Leadership Lessons from a Symphonic Conductor & WWII Vet

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Have you ever had a leader make a positive, lasting impression on you in just a few hours?

When I was in high school, I was selected to play my flute in an honors wind ensemble band at the University of Miami. Rehearsals begin on a Thursday afternoon and continued through Saturday morning, preparing for a Saturday night concert. Our conductor was Retired Air Force Colonel Arnald Gabriel, who had chosen three tough pieces for us to play. One was La Forza del Destino from Verdi’s Italian opera – a complicated nine-minute piece, known for running 16th notes typically played by strings. It would normally take a month to work up to quality performance caliber and we had two days.

As I’m flipping pages of running 16th notes, the door opens, and this unassuming man walks straight to the podium with only a baton in hand. No score, just himself. The girl next to me look at me, raised one eyebrow, and mouthed “Where is his music?” I shrugged back. You could hear the room murmur the same question.

He was all business, quickly tapping his baton on the empty stand in front of him, raising his hands for us to begin. With a swift downbeat, we immediately realized how high his expectations were. He set a pace much quicker than you would for a group sight-reading a piece. He did not back down. We weren’t going to be coddled, we were going to be worked.

After a few minutes, he cut us off. One of the trumpets raises his hand and says “Col. Gabriel, measure 157 – is the second quarter-note a B-flat or natural?” Col. Gabriel replied, “it is an eighth note, not a quarter note, and it is a B natural.” The room swelled with laughter as the trumpet player failed to trap Col. Gabriel. The man not only knew this score, he knew every note and musical marking on the score. You could ask “What are the notes in measure 349?” and he name them all, for every part. Without a mistake. A clarinet player disagreed with him over notes. He said her measures were numbered incorrectly and she was looking in the wrong spot. He was right.

He knew all three pieces by memory, and each were long and challenging. La Forza was particularly messy for flutes. We were given the prominent running 16th notes typically played by strings. It is much harder to tongue notes at speed than bow a string. We were struggling and he was unrelenting. At one point in the rehearsal he looked us and said “You know I play the flute. If I didn’t know a piece, I would skip all my breaks and lunches to make sure I learned it.” We took the hint and skipped lunches and breaks to drill the music, not wanting to let him or ourselves down.

As we closed out rehearsal on Friday night, he took La Forza at a pace so fast we could barely keep up. We finished and collapsed in our chairs, a bit scrambled trying to keep tempo with any musicality. He smirked and said “Tomorrow, we’ll try it up to speed. Good night!” Our mouths fell open.

Over the years, I probably played in 15 of these ensembles. I couldn’t tell you the songs played or names of conductors. But I remember all the pieces we played under Col. Gabriel. It is one of the performances of which I am most proud. His leadership was special and had a unique impact.

He set a standard higher than you thought possible and pushed you to get there, though not in an unhealthy way. He was direct in rehearsals on who and what needed improvement. He helped you realize the choice in your time spent together. You could practice and perform fine. Or you could challenge yourself and perform with great pride. He stretched your aspirations for yourself.

He did not ask us to do anything that he wasn’t doing. He memorized each score but didn’t have a photographic memory. He knew he was a better leader and conductor with memorized scores. There was nothing between him and the musicians except trust. His eye contact was never broken looking down. He was 100% present and able to bring out the best of the musicians. He made us want to perform better for him and ourselves. Our success was his…his success was ours.

I recently listened to the recording performance and was taken back to the concert hall. Col. Gabriel conducted us in his dress white jacket. We felt like we were creating magic that night. As he cut off the final song, we sat frozen for a minute…the only movement was our lips stretching into a smile as the music left its imprint. He let out an enthusiastic “Bravo!” before leading us in a bow. We felt such pride seeing his praise. He set high expectations, challenged us, made us better, and celebrated our accomplishments.

Col. Arnald Gabriel led the U.S. Air Force Band and Symphony Orchestra to fame as Commander and Conductor from 1964 to 1985. The U.S. Air Force Bands became world-renowned under his command, with celebrities requesting to perform with them. Upon retirement, Col. Arnald Gabriel was frequently asked to guest conduct groups like mine. He was known for making any group sound like a world-class symphony in just a few days…and impacting people with his leadership in a matter of hours.

On June 6, 2019, Retired Col. Arnald Gabriel visited the beaches of Normandy, France. 75 years prior he fought in WWII as a U.S. Army infantryman. At 94, he stood again as a conductor before a group of musicians from the university I attended: The Marching Chiefs. Without a score and commanding excellence from them. Helping them perform the best version of themselves and honoring all of those who served.

*Photo cred: Bob Thurston, Composer/Arranger/Conductor and all around cool man.