CHICAGO - The real estate executive was seated comfortably between the bassoons and the violins when the unexpected request came for her to take the podium and conduct Brahms’ First Symphony.
‘‘Uh-oh,’’ said Kathy Engel, until now just a spectator and listener at concert performances.
Baton in hand, she managed — with hands-on guidance from a professional conductor standing behind her. Engel’s debut was part of the program at The Music Paradigm, an arts-based training seminar designed to work with large organizations.
Experiencing an orchestra in action, the thinking goes, can provide a vivid lesson to managers and give them a new way to think and talk about leadership, communication and teamwork.
Call it organizational training in B (for business) major, Opus 35. That’s how many companies and organizations have booked the symphonic training sessions this year at a cost of $30,000 to $60,000 each — orchestra included.
If an orchestra pit seems an unlikely place for corporate management lessons, Roger Nierenberg, the program’s founder, conductor and motivational speaker, is quick to agree.
Music director of the Stamfo rd (Conn.) Symphony Orchestra since 1988 and a guest conductor around the world, Nierenberg says he came up with the ‘‘improbable idea’’ for the program in 1995 as a way to get people more interested in orchestras.
But corporations proved so interested in the offbeat concept that The Music Paradigm has become a successful and growing business in its own right. Nierenberg has performed for dozens of multinational corporations and associations, working with the Royal Philharmonic in London, the San Diego Symphony, the Singapore Symphony and 50 other orchestras.
Using the metaphor of conductor as leader and orchestra as organization, the 56-year-old maestro has tapped into the small but flourishing market of arts-related business training programs, as corporations seek innovative ways to convey important messages and priorities to staff.
Arts-based training is a rapidly emerging field thanks to use by dozens of Fortune 500 companies, according to Harvey Seifter, a board member of the Arts and Business Council, a nonprofit arts service organization based in New York.
‘‘The knowledge and the skill that artists have in creativity, teamwork, intercultural communication, collaborative management, dealing with change and envisioning the future — all of those are key areas for businesses,’’ he said.
Nierenberg and his staff of six gather input from clients and tailor
presentations to companies’ preferences, working in insights and quips on topics ranging from restructuring to management change to diversity.
Managers are seated among orchestra members in rehearsal exercises to make them aware of the mastery of individual players and the ways they respond, or don’t, to a conductor’s baton. The result is an unusually melodic training session.
‘‘It’s not just entertainment, it’s very effective in terms of moving the organization and getting it to communicate more internally,’’ Nierenberg said. ‘‘If you can talk about issues like ‘We have to tune up’ and ‘We have to get in better balance,’ that’s a nice indirect way that enables people to confront issues that might otherwise be a little too sensitive.’’
The Music Paradigm turned a downtown hotel ballroom into a makeshift concert hall one recent morning and put 1,000 real estate brokerowners and managers at a Re/ Max International conference into the ‘‘pit’’ with Symphony II, a Chicago orchestra.
The silver-maned, tuxedoclad Nierenberg hailed the musicians as great artists, stress management experts and decision-makers, but cautioned: ‘‘Outstanding musicians don’t necessarily mean outstanding results unless there is outstanding teamwork.’’
He animatedly ‘‘misused’’ his baton — demonstrating micro-management, selfindulgence and indifference — getting corresponding results from the orchestra. Then he stood to the side and let the musicians play, passably well, without direction.
But a great leader, he said, after putting Engel on the podium, shows the proper inspired touch and ‘‘enables an organization to feel that it can almost do anything.’’
Count Engel, a Realtor and general manager in Malverne, N.Y., among the converts to the artistic way of thinking. ‘‘We’ve gone through training before on how to communicate with our people, but he’s given me a wonderful perspective on how to take it out of the box,’’ she said after her brief but ‘‘awesome’’ experience wielding the power of the baton. ‘‘I’m going to revamp the way I speak to people.’’
Nierenberg, who’s leaving his Stamford conducting post next April, wants to help make classical music metaphors as popular with rank-and-file workers as sports metaphors. But he said his message isn’t simply that companies should be like orchestras.
‘‘It’s not that. It’s that the orchestra is a fantastic laboratory in which communication is intensified and turned into results almost instantly, so you can see much more of the process than with other kinds of organizations,’’ he said. ‘‘Things snap into focus with great clarity in an orchestra.’’