March 07, 2016, BY Matthew Beltz

In a student lounge on the Bucknell University campus in late February, members of a markets, innovation & design class sat in a circle surrounding the world-renowned Fitzwilliam String Quartet.

Instruments in hand, the group played snippets of music used in marketing for companies such as Apple, Microsoft, AT&T, 20th Century Fox, McDonald‘s, United Airlines and Hewlett-Packard. The musicians then asked the students to name the brand associated with each clip. The class’ recognition of the tunes and products underscored the lesson that good music elicits a memorable emotional experience for customers.

“I loved it. I saw them last year when they came to Management 101, and I loved how they combined music with management and teamwork,” said Josh Popkin ’18.

A string quartet performing in and teaching a management class? It may seem like an odd pairing, but dig a little deeper, and the collaboration begins to make sense.

The Fitzwilliam String Quartet's association with Bucknell dates back to 1978, when Professors Ben Willeford and William Cooper heard the group perform during a trip to London. Impressed, they invited the musicians to come to Bucknell for a residency and performance. Since then, the quartet has visited the University more than 20 times to work with students in a variety of disciplines and also perform concerts.

One of the first classes the quartet spoke to in 1978 was the then-new MGMT 101 course. Now widely recognized as an innovative model, MGMT 101 is Bucknell's collaborative, experiential organization and management course. While many academic departments have sponsored the quartet over the years, it has visited MGMT 101 during each visit to Bucknell, covering topics that include collaboration, teamwork and emergent leadership, among many others. This was the second straight year that the School of Management sponsored the quartet’s residency.

“There's so much for management students to learn from any group of people that function together effectively as a unit,” said violist Alan George, an original member of the quartet. “We once instructed a class on the concept of improvisation. We related improvisation in music to that in the boardroom, and it worked brilliantly.

“We have demonstrated how clips of music — even just one chord or note — are related in the public eye to a certain product or occasion and used as an identity for all sorts of products, issues and events.” 

That concept, known as sonic logos or sonic branding, was one of the subjects in the Markets, Innovation & Design (MIDE) 300 class, which also featured the quartet playing more traditional chamber music to help illustrate concepts in leadership and teamwork. After performing each section, the musicians asked the class to identify the quartet’s leader. Each time, it was different, and in some cases the leadership changed during the piece of music. This helped demonstrate three types of leadership that the class was studying — dictator, democratic and shared. The exercise also illustrated different types of teams, such as interdependent, surgical, co-opting and distributed.

“While some students will go on to work in typical corporate settings, a lot of students in the MIDE program are looking for different environments,” said Professor Seth Orsborn, management, who co-teaches the class with Professor Doug Allen. “This exercise demonstrates that there are all kinds of teams and collaborations with different leadership frameworks. All can be effective, and it makes students aware that there are many ways they can live and experience what they want to do with their education and goals.”

The quartet’s distinctive approach to teaching management concepts definitely got the attention of the students, many of whom came away impressed.

“At this point, we almost expect the unexpected,” said Mary Agrusti ’18. “It’s nice that in every MIDE class we come into, it’s completely different. There's not necessarily any order or repetition of anything we do.” 

Those thoughts were echoed by Allen, who sees even greater opportunity for students in addition to the value the quartet brings to MIDE 300.

“The spirit of our course is the antithesis of a routine, so we always try to shake people up and get people comfortable with continuous change, which is exactly the way it will be when students graduate and are designing new products, organizations or movements,” said Allen. But the bigger picture, he added, is the interdisciplinary one.

“The idea of being creative and innovative means putting yourself in foreign positions and exposing yourself to things that you haven’t done in the past,” Allen said. “For some students, it was probably the first time they’ve ever seen a string quartet. Maybe now they’ll attend one of their concerts on campus this week, and appreciate them even more.”

The appreciation is definitely mutual. George, the only member of the quartet who has participated in all of the Bucknell residencies, has great admiration for the University and its management program.

“This place has really got so many things going on, and for us to be part of it is great,” he said. “You don't see string quartets working at management schools in many parts of the world.”