At the beginning of the 2009 New Hampshire Music Festival season, the Festival’s musicians were informed that they would be required to re-apply for their positions in the orchestra if they wanted to return for the 2010 season.
It’s hard to overstate just how unusual this is in our business. “Unprecedented” would not be too strong a word for it, in fact. And not because of the unionized nature of our industry; it’s because it’s highly unusual for any enterprise, in any industry, to require its entire workforce to re-apply for jobs they already hold. (Of course, in the interests of accuracy, I should note that the entire workforce of the NHMF wasn’t asked to re-apply for their current positions- only the musicians. Apparently the staff were doing their jobs just fine, at least according to the staff making the decisions.)
There are good reasons why most employers don’t require such re-applications. Smart enterprises judge their current employees by the job they do, rather than by their aptitude for getting hired. The reason for this is obvious: how someone has done a job is a far better predictor of how they will do the same job in the future than any hiring process could ever be. If an employer isn’t happy about the performance of some employees, the usual solution is to fire those employees - ideally after giving them a chance to improve - rather than require them to re-apply for a job they’ve already proven they can’t do to the satisfaction of their employer.
So why the charade of “we’d love to have you back next summer, but first, take these tests”? It is barely possible that management truly believed that the changes they were proposing essentially made a different job of being a member of the NHMF orchestra. In the notification to musicians of the requirement to re-apply, management included the following:
How the New Business Model Differs from the Current Model:
- Curators and orchestra musicians will be selected on carefully selected criteria
- Orchestra musicians will mentor exceptional student musicians
- Orchestra and chamber musicians could rehearse 20 to 30 hours per week as compared to the current 10 to 13 hours per week. Each musician will have the opportunity to have input in rehearsals.
- Rehearsals will be collaborative and there will be more recitals and concerts each week.
- Compensation for professional musicians will increase, we project at least.
And the “carefully selected criteria” (which are actually not “criteria” at all, but ways to assess skills that are implied rather than explicitly laid out)?
The criteria have been developed in order to allow you to demonstrate who you are as a musician and the breadth of your imagination.
o This will include demonstrating musical ability in two ways:
(I) Performance on a DVD(s) or CD(s) -in disc or e-format -that the musician feels best represents himself/herself as an Artist, These will include:
a. Mandatory: Music from each period:
1. Before 1800
iii. Post 1950 The following b. through e. are optional and no musician will be disqualified should (s)he choose to decline to include these in hislher portfolio. However, the Festival encourages you to submit examples from the list to enable us to evaluate your interests and talents beyond classical music:
- Examples from jazz, world music or other music
- Examples of improvisation
- Examples of composing
- Examples of arranging
(2) Essay questions to be submitted in either PDF or Word format. Answers to all three essay questions are mandatory:
- Describe your most creative and fulfilling experience in music
- Discuss your approach to mentoring student musicians
- How do you see the role of Musicians in the 21″ Century evolving?
What I find most interesting is how poorly the skills required by the “new business model” line up with the hoops required by what management describes as the “portfolio.” Most obvious, of course, is the failure to assess whether or not the musician can survive the truly insane hours being required of them. “20 to 30 hours per week” and “more recitals and concerts per week”? Even for “we project, at least” more money? It would take a substantial increase from the current $500 per week plus housing to be fair compensation for that kind of schedule. And even oodles of money wouldn’t make 6 weeks of that kind of workload feasible.
What about the “mentoring” of “exceptional student musicians?” Is this anything more than a way of justifying free labor from the “students”? If the only assessment required of the professionals’ ability to add value to the students’ experience is an essay “discuss[ing] your approach to mentoring student musicians,” the answer is probably “no.”
Examples of composing and arranging? Why? Examples of improvisation to be submitted on a recording? Come on. For that matter, “performance on a DVD(s) or CD(s) -in disc or e-format -that the musician feels best represents himself/herself as an Artist”? Haven’t Festival management ever heard of “editing”?
Almost as interesting are the skills not being measured. The ability to perform live, the ability to play in an ensemble, the ability to follow a conductor, even the ability to provide what management describes as “input in rehearsals” - all go unassessed. Why is a musician’s ability to write about their “most creative and fulfilling experience in music” more important to Festival management than their ability to actually play together with other people?
These are truly lousy selection mechanisms for musicians to play in an ensemble. But they are a perfect hodge-podge of the new thinking about how to hire musicians. The emphasis on non-playing skills, the required buy-in to ideas about the “evolution” of the role of orchestra musicians - all are intended to move away from the current emphasis on playing skills. And cynical observers might suspect that the emphasis on what a musician thinks, rather than how a musician plays, might be designed to hire more compliant employees than the current orchestra of the New Hampshire Music Festival has proven to be.
There was sufficient push-back from the musicians (including the second organizing campaign in two summers) that this iteration of un-hiring the current orchestra was abandoned. But management came up with an alternative, which I will discuss in future posts.