GILBERT KAPLAN: Welcome back to “Mad About Music” where my guest today is Michael McCaskey, the Chairman of the Board of one of the great football teams: the Chicago Bears.
KAPLAN: As the grandson of George Halas, the owner of the Chicago Bears for so many years, he might well have been expected to play a key role one day in running the team. But you wouldn’t have necessarily predicted that from his earlier career. He grew up planning to be a priest but after college instead joined the Peace Corps and shipped out to Ethiopia for three years. He returned to complete a Ph.D. in business and then joined the faculty of the Harvard Business School – where he taught courses about management leadership. A book he wrote called “Managing Change and Ambiguity” perhaps helped prepare him for what happened next. In 1983 his grandfather died and at his family’s urging he became the Chief Executive, President of the Chicago Bears and now, 27 years later, he has served either as President and more recently Chairman of the Board. Michael McCaskey, welcome to “Mad About Music”.
MICHAEL MCCASKEY: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
KAPLAN: Now you’re my first guest in ten years to be coming on the show from the sports world, and our previous show, curiously, had another first. We had an FBI agent on and I only mention that because The New York Times thought it perhaps odd that a tough FBI agent could have a passion for classical music, so I guess I would start with asking, whether you might be regarded as an oddball in that sense as well. I mean, do you have friends who own football teams, or any of the players with whom classical music is as passionate a matter as it is for you?
MCCASKEY: Well, I don’t know for sure. I think that, I can tell by the choice of music in the weight room that classical musical is not high on the list for our players. It’s going to be hip-hop and rock, and country, and surprisingly enough, the one genre of music that brings people together is reggae. People from all those different camps can agree, that well, we’ll have reggae now.
KAPLAN: Well you know, in preparing for the show, I read an article by a cardiologist talking about football and music, and he said that there were several studies that showed that Mozart is better than steroids when it comes to training for football players, football in his sense, soccer players in England. Maybe you should try to get the music changed in the weight room a litte bit, I don’t know.
MCCASKEY: Maybe I should. I’ve played it for myself when nobody else is in the weight room but me, and I put classical music on then.
KAPLAN: All right, well, let’s talk about how you came to music. Were you part of a musical household? Did your parents love music?
MCCASKEY: Parents loved music, especially my dad. He had hoped, when he was a young man, to make a career as a big band singer. So there was always music of Frank Sinatra, Dick Haymes, Mel Torme, and the big bands. Wonderful, wonderful music, and my dad had a terrific voice, and he loved just singing all through the day. There’d be times when we’d walk on the streets of Chicago, and he’d be singing full voice and much to the astonishment and sometimes the delight of passersby, and I got kind of used to that.
KAPLAN: Now, before we went on the air, you shared with me a story about your father’s venture possibly into becoming a singer. I think it would be a fascinating story to hear.
MCCASKEY: Well, he was good enough so that he could seriously hope to have career as a singer, and he received a tryout from Harry James, and went to the tryout, sang as best he could. James just sat there with his arms folded across his chest, according to my dad, didn’t say a thing, kind of nodded to the manager. The manager ushered my dad out of the room and said, you did pretty good, kid. Now, there’s just one thing. Chances look good for this job, but we’ve agreed to hear one more singer, some skinny kid named Frankie Sinatra. So the rest is history. Frank Sinatra got the job, and my dad was later able in years afterwards, to tell that story to Frank, who just loved hearing it.
KAPLAN: Wonderful story. Now, what about you? Do you sing?
MCCASKEY: I do. I wouldn’t say I have a great voice, but I know where the notes are and I just really enjoying singing. In high school I was in the chorus, and college I was in a musical comedy, and also a very, very informal a cappella group.
KAPLAN: Now, what about studying an instrument? Did your parents have you play the piano or anything?
MCCASKEY: They tried since there was this musical strain in our family, and I had to take piano lessons for a while. But it was a lopsided competition with baseball, and as soon as I could, I fled to baseball.
KAPLAN: I see. All right, well then let’s turn to the music you’ve selected to be played today, and I see our first composer is Beethoven.
MCCASKEY: Well, I chose this particular piece because our first child was a son named John and my wife Nancy had been working very hard with him trying to get him to take his first steps. And she was encouraging him, trying and so he was on but not quite ready. And then one evening, Nancy went out with her girlfriends to dinner, and for some reason, it just occurred to me that the Eroica Symphony might be some good music to put on. So I put it on, cranked up the volume, and John not only took his first step, he walked across the room. And Nancy came home, she was very sorry to have missed his first step, but we knew that John had a pretty good ear.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic with Sir Simon Rattle on the podium. The first selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Chairman of the Board of the Chicago Bears Football Team, Michael McCaskey. So let’s talk about music and football. Now, two years after you became CEO of the Bears, music arrived in a big way. Something called the Super Bowl Shuffle, rap song and dance, featuring members of the team. It was a big hit, half a million copies sold, I understand it also hit number 43 on the best seller list. You were the CEO then. Did you ever have anything to do with this?
MCCASKEY: No, and in fact, if the players had come to me and said, “we have this terrific idea,” I would say, “whoa, let’s think about this for a little while.” It seemed to me to be presumptuous to be creating music of this sort as a celebration of winning before we won at all. So, it’s great that we have this remembrance of the Super Bowl team and it’s a musical remembrance, but boy, leading into it I was skeptical.
KAPLAN: And of course, the team did go on to win the Super Bowl, didn’t it?
MCCASKEY: Yes, it did. We had the best defense ever played again.
KAPLAN: Now, music came to the Chicago Bears in another way. I suspect you might have been involved in this one. I understand that at some point, Sir George Solti agreed to lead the Chicago Symphony playing “Bear Down, Chicago Bears,” the theme tune.
MCCASKEY: Well, it was a wonderful time for Chicago. We’d gone quite a few years without a championship in the city, the Bears had to look all the way back to 1963, and here we were undefeated and playing terrific football, and the whole town got behind us. The skyscrapers downtown had “Bears #1” and “Go, Bears,” and a lot of encouragement like that. The two famous lions in front of the Art Institute, were sporting these huge Bears’ helmets, and everybody seemed to just have a wonderful time celebrating how well the team was doing. Henry Fogel at that time was the president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and he approached Sir George Solti about the idea of playing the Bears’ fight song, “Bear Down Chicago Bears,” during one of the Sunday afternoon concerts when the Bears were playing at nearby Soldier Field. And at first, Sir George was very skeptical; he didn’t want to be seen as doing something that wasn’t respectful, or he didn’t want to be made fun of himself and so on. But Henry persisted: he said, “I promise you the audience is going to love it!” And so he agreed to do it, played “Bear Down Chicago Bears,” and of course the audience went crazy. People stood up and cheered. It was such a surprise and such a delight, and there is a recording of it.
KAPLAN: Well, let’s listen to a little bit of it, and we’ll consider it now part of the repertoire.
KAPLAN: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by Sir George Solti playing “Bear Down Chicago Bears,” the fighting song of the team. Now, one conductor who wouldn’t have resisted playing that for a second would have been Leonard Bernstein who was a showman to begin with, he would have done great at this also, and I see he’s next on your list.
MCCASKEY: He is, and in my life as a teacher, he was probably more important even than as a composer or conductor. I was in high school and had become interested for what ever reason in classical music, and it wasn’t in the school curriculum or anything and here was this marvelous, enthusiastic conductor, instructor, Leonard Bernstein, giving young people’s concerts on television. And I just loved listening to them, and when I learned that he had written a book, “The Joy of Music,” I couldn’t wait to get my hands on that. And he was just so full of enthusiasm for the music, and conveyed that in telling you about the ideas or the structure, what the instruments were trying to do here or there in the piece. It was just a wonderful education for a young person. And the piece I would like to play is taken from “West Side Story.” This is one of the symphonic dances, the “Cool” Fugue, and to me, the music of “West Side Story” has its classical echoes, and it shows up clearly I think in this symphonic dance.
KAPLAN “Cool” Fugue from Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, the New York Philharmonic with Bernstein himself on the podium. Music chosen by the Chairman of the Chicago Bears Football Team, Michael McCaskey. When we return, we’ll explore what performing music can teach us about leadership, maybe even about running a football team.
This is Gilbert Kaplan, with my guest today on “Mad About Music,” Chairman of the Board of the Chicago Bears, Michael McCaskey. Now as I mentioned before in my introduction, just before you became president of the Chicago Bears, you taught at the Harvard Business School, focusing on courses on management, but also communication and leadership. Now, given the sophisticated and very specific issues that come up in football, do you think that someone who holds an MBA from Harvard’s Business School is the right type to run a football team?
MCCASKEY: Well, first of all, I don’t hold an MBA from Harvard. I have a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University, and the Doctorate is in Organizational Behavior. And, once the Bears won the Super Bowl, there were a lot of professors of Organizational Behavior who were eager to try out their chops on running a football team. We had a little bit of fun with that.
My interests at Harvard included group dynamics and leadership and how you resolve conflicts within a team, and so on. So much work in the workplace is done in teams, that I think it’s really important that students who aspire to a career in business have a good sense of how a group operates, how they can call out the best from each member of the group.
KAPLAN: Now, after teaching about leadership, of course, you then have to go and do it. And what did you learn about yourself that you might not have understood until you actually have to be a leader versus teaching about it?
MCCASKEY: When you’re teaching it, you have time for discussion and people understand a hypothetical question and they can explore different possible side roads. I found that once you were the CEO and the president, if you asked a question that took you down a certain road, people would assume that’s what you favored and that’s what we were going to do, so let’s get ready to do it. Not so. And I had to learn a little bit about to reign myself in as far as wanting to explore the ins and outs of different courses of action. You have to simplify, you have to be decisive, you have to make your choices, you can always revise them or most often you can revise them down the road a little bit. But it’s important to be willing to make a decision and to take action. One of the things that I found very useful from the academic life was to always, on an important decision, search out the case against something and then something Alfred Sloan and Peter Drucker, very insistent on—if you’re going to, if you face a big decision, make sure that you’ve heard, even if you disagree with it, make sure you’ve heard the case against something. So that’s one of the things I try to teach my students.
KAPLAN: Now it’s interesting that you say that as the CEO of a football team you have to be decisive and that if the listener, or players, or management colleagues think you are undecided, they may lose, well, some certainty about how sure you are. Now, just comparing this to music, the worst thing a conductor can do is to come out on the stage without his mind made up about almost any question that’s going to come up. I mean, is it better to be wrong than to be indecisive because the players fail to follow you then. I get the impression it’s not so different in football.
MCCASKEY: Well, you can be exploratory before the decision is made. But once the decision is made, everybody, even those who disagreed with it, have to sign on or get out of the way.
KAPLAN: Now, I found it fascinating how you were able to, as I understand it, incorporate the relationship between musicians and the relationship with any other group, when it comes to leadership and communication. If I understand it correctly, at some point in a course you were teaching on this, you actually brought a string quartet into the classroom and had the musicians talk about who’s in charge, who’s the boss, what’s the competition, how much collaboration is there? Can you talk about that?
MCCASKEY: It was a little bit different than that, but my idea was to search for different kinds of teams and make short films about them. And the idea was ahead of the class, to create this short film, and I thought it would be interesting to take groups like a string quartet, for example, and to see how they made decisions. To take a surgical team, how they prepared for and how they went about things in the operating theater. I thought maybe a crew on a boat. I saw a whole set of possibilities here, and teacher of organizational behavior is always hungry for interesting materials. And I had a student who was a filmmaker, and proposed to him that we make a little film about a string quartet. And, fortunately, the Portland String Quartet was willing to be part of this and what I did was interview each member of the quartet separately, ask questions about how they resolved conflict or differences of opinion within the group, if there was one particular leader and so on and so forth. And then, they were also kind enough to let us film the rehearsal, and then they put on a performance of this piece by Mozart. And the music that the String Quartet chose to play for their little concert was Mozart’s String Quartet No. 14. Here’s the first movement.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the first movement of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 14, performed by the Guarneri Quartet, music used for class on leadership and collaboration at the Harvard Business School, taught by my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Chairman of the Board of the Chicago Bears, Michael McCaskey. Let’s talk about music as it plays in your regular daily life. How often do you get to go to live concerts?
MCCASKEY: Oh, we’re very fortunate to have Ravinia close at hand, and my wife and I probably go to four concerts a summer there. And we have friends who have wonderful box seats at the symphony, and so to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra a couple or three times a year. And then I’d say my iPod is omnipresent and probably the single most important quality of the car that I bought was the sound system because it’s real important to me how the music sounds as I’m driving along.
KAPLAN Now, you mentioned you have an iPod. How many pieces have you put on that?
MCCASKEY: Oh gee, never counted! It’s in the thousands. It’s not all music, but a lot of it is music.
KAPLAN: I see. Now, in the course of adding to the iPod, have you made any recent discoveries of either composers or pieces that you’ve now come to love?
MCCASKEY: Well, I really like jazz in addition to the classical music, and there have been a couple jazz singers, Jane Monheit and of course Diana Krall, everybody loves her. Eliane Elias, she sang with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at a concert I was fortunate enough to attend in person, and she was just drop-dead gorgeous in her voice. It was wonderful.
KAPLAN: But the no-classical pieces are of recent vintage or just recent discovery?
MCCASKEY: Not that I can think of right off. No.
KAPLAN: Now, are there any major composers you just don’t connect to?
MCCASKEY: Wagner doesn’t appeal to me anywhere near as strongly as he appears to—some people really love him, and I can listen to him, but I don’t get really excited about it.
KAPLAN: You mentioned that Wagner’s not particularly your cup of tea. But that raises another question, because on your list, I see no opera at all. How do you feel about opera in general?
MCCASKEY: I’ve tried to fall in love with opera and just haven’t been able to. In Chicago, for many years we had a wonderful lady, Ardis Krainik, is the head of the Lyric Opera and she was very kind to invite my wife and I to opera. And watching it with her was a wonderful experience and she would come to football games. So I would go to the opera to try and learn a little bit about music, she’d come to see the Bears play, and try to learn a little bit about football.
KAPLAN: I see. All right, well, we now come to that part of the show we call the “wildcard,” where you have a chance to ask us to play some music that’s not classical music, it certainly won’t be opera. It can be anything, rock, jazz, and over the years of this show, I think it’s been some of the more interesting pieces we’ve had. So, what is yours today?
MCCASKEY: This is one I agonized over. This was harder than any of the other choices because there was such a competition to get it to just one song. The winner is “In My Life,” a Lennon-McCartney song. And it’s one of the few songs where John and Paul disagree about their relative contributions – both agree that John wrote the lyric, he wrote it as a poem. Paul says he contributed the tune, John’s not quite so sure of that. But in any event, to me this is just a song with a beautiful melody and a wisdom and about life and love that you don’t expect in a popular song. And it was when Nancy and I got married, she chose a song for me and I chose a song for her. We had some dear friends who were musicians and they did the singing. My song to Nancy was this song, Lennon-McCartney did, “In My Life.” And I think the words are important, even though I have chosen a strictly instrumental version. In it, John is reflecting and thinking back, I think a little bit wistfully, maybe a little sadly: “Friends that he’s had who are no longer here,” and then he turns his attention to “yet, at this moment, I have new love, and this will supercede anything in my life so far.” So it’s a wonderful mixture of feelings. I think we’ve all heard the Beatles’ version so often that what I’d like to play for you is a version by Marian McPartland. And I just love the way she plays the piano and I think you hear the melody and some of the particular grace points of this song in this version.
KAPLAN: John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “In My Life,” but here, in a rendition created and played by jazz pianist, Marian McPartland, and music chosen to serve as a soundtrack for the wedding of my guest today, Michael McCaskey who for 27 years has served as president and now Chairman of the Board of the Chicago Bears Football Team. When we return, we’ll talk about the growing category of cross-over music – pop music performed by serious classical artists.
This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest today on “Mad About Music,” Chairman of the Board of the Chicago Bears, Michael McCaskey. Now your next selection provides an opportunity to discuss the growing category of cross-over music where leading classical artists perform pop music. Sometimes it works, in my view, sometimes it doesn’t. I think for example of opera singers who take to singing Broadway tunes and it can sound forced and artificial. Now your next selection matches arguably the most famous cellist playing today, Yo-Yo-Ma, with some peppy dance music. Tell us about the piece and why you selected it.
MCCASKEY: Well, I chose it primarily for the performer. Yo-Yo Ma to me is not only one of the preeminent musicians of our time, but shows such a generosity of spirit in the way he embraces other musicians and gives them a chance to play. And in a way that he explores music from parts of the world that you and I might not know anything about or know much about. The Silk Road Project, for example, he brought that to Chicago and it was a wonderful experience and I admire someone who can reach out and try to understand and to play and make available to other people all these different kinds of music. There’s a little family connection perhaps to Yo-Yo Ma. When my wife—before we were married, she was a tutor at the house of Harvard and one of the other houses was where Yo-Yo Ma was an undergraduate. And the tutor there came to Nancy and said, “Nancy, you’ve got to help me. Yo-Yo Ma’s going to come talk to me and he’s not really sure he wants to pursue a music career. His parents were doctors and that’s a sure bet. What do I possibly tell him?” And Nancy said, “Tell him that as a sophomore he is filling Memorial Hall. He has this gift that is so extraordinary, the gift has to be explored. He could always decide later on that medicine was his true calling,” and so on. So the tutor went back and had the meeting with Yo-Yo, and from Nancy’s point of view, the rest is history. So I’d like to play a piece for you by Yo-Yo Ma that’s a family favorite. It’s from an album called “Obrigado Brazil,” “Thank you, Brazil,” and it’s a collection of Brazilian music. And this particular piece, it’s by a Brazilian pianist who wrote it and he and Yo-Yo Ma have great fun charging ahead, playing this very spirited music.
KAPLAN: “Cristal,” performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, together with the pianist and composer of this work, Cesar Camargo Mariano, from the album “Obrigado Brazil,” “Thank you, Brazil.” A selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” The Chairman of the Board of the Chicago Bears football team, Michael McCaskey. Now, I’d like to stay with your personal side of music a little bit. We already discussed selecting a Beatles tune as your musical message to your wife at your wedding. And that’s an emotional moment. I’m wondering, is music always bringing out an emotional side of you? For example, do you cry at music? If you do, do you cry easily?
MCCASKEY: I can tear up if a particular passage or a voice says something so eloquently that seems the natural response.
KAPLAN: Now do you ever turn to music when you are having trouble making a difficult decision? Just listen to music and maybe it becomes part of the process?
MCCASKEY: I don’t know about making a decision, but it’s often a refuge when things seem so chaotic or out of sorts. I know after 9-11, WFMT in Chicago had a very important responsibility to be a refuge for a lot of us who were just stunned by the events of the day, and classical music was one of those ways to try and regroup and get a grip on things. I know when my daughter who is in college was kind of bombarded by exams and so on, she was very eager to get some pieces of classical music, which I was delighted to rush to her, and that was her refuge for regrouping a little bit. So I think music can often do that.
KAPLAN: Did you pick the selections for your daughter?
KAPLAN: And what did you send her?
MCCASKEY: Oh, gee. Bach, Vivaldi, I don’t think I sent her any Beethoven at that point. But things that had an uplifting quality to them, that had a complication of their own that you had to tend to in order to really listen to the music.
KAPLAN: Well, all this seems to pave the way for your final selection, one of the great and moving choral masterpieces, this one by Bach.
MCCASKEY: Well, this, of course, is the final chorus from the St. Matthew Passion, and here we have a piece written for double orchestra and double chorus, and he’s attempting to address the meaning and the implications of the death of Jesus. And the words that the chorus will be singing are “We sit down with tears to call you in the grave. Rest gently, gently rest. Your graven headstone shall, for the anxious conscience, be a comfortable pillow and a resting place for the soul. Highly contented, there, the eyes fall asleep.” So I think the music is one of the most magnificent pieces of music in the Western Canon for Christians, for anybody, the thought of the tragedy of a horrible death or a life ended is captured in this music in ways that I think are sublime.
KAPLAN: The stunning conclusion of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with Sir George Solti on the podium. The final selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Chairman of the Board of the Chicago Bears, Michael McCaskey. And as we approach the end of the show, first of all, I suppose I should just comment that it is interesting that George Solti can even manage to play a great choral masterpiece and not feel ashamed that he’s playing the fighting tune of the Chicago Bears we played a little bit earlier. All right then. As we come now to the conclusion of our show we come to a section I call Fantasyland. It’s a section where I’ve asked every guest on the show—so this includes you—in your fantasy, if you could be a superstar in music, would you like to be a pianist? Would you like to be a composer? A conductor? What would be your fantasy?
MCCASKEY What a wonderful question. When you think about something like “In My Life,” and what a powerful accomplishment that is, so a composer of that, or the Eroica Symphony, that would be a wonderful fantasy. To be able to sit down at the piano and just play the music in your head, or take some music you’ve heard and move it into new realms – a wonderful fantasy. But the one, if you only gave me one choice, it would be the conductor. What a thrill it must be to be in charge of eighty or so dedicated musicians and to create a sound that elevates one beyond the moment of the occasion. And that’s why I was eager to ask you what it felt like to conduct. And when you say you can feel the music in your hands, to me, that captures a bit of a sense of how magnificent it must be to have these wonderful musicians arrayed before you and working toward a common purpose in creating sublime music.
KAPLAN: Indeed it does. Michael McCaskey, you have been a superb guest, revealing a side of you I suspect that will be a revelation to many people in the football world, but all testimony to the enduring power of music in all of us. Thank you for appearing today. This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music”.
“Mad About Music”
Gilbert Kaplan, Executive Producer
Heidi Bryson, Producer
Marcela Silva, Associate Producer
Leszek Wojcik, Recording Engineer