Sybarite5 Shares How to Build the Right Ensemble for Innovation

When it comes to peak performance and innovation, music shares several lessons with business, from the importance of finding the right collaborators to stirring a hunger for creativity.

Organizations that try to build an innovation culture realize early on that peak performance and innovation are not overnight pursuits. It takes time and focus for musicians to be at the top of their game and, often, the height of their creativity. It might look effortless when the right opportunity comes along, but it is all about preparation and practice.

Louis Levitt, founder and bassist of the ground-breaking string quintet Sybarite5, shares it was a “real necessity” for the group to disrupt the current classical paradigms before they could express themselves in new ways, which had not been available to previous generations of composers and performers. He said it took several years to build the team to its current state alongside Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney on violin, Angela Pickett on viola, and Laura Metcalf on cello.

To find the right teammates, musical excellence was a given. For an ensemble to exist for the long term, Levitt said each individual member needed to either be passionate about innovation or open to it.

HR Untold: Making Innovation an Art Form with Sybarite 5

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HR Untold: Making Innovation an Art Form with Sybarite 5

Before cellist Laura Metcalf first joined Sybarite5 a decade ago, Levitt asked her and his other recruits two important questions. The first was: “Are you interested in a career in performing chamber music?” This might seem like a given, but it was something Levitt really wanted to know. There are many different kinds of musical careers and small ensembles, which all need to be fueled by passion.

Levitt’s second question was: “Are you into playing Radiohead and Led Zeppelin?” This was about sounding out whether potential ensemble members were open to trying new things. If they had heard of those two bands and said yes, great. If they had not heard of them but were willing to learn, that was fine too. The only red flag for Levitt was if they knew the bands and said no. That kind of attitude was not aligned with Sybarite5’s ambitions, which were ground-breaking down to the ensemble’s basic structure.

Many people are more familiar with string quartets — a chamber music ensemble of two violins, a viola, and a cello. As a quintet, Sybarite5 is unusual and constantly finds itself collaborating with composers just to get enough music to play. Innovation must be part of the plan.

Organizations that are relentless about innovation tend to look to an open ecosystem of collaborators and influencers. SAP.iO Foundries, a program with a global network of startups that feed new ideas and technology to SAP, functions the same way.

“We started playing different types of music that we just weren’t allowed to play anywhere else, and that led to a great deal of satisfaction and excitement for us because we could do new things and we didn’t have rules that we had to follow, like we did with Mozart and Beethoven,” says Levitt.

That includes Sybarite’s album Outliers, which contains only new music written for the ensemble and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Traditional Classical Chart.

But with an often-grueling tour schedule, how does the ensemble maintain the kind of peak performance that got them to No. 1 on the Billboard chart? For one, said Levitt, the ensemble stays in shape physically, mentally, and emotionally. He adds that “discipline is actually a liberator.”

“If you’re able to be disciplined in what you’re doing, it actually will liberate you and free you up to be able to have control over more things and be more relaxed about the things that come at you in whatever situation,” Levitt explains. That means being disciplined with one’s instrument, “so that you feel like your chops are really good,” even when performing outdoors in 50-degree weather at the Aspen Music Festival, as both instruments and people are changed by the cold.

When asked what lessons businesses could learn from musicians, violist Angela Pickett says, “Listening is everything.”

“When you’re having musical discussions and talking about different interpretations of a piece, there’s not really a right and wrong answer,” violinist Sarah Whitney shares. “It’s not like, ‘That note is wrong.’ There’s a lot of room for interpretation, so I think it’s really important to know that we could have five ideas that are all right, in a sense.”

The members of the ensemble work hard to collaborate, especially since they are “very different” people with strong personalities, according to Metcalf. “We understand what other people need, we understand what other people bring to the table. And just through the work of playing together, of traveling and being on the road together for 10 years, we’ve taken five really different people and we’ve figured out how to work — it’s going to sound cheesy — in harmony.”

Bringing together independent, skilled collaborators to make something new is what contemporary artists struggle with every day. This is equally applicable to the business landscape where the one thing companies cannot afford to do is what they did yesterday. Collective innovation is tough, but just as it is with music, it is something you can learn with practice.

String quintet Sybarite5 is a dynamic chamber music ensemble that has defied musical genres and styles for the last decade, performing in front of audiences around the world. Its newest release, “Sybarite5: Live From New York, It’s Sybarite 5,” showcases highlights from shows at The Cell Theatre in New York City.


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Kirsten Allegri Williams is chief marketing officer at SAP SuccessFactors.