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Conductorless Orchestra Helps EE Students Fine Tune Their Professional Skills

Developed by an Olin College engineering professor, the program teaches students about leadership, teamwork, and communication

4 min read
Dabby interacting with the orchestra during a OCO dress rehearsal, 2015.
Diana Dabby, creator of the Olin Conductorless Orchestra, interacting with the players during a dress rehearsal in 2015.
Photo: Alexander Budnitz

THE INSTITUTE Diana Dabby grew up surrounded by music—both her parents were pianists. The IEEE member followed in their footsteps and earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. After graduating, she moved to New York City and worked as a pianist, performing at venues including Merkin Hall and Weill Recital Hall.

Although Dabby was passionate about music, she had an unsettling feeling that something was missing. That something turned out to be engineering—which she discovered after she read journal articles about engineering’s relationship to music. She decided to pursue a graduate degree in the field.

After earning a doctorate in electrical engineering from MIT, Dabby became an engineering and music professor. She taught at Tufts University, MIT, and The Juilliard School. She also continued to play concerts, performing at Jordan Hall, Tanglewood, and other venues in Massachusetts.

In 2000, Dabby joined the Olin College of Engineering, in Needham, Mass., where she was one of 12 founding faculty members. In 2002 she established the Olin Conductorless Orchestra (OCO), which completed its 19th season this year. No conductor leads the orchestra; instead, the students work together to perfect their performances. The program is designed to give talented engineering students an expressive outlet while also helping them develop professional skills such as leadership, teamwork, and communication.

Last year Dabby won a Best Paper Award from the American Society for Engineering Education. Her winning paper—“The Engineers’ Orchestra: A Conductorless Orchestra for Developing 21st-Century Professional Skills”—describes the program’s benefits.

TAKING A RISK

Dabby says music has always been an extension of herself, and she enjoyed the focus and expressivity that came with preparing for her concerts.

Performing “just kept accentuating and improving my musicianship, and I loved that process,” she says. “The idea of reaching one’s full potential was very powerful to me.”

She says she enjoyed taking risks in order to achieve her goal of bettering her skills as a musician.

“I built up a very strong track record with taking risks,” she says, “whether during a performance or in my professional life.”

And taking a risk is exactly what Dabby did after she came across an engineering journal at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The journal contained articles by engineers whose avocation was music, and they inspired Dabby to ask: “What if a professional musician, one of my colleagues, or I acquired the tools of an engineer? Would we invent something new for music in our own time?”

That idea pushed her to pursue a graduate degree in engineering while working as a performer and freelancer.

In order to apply to graduate programs, she had to supplement her music bachelor’s degree with postbaccalaureate classes.

“I had to [earn] around 127 credits because I had no math or science background,” Dabby says. She did so at the City College of New York.

“I retaught myself algebra and discovered that I loved it,” she says. “Engineering became this wonderful respite from performing. The engineering felt fresh. The music felt fresh.”

After Dabby completed the credits she needed, she was accepted to MIT. For her doctoral thesis, she merged engineering and music. She devised a chaotic mapping tool—a representation of chaotic behavior that is typically used in mathematics—that could be used to make musical variations. The variations, which could be either changes in pitch or in the rhythmic sequence of a piece, could be close to the original work or mutate almost beyond recognition.

Dabby has been granted four U.S. patents for her work.

She says she wanted to “come up with something for music in the 21st century that wouldn’t necessarily occur to those who were not performers or professional musicians.”

CONDUCTORLESS ORCHESTRA

In fall 2000, when the Olin College of Engineering assembled a leadership team and faculty to begin from scratch, it paid attention to a list of skills the U.S. National Academy of Engineering wanted in engineering students. The list included leadership skills, effective communication, and the ability to work as part a team. The Olin faculty members brainstormed how they could help their students develop the skills, and that’s when the OCO was born.

The idea “just popped into my head in our first meeting,” Dabby says. “I thought, Oh my gosh, this could mean a conductorless orchestra. Everyone leads, and everyone follows.”

The students learn how to collaborate with one another and how to communicate effectively. The musicians learn to watch one another to ensure everyone starts and ends together, as well as adjust balance, dynamic levels, and tempo by listening intently and cueing one another, Dabby says.

“It requires the musicians to actively listen to their parts within the context of a larger whole and adjust accordingly,” she wrote in her chapter of the book Creative Ways of Knowing Engineering. The chapter describes the OCO.

Olin had only 75 students in its first year, and the first conductorless orchestra was composed of five engineering students, with Dabby at the piano. These days there are between 12 and 22 students, all selected by audition, in the OCO.

The students select a piece to play, and Dabby creates an arrangement, adjusting the piece according to the instruments the students play.

Each year, the musicians elect two to four navigators, who work with Dabby to ensure rehearsals run smoothly and communication lines remain open within the group. Together, along with two rehearsal leaders, they come up with the agenda for that week’s rehearsal.

During rehearsals, orchestra members can share their thoughts regarding the different interpretations of the piece the group chose to play. The members play each interpretation, and the orchestra votes on which version it wants to perform.

All involved in the OCO learn how to listen, when to speak, and when to refrain from sharing their thoughts.

“Employers see the Olin Conductorless Orchestra on résumés and they’re curious,” Dabby says. “It’s actually helped students get jobs.”

The program also has helped students during their time at the college.

“It’s a stress-reliever,” Dabby says. The OCO “gives [students] balance in their lives.”

The orchestra performs at school functions and travels once a year to play at other venues. Last year it received a standing ovation after performing at the American Society for Engineering Education Zone 1 International Conference, Dabby says.

“There’s always an upcoming performance, and it’s another chance for students to raise the bar,” she says. “For students, it’s a challenge and a neat way to become better while doing something they love.”

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