Paul Griffiths leads an unusual double life: CEO by day and concert organist by night. But, he says, the two professions have more in common than you might think
People are often surprised to hear about my double life as both a concert organist and a CEO of the world’s busiest international airport. Yes, my day job is in the aviation industry as opposed to being a full-time musician, but music remains a really important part of my life; to this day I wonder whether I have taken the right professional path.
Being a CEO is a demanding role, but I still put in the time to maintain my playing at the highest level through practice in the early and late hours of the day as well as on holidays and the weekends. I view these seemingly different worlds quite symbiotically – I really couldn’t do one without the other.
My typical day currently starts at the organ stool at 6 am. For the past 18 months I have been learning the three movements of Duruflé’s Suite No 3, and before I depart for the airport at around 7am I aim to get at least an hour’s practice under my belt. It puts me in a great frame of mind for the day, especially if the time has been productive.
Alan Rusbridger’s book Play it Again inspired me to take on the challenge of Duruflé’s masterpiece, which is regarded as one of the behemoths of the organ world. In his book, Alan describes how he managed to learn the incredibly challenging Chopin Ballade No 1, whilst being editor of The Guardian newspaper. He did so by setting aside 20 minutes per day to practice on any piano he could find wherever in the world he was at the time. This inspired me to set an audacious goal of learning the three movements of the Duruflé Suite (plus his Carillon des Heures) in time to perform them in a solo recital at Westminster Abbey on 13 August, 2017.
Though I can’t say that this learning experience has had a direct impact on how I run the airport on a day-to-day basis, there are more similarities in how I apply these different disciplines than meets the eye – or perhaps more appropriately the ear.
Having an eye for detail and the ability to retain a significant number of different facts and figures is a skill that is common to both musicians and those who run complex businesses. Rattling off the airport statistics (240,000 passengers a day, nine million bags per month and 2,066 tonnes of chocolate sold annually) is very much like learning a complex piece of music by heart.
In addition, the ability to think through complex problems and break them down into small pieces, then reassemble them to create a successful outcome, is the same process as learning a challenging piece of repertoire. The discipline required to learn an instrument has so many applications in business, not least for assessing priorities and making balanced decisions.
Musical training has undoubtedly been very useful in enabling me to manage multiple layers of complexity in my job. It has also given me the sensitivity to organise a diverse workforce made up of 60 different cultures working in a country that is not my native land.
In the last 10 years in Dubai I have seen the airport grow to become the busiest international airport in the world. To ensure that my music didn’t take a back seat I had a state of the art digital computer organ shipped out and installed in my home here. This has enabled me to manage my passion for transportation whilst keeping my Bach Toccatas in trim.
Airports are cities of heightened emotions – they are scenes of romantic outpourings of an intensity and complexity befitting of any Wagnerian opera. They bear witness to arrivals and departures with their multitude of expectations. Looking at the underlying purpose of travel, it’s often highly charged with emotion – reuniting families and loved ones, separating others, creating deal-clinching meetings and returning participants in victory or defeat.
The enormity of an airport’s operation is made manifest when one ascends the never-ending staircase to the control tower and stares in awe at the geometry in the sky – it’s poetic. Seeing it from there, one is only too aware of interdependence of each layer and department. The tempo of the traffic is as paramount as an orchestra’s split second response. Ultimately whether it’s data in a computer or notes on a score, we are all translating and interpreting human endeavours, desires, aspirations and emotions.
So the natural next step for me was to introduce music to the airport. Now we offer live musical performance to customers waiting for their planes – from rock to classical and beyond – performed by established artists and rising stars, including local talent. Our musicDXB programme even affords passing musicians the opportunity to perform on what we like to call the ‘world’s biggest stage’, if they wish.
So, next time you are transferring flights in Dubai, take a pause to enjoy the music along with a bar of chocolate and a cup of fresh coffee.
Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports, will perform at Westminster Abbey on 13 August.