14] Sergey Bogza: That is true.  Wow, these are wonderful quotes.  Keep them coming because I feel like I’ve just become a student. And I’m learning.  There’s no response to that. This is beautiful.

These are beautiful quotes. And yeah, they apply to orchestras, just like any business or any organization that requires a team to make it tick and work.

Another athletic quote from Casey Stengel. Getting good players is easy. Getting them to play together is the hard part.

[00:20:53] Sergey Bogza: I have something to say about that. In the musical world, and especially in a professional orchestra, where you’re not learning, when you’re not working with amateurs, when you’re working with people that have years and years of training, and to be in a music world there’s no way you cannot have an ego to get on stage, to pick up an instrument, to make a sound and to have that confidence.

I have something valuable for people to listen to that takes a certain amount of conviction and takes a certain amount of ego in the best sense of that word. Now, when you get 65 musicians that have that pedigree, that have that background, and to mold all of that into a group, that is tricky, that is difficult.

[00:21:52] Sergey Bogza: And that is where quality of leadership is essentially determined. I have had a friend who said, you don’t really know how good of a conductor you are until you’ve truly worked with a professional orchestra. It’s easy as a conductor or a coach to work with. I don’t want to say it’s easy. It’s a different ball game.

If you’re working with, say undeveloped talent, where you have to do drills and you have to instill the basics. But when you’re working with professionals who have done it, who know the business, who know how it goes, when on the first go around the orchestra is sounding amazing, when you don’t need to point out little deficiencies, when you no longer need to correct wrong notes, wrong rhythms, or the orchestra is not together, when the product is great from the get go, that’s when you really learn the kind of leader you are and the depth of your conducting abilities.

[00:23:06] Sergey Bogza: Because then you really must give the magic, then you must give the musical leadership, the intentions behind the music, the spirit of it, you have to inspire a great product of what you’re already getting that’s wonderful. And that’s when you really learn what level of a musician you are.

Are you an artist or you are a drill sergeant or you’re a basic conductor that just knows the basics? That’s the tricky part. It’s when you get a well-oiled machine. For example, when I grew up, I loved basketball. And in the mid 90s, of course, it was the Chicago Bulls.

[00:23:50] Sergey Bogza:  Imagine becoming a coach of a team like that. Winning championships, we’ve got the best player in the world, you’ve got the best synergy and your goal as a coach to drive that, to give them something even more, we’re not coaching a team that’s losing every other game, where you get the best team and your goal is to continue that energy and to elevate it.  That’s where you really learn who you are as a leader and as a coach.

[00:24:29] Tommy Thomas: Here’s a different kind of quote. If you never color outside the lines, the picture will never change.

[00:24:38] Sergey Bogza: Yeah. And in the world of music, when you’re working with works that have been composed 200 years ago, 300 years ago, 100 years ago, that have become staple in our repertoire world, works that everyone has, everyone knows. And when they come to a concert and you’re performing that piece, the conductor’s role is to color outside the lines, to give those works a new perspective, a new life. And in that sense would have missed the point by coloring inside the lines.

We’ll close out with a couple of, two, three lightning round questions. The first one, have you changed in the last five years?

[00:25:29] Sergey Bogza: Oh, yes. I think I’m a different person than I was five years ago.   I’d like to say that I’m a more patient and sympathetic person. And I give that credit to my two dogs, Samson and Stella. I’ve become a dog owner in the last five years. It’s a new area of life that I’ve discovered and taking care of two animals daily has changed who I am as a person.

That’s one of the things I wish I had done earlier in my life, is to become a pet owner.

[00:26:21] Tommy Thomas: If you could meet any historical figure and ask them only one question, who would it be and what would you ask?

[00:26:40] Sergey Bogza: It would be the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. And the question I would ask him is, where did you find the energy and the meaning to carry on?

[00:27:02] Tommy Thomas: Final question, what’s the best piece of advice anybody’s ever given you?

[00:27:09] Sergey Bogza: Be humble, be a student, and lead with compassion.

[00:27:21] Tommy Thomas: Thank you for joining us today. If you are a first-time listener, I hope you will subscribe and become a regular. You can find links to all the episodes at our website –

If there are topics you’d like for me to explore, my email address is [email protected].  Word of mouth has been identified as the most valuable form of marketing. Surveys tell us that consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over all other forms of advertising.

If you’ve heard something today that’s worth passing on, please share it with others. You’re already helping me make something special for the next generation of nonprofit leaders. I’ll be back next week with a new episode. Until then, stay the course on our journey to help make the nonprofit sector more effective and sustainable.

“The best advice I have ever been given – be humble, be a student, and lead with compassion.” -Sergey Bogza

Links and Resources

JobfitMatters Website

Next Gen Nonprofit Leadership with Tommy Thomas

The Perfect Search – What every board needs to know about hiring their next CEO

Panama City Symphony Website

Sergey Bogza’s Personal Website


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