September 9, 2007
BY MARK CURNUTTE
Paavo Järvi became the 12th music director of the Cincinnati Symphony in September 2001.
He conducts an orchestra of 100 headstrong, talented people. Järvi's task, like that of Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, is to get all of the people beneath him pulling in one direction.
Järvi needs to blend the talents of individual musicians and the orchestra's various sections.
Lewis needs to blend the talents of 53 players and the team's three major components - offense, defense and special teams.
In 2006, the Bengals lost their last three games. It was a season marked by inconsistency across the team.
It was comparable to an orchestra in which the brass section is flat during one performance and the strings scratch the next.
Born in Estonia, Järvi played soccer. He knows little about the finer points of American football but has attended Bengals games at Paul Brown Stadium.
He appreciates the leadership position Lewis commands and sees parallels between his job and the role of NFL head coach.
Question: Do you follow American football?
Answer: Where I come from, soccer is called football. I try to understand the nuances of the game. I like watching it. On one hand, it is a physical game, a power game. On the other hand, I always try to figure out how they communicate. Brute force is nothing by itself without strategy. I always wonder what Marvin Lewis is hearing in his headset and what he is saying.
Q: Do you feel a sense of kinship with Lewis?
A: I think it is exactly the same thing, what he does and what I do, just different nuances. He is trying to get his team to play their best. I am trying to get the orchestra to play its best.
Q: How do you motivate your players? Do you think it's similar to how Lewis motivates his?
A: In the old world, fear is the greatest motivator. Artistically, fear alone is not going to get you anywhere. In sports, you probably need some fear, fear of losing your job. People who lead need to develop trust. The people you lead have to trust your direction. If you say enough stupid things that make no sense, they will not trust you.
When everything is said and done, people want to do their best. Fear alone can be paralyzing. My job is to try to empower each individual. Nothing is better than a good performance: "We did this well. We won the game." You want to go out and do it again and have more confidence when you go out.
Q: How do you think professional musicians and professional football players might be similar?
A: They are incredibly accomplished in their fields. There is a certain amount of self-pride. I have 100 musicians. One needs a friend. One needs a teacher. One needs a dictator. One needs a mother. And you must respect each individual.
Q: In the way the quarterback is the most important player on the field, who is the most important person in an orchestra?
A: The concert master, the first violinist. But an orchestra, like a football team, has so many sections. There are strings (and) woodwinds. You have brass and percussion. There are a lot of leaders in an orchestra. The principal oboist is the moral authority of the wind section. The principal violinist has the authority to serve as the go-between for the orchestra and conductor.
Q: Football teams lose games. What is the comparison for an orchestra?
A: We are constantly reviewed publicly. No matter how well we play, we are judged, often harshly, in public. A bad review can be just as devastating for an orchestra as a loss for a football team. It is painful. But the individual is often the harshest critic of himself.
Q: Both you and Lewis judge talent, right?
A: I have been hired for one basic criterion - to judge quality. A coach or conductor is hired to be the ultimate judge of what quality is. At this level, I don't know of a musician who wants to play badly. I don't know if there is a football player who wants to play badly. The most difficult decision is what to do with the person who is unable to keep up.