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Groups that work well in ensemble can deal successfully with life's nuisances

By Leon Hoffman

Groups have been a major focus and unifying concept throughout my life; the individual has been another. My lifelong connection to music has been the fertile ground from which those interests have developed.

Fortunately, my parents exposed me to fine music of all kinds from my earliest years. I was trained to be a cellist with emphasis on chamber music, particularly the string quartet. The goal was to instill in me the love of music. That education also emphasized the importance of being a soloist as well as a member of a group (ensemble). Our world needs both.

Those early musical experiences taught me the importance of ensemble, the cornerstone of group functioning. An ensemble at its best is made up of individuals who also know how to play in ensemble. Individuals are encouraged to do their best for themselves and for the benefit of the group. The string quartet has been my standard for how all effective groups must function, whether they are musical groups, families, organizations or the nations of the world. (Think of the legendary basketball player Michael Jordan and the historic Chicago Bulls to understand the role of the individual, the individual-in-the-group and the group-as-a-whole.)

Ensemble training may have predisposed me to become a psychologist, and particularly a specialist in group dynamics. The principles of group dynamics (or ensemble), like the law of gravity, apply to all equally, whether one knows them or not. Understanding those principles provides hope for the enormous, complex challenges facing our contemporary world, which finds itself embroiled in one form of disaster or another. Being a participantobserver in our fascinating world keeps me interested, enthused and connected.

Process is typically more important than content. The details of any problems, whether miniscule or enormous, are challenges that effective groups can convert into opportunities. Groups that work well in ensemble can deal successfully with nuisances such as parking meters and potholes as well as catastrophes of seismic proportions, such as the earthquake in Japan (a natural disaster) or the overdue upheavals in the Middle East (a manmade calamity). Regardless of the enormity of such situations, we can remain confident that the skilled use of groups will help us not only to survive but to thrive and possibly even to prevail.

After all the things we have coveted and people we have known are gone, one thing always remains: hope. Hope is what fuels our life-enhancing visions. The expert use of groups is the main way that such visions are implemented and keeps us moving toward the light — to grow, improve and advance.

When our world's diverse groups learn to function well in ensemble, we will better manage the situations that come our way. That will be the sweetest music that anyone might ever have imagined. Since music is how our feelings sound, what feelings do you think will come from that music?

Published May 21, 2011, Chicago Tribune