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Musician Involvement in the Governance of Symphony Orchestras: Will it Increase Organizational Effectiveness? Part II

0 Barbara Nielsen
flint_symphony Editor's Abstract

In Part II of her article, Barbara Nielsen explores the nature of musician involvement in the governance of orchestras. The traditional and more common approach has been for one or two musicians to serve on the board of directors, representing their colleagues. However, a few orchestras in Denver, New Orleans, Tulsa, St. Paul, and New York City have adopted a self-governing, cooperative model of governance. Barbara explains the history behind these cooperative orchestras, and discusses whether musician involvement will make a difference.

Ann Drinan

What Has Prompted Musician Involvement?

Musician involvement in orchestra governance has evolved through several diverse paths. The most frequent scenario for enabling such involvement occurred in the 1980s when the door was opened slightly to allow musicians to participate in certain aspects of orchestra governance. The most common scenario, musician representation on boards, started in the 1980s.

After years of growth and balanced budgets, orchestras in the 1980s were struggling financially. Orchestra managements were reopening contracts mid-term and/or demanding pay freezes or pay cuts at the negotiation table. After several years of concessionary bargaining, the musicians began to demand something in return (i.e., a voice in the governance of the orchestra). The specific form of musician representation took several different forms.

In a few cases the musicians formed a self-governing / cooperative orchestra, often because the predecessor orchestra went bankrupt. The most prominent examples include the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (formerly the Denver Symphony), the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (formerly the New Orleans Symphony), and the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra (former the Tulsa Philharmonic).

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, a self-governing orchestra that did not rise out of the ashes of a bankrupt orchestra, is a unique case in that it was formed by freelance musicians in New York City who wanted more control over their working life.

Types of Existing Musician Involvement

Musician involvement in the governance structure of 21st century orchestras can be divided into two general categories:

  • The musicians are absorbed into the traditional three-pronged structure.
  • The musicians form a cooperative/self-governing orchestra where the musicians own and run the orchestra.

It is important to note that the cooperative orchestra still uses the same governance structure of the traditional orchestra: a board of directors, an executive director, and a music director (with the exception of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra). The musicians are the owners of the orchestra and have control, through the orchestra’s bylaws, over the selection of the board members.

The traditional method of incorporating musicians into the current governance structure has been executed in numerous ways and with divergent results. The basic premise is that the musicians will gain a voice in the governance of the organization by serving on decision-making committees.

Representation on committees started slowly in the mid 1980s. Musician participation began by appointing a single non-voting member of the board with the goal of explaining the decision-making process of the board and the financial limitations of the institution, and with the hope that the musician board member would share his/her perspective with colleagues. This representation arrangement was either explicitly outlined in the collective bargaining agreement or existed as an informal verbal arrangement.

During the ensuing years, many variations of representation have developed. In some cases the number of musicians serving on the board has dramatically increased, and many have obtained voting rights. For example, in 1992 after a year-long work stoppage, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra (HSO) established that 10 musicians would serve as full voting members of the HSO board, in addition to membership on all standing committees. Six of the 10 musician board members (the duly-elected members of the players’ committee plus the ROPA [Regional Orchestra Players’ Conference] delegate) also serve on the HSO executive committee, where they now constitute one-third of the committee members.

Musician representation has expanded beyond the board to include seats on standing committees such as Artistic, Finance, Public Relations, Marketing, and Search Committees for music directors. In two cases, the San Antonio Symphony and the North Carolina Symphony, musicians served as chairs of the Music Director Search Committee, and the Hartford Symphony’s Search Committee was co-chaired by a musician. At this time, no board committee is off limits from musician representation.

Self-Governing, Cooperative Orchestras

The more radical approach to musician involvement is the formation of self-governing, cooperative orchestras. The cooperative orchestra actually has a long and rich history. The New York Philharmonic was a “musician cooperative,” with musicians exercising the typical management responsibilities of programming concerts and hiring conductors, musicians, and soloists. (1)

Cooperative orchestras also have a rich European history. Three prominent European orchestras with “self-governing” roots are the London Symphony Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic, and Berlin Philharmonic.

The London Symphony Orchestra was established by former members of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra in 1904. The musicians are responsible for all internal matters, including personnel, discipline and scheduling, and hiring of the music director. Nine of the 14 members of the board are orchestra musicians.

The Vienna Philharmonic was established in 1842. Twelve elected musicians oversee the daily administration of the orchestra with two of the musicians acting as business managers. All major decisions, including personnel issues, are taken to the full orchestra.

The Berlin Philharmonic was established in 1887. Several governing bodies in the orchestra are elected by the musicians to represent the needs and requirements of the musicians. The general manager is responsible for coordinating and implementing the operational needs of the orchestra. The musicians choose the permanent conductor and orchestra auditions are held before the entire orchestra.

Cooperative orchestras are fairly rare in the United States, but there are a few prominent examples. Each has taken a different path in evolving into a cooperative orchestra. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is a very unique group because it is known as the orchestra that performs without a conductor. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra was formed by a group of freelance musicians in New York City in 1972. The goal of the musicians in creating the orchestra was to gain control over their working lives by not being locked in with one orchestra, and also to belong to a group that would be musically challenging for the musicians and the audience.

The musicians are directly involved in the governance of the orchestra. Three musicians serve on the board of directors. There is no music director or conductor for the performances. The traditional music director responsibilities of leading the rehearsals and performances are rotated among the core musicians. The designated leader leads the group from his/her music stand. Three musicians serve on the board of directors, and three others serve as artistic directors; they handle various responsibilities, including personnel, schedules and budgets, and coordinate with the managing director and the general director. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has been extremely successful, having gained an international reputation for artistic excellence and created a unique niche for itself in the musical world.

Other examples of current American cooperative organizations are the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra. Each of these cooperative orchestras was formed after the predecessor orchestra that employed the musicians dissolved because of dissolution and/or bankruptcy.

The Colorado Symphony was established in 1989 after the Denver Symphony declared bankruptcy. Management’s declaration of bankruptcy was the culmination of years of debt and demands for financial concessions from the musicians. In the early years of the Colorado Symphony, the orchestra was run by a steering committee of musicians and supportive community members.

The early years were a struggle because the orchestra offered a much shorter season than its predecessor organization. After a period of time, the Colorado Symphony did merge with the previous entity of the Denver Symphony to gain use of badly-needed assets, such as the music library and the endowment of the Denver Symphony. However, the fundamental governance structure with substantial musician representation on the board stayed in place. The musicians retained significant participation on the board and all governing committees. The current board is composed of 40 members, 9 of whom are musicians. The orchestra has been very successful; it currently operates with an $11 million budget and has a 42-week season. In the industry, the Colorado Symphony is considered a major orchestra that has thrived from its grassroots beginnings.

During the same time as the establishment of the Colorado Symphony, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra was formed after the collapse of the New Orleans Symphony in 1990. Like the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra was formed as a cooperative organization and has stayed cooperative to this day. The orchestra is “owned and operated” by the musicians with a budget of $4 million. The board consists of 24 members – 9 musicians and 15 non-musicians who are elected by the musicians; therefore, the orchestra is truly owned and operated by the musicians.

As stated in Harmony, “The fundamental difference between the Louisiana Philharmonic and other North American symphony organizations lies in the corporation’s ‘Members,’ those persons who, under law, and as with shareholders in a for-profit corporation, ‘own’ and possess all the beneficial interest in the nonprofit corporation of which they are ‘Members.’ The bylaws provide that a Member must be an orchestra member, and the orchestra, as a whole, ‘owns’ the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.” (2)

Numerous committees of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra handle the business of the orchestra, including the executive committee, which consists of seven musicians who also serve on the board of directors. They handle operational issues relating to the daily function of the group. Other standing committees include Personnel, Concert, Legal, Finance, Development, and Education. The musicians believed it important to maintain artistic control of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra from the beginning. When a music director was hired in 1995, artistic matters were handled in a cooperative manner between the Concert Committee and the music director. The music director does not have the control or responsibilities found in the traditional American orchestra.

The Tulsa Symphony Orchestra is a very new addition to the world of self-governing orchestras. Classical music performances were provided for many years to the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma by the Tulsa Philharmonic, which ceased operations in 2002 after many years of financial difficulties and labor unrest. A new orchestra, the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, was established in 2005 under a new business model. As stated on the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra’s website, “The Tulsa Symphony Orchestra employs professional musicians with the focused, collective, and ongoing aim of presenting all kinds of music of the highest quality. The TSO functions throughout the year, and is comprised of self-governing “executive musicians”—individuals who perform masterful music and execute the many decisions involved in sustaining a major orchestra.” The Tulsa Symphony Orchestra is striving for a complete integration of executive musicians into the governance process, including voting representation at the board level, thus resulting in a self-governing orchestra.

The Tulsa Symphony Orchestra’s former President, Dr. Frank Letcher, developed the concept of “executive musicians,” who are hired on a salary basis and work full-time for the orchestra. In addition to playing their instrument in the orchestra, they also work in the symphony office, doing all of the tasks necessary to run an orchestra, including ticket sales, community outreach, and teaching. It is the belief of the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra\’s former president that with the executive musicians working full-time on salary, they will be able to avoid a union contract, which presented a major roadblock for the Tulsa Philharmonic. A unique aspect of the arrangement is that any additional income that an executive musician might earn, such as from teaching or extra work, will go back to the symphony. The orchestra representatives admit that this specific business model of “executive musicians” is an experiment. It could take at least five years and a budget of $5 million to $7 million to employ all 70 musicians on a full- or part-time salary. At this time, the non-executive musicians are paid on a per service basis. The orchestra is currently operating on a $1 million budget. The Tulsa Symphony Orchestra has just completed a successful first season and is optimistic moving forward.

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO), founded in 1959, has had a long and illustrious career. It is the only full-time professional chamber orchestra in the United States. Starting in the 2004-05 season, the SPCO implemented a revolutionary change in the governance structure of the organization. The new governance structure is modeled after many of the great self-governed European orchestras, such as the Vienna Philharmonic, where musicians are involved in all aspects of the artistic direction of the group.

In a 2004 press release, Bruce Coppock, president and managing director of the SPCO, explained the motivation for this new Artistic Leadership Model as follows: “The reason for this change is simple and compelling. The new model will produce tremendous synergy and energy among the musicians, management, and our artistic partners. We believe this will result in even better concerts for our audiences.” Creating this new model was a collaborative effort over a three-year period by the board, musicians, staff leadership, and the outgoing music director.

The new SPCO model has transferred extensive artistic responsibilities from the music director to the SPCO musicians and five artistic partners. There are two Artistic Committees (Vision and Personnel), each composed of three musicians and two management representatives. The Artistic Vision Committee is responsible for programming, choice of guest artists and conductors, touring, and recording. The Artistic Personnel Committee is responsible for all issues related to orchestra personnel, including audition and tenure review. The five artistic partners are prominent musicians in the field and are selected by the Artistic Vision Committee for their expertise in the chamber orchestra repertoire. The artistic partners work with both committees to give suggestions and feedback, and to participate in performances in various capacities, including as soloists and conductors.

Will Musician Involvement Make a Difference?

There are numerous stakeholders in an organization like an orchestra. Stakeholders are the groups of people who gain or lose based on the success of the organization. Major stakeholders in an orchestra usually consist of the audience, local community, board of directors, staff, and the musicians. As stated in the October 1997 issue of Harmony, “The players stand at the core of the enterprise. Without them one does not have an orchestra and a product to offer audiences. Of all the stakeholders, they are the ones that tend to stay for a career lifetime, while the others—volunteers, staff, and audiences—come and go. Of all the stakeholders, the musicians are most affected by the success or the failure of the enterprise.” (3)

The musicians of an orchestra usually have the longest tenure of any group in the organization, along with the members of the local community where the orchestra performs, whereas the administrative staff of many orchestras has a very high turnover rate (i.e., in the range of 50% to 60%, especially in the smaller to mid-sized professional orchestra. (4)

For an organization to reach its full potential, all stakeholders must be in alignment. The concept of alignment is defined in the Harmony article, “The Role of the Board of Directors,” as “agreement on strategic and operational imperatives across all constituencies” and further, the result of successful alignment is “a sense of ownership and encourages individual motivation.” (5)

As noted by Allen N. Rieselbach, former president of the Board of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra:

Orchestra members bring at least the following unique input to our board and committees: first, as career professional musicians, orchestra members are considerably more knowledgeable of the music business than virtually all of our board members, and they also seem to have a network of information on successful and unsuccessful initiatives and activities by other orchestras. Sometimes this information comes from a different perspective than orchestra management’s, which provides additional insight. And second, orchestra members usually have served the organization longer than board members or staff. They can bring a historical perspective. (6)

A leader in the arts management field, Nick Webster, chief executive officer of the New York Philharmonic from 1975 to 1990, stated:

I am also convinced that the musicians of our orchestras are an undervalued, underutilized, and underappreciated resource of extraordinary potential with respect to nonartistic— administrative or managerial—matters. One of the results of creative musician involvement should be seen in the contributed income columns of the resources ledger, an area I experimented with while at the New York Philharmonic with occasionally very positive results. Many of the musicians in our orchestras are the best spokespersons we have: why do we seem to be afraid of letting them speak for themselves and for their art? Many of them have wonderfully creative ideas: why can’t we learn to truly listen to them? Many of them have artistic talents and skills that rarely find expression within our institutions. A full partnership is not only possible, it is essential. (7)

Ownership and empowerment leads to greater job satisfaction. Harvard University Professor of Psychology Richard Hackman stated:

It is true that the most powerful influence on orchestra players’ professional satisfaction is the degree to which their organizations provide them opportunities for meaningful involvement in orchestral affairs. (We also found that professional dissatisfaction was highest in orchestras where the board of directors dominated the decision-making process, the other side of the same coin.) But player involvement is risky; it can backfire in ways that hurt both players and orchestras. (8)

It has also been observed by Hackman that:

Player involvement also is likely to backfire when the orchestra is poorly managed as an organization. If an orchestra is riddled with inequities, inefficiencies, and under-the-table “arrangements,” for example, player involvement can go sour in a hurry. We have here yet another case in which the rich are positioned to get richer and the poor to become even poorer. That is, orchestras that are basically sound both financially and organizationally need player involvement less, but can gain more from it, than orchestras that are in trouble. Troubled orchestras need the contributions of their players more, but they are far less likely to be able to draw effectively on them.


    1. Ayers, J. (2005). More Than Meets the Ear. Minneapolis: Syren Book Company, page 6.


    1. Anonymous. (1999). Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra: A Cooperative Institution. Harmony, 9, 27-45, page 29.


    1. Anonymous. (1997). Musician Involvement in Symphony Orchestra Organizations. Harmony, 5, 1-19, page 6.


    1. Stearns, R. (2002). Improving the Effectiveness of Small Groups Within the Symphony. Harmony, 15, 57-63, page 60.


    1. Judy, P. (1999). Organizational Effectiveness: The Role of the Board of Directors. Harmony, 9, 47-57, page 49.


    1. Anonymous. (1997). Page 6.


    1. Anonymous. (1997). Page 7.


  1. Judy, P. (1996). Life and Work in Symphony Orchestras: An Interview with J. Richard Hackman. Harmony, 2, 1-13, page 9.

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