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Orchestra Administration

0 Peter Pastreich
orchestra2 Editor's Abstract

Peter Pastreich, seasoned orchestra manager and consultant, gave a presentation for musicians on the structure of orchestra administration at the League of America Orchestras’ conference in Chicago in June, 2009. I was able to capture most of his presentation, and Peter has edited my notes to create a fascinating look at the way orchestras work, full of Peter’s inimitable turns of phrases and wry sense of humor.

Ann Drinan

My intent in this presentation is to answer the following question: If I were a musician, what would I want to know about management?

I have 50 years of experience on the management side, including small, medium and large orchestras, in Nashville, Kansas City, St. Louis, and most recently San Francisco for 22 years. And I’ve been consulting with many orchestras since leaving San Francisco ten years ago. I’ve learned different things in each orchestra.

Orchestral Structure

Some things are similar in all of them – as for instance orchestra structure. On the face of it, orchestras are structured in a rather dysfunctional way.

The structure has remained the same for decades. The board and the board chair are all volunteers; the two people reporting to them are the manager and the conductor. So the volunteer is hiring the two professionals.

Even in other non-profit organizations, it’s a very rare structure. Two people who are very good in their field are reporting at the same level to someone who probably doesn’t know much about what they do.

All the musicians report to the conductor, while all the staff, report to the manager, who’s often called the CEO or President. Sometimes the conductor theoretically reports to the manager or to a paid President. But the manager cannot fire the conductor. So does he or she work for the manager? Not really.

How do conflicts get resolved? The conductor must persuade the manager and vice versa – the alternative is to go to the board chair, who knows less. Over the years this structure has been a plus – it has forced us, the manager and the conductor, into a relationship where we had to work together. Because the ultimate threat is that board will resolve problems for us.

How do the manager and conductor know whether they’re doing a good job? They will wait a long time to get a performance review from their boss.

The role of the board is raising money, making policy, responding to proposals from the conductor and manager, but not resolving issues. If the manager is facing a deficit of 20%, what should we do? The board can’t answer that. As manager, I can go to them and say, “Here’s the hole and here are 3 things we can do: fire this person, raise more money, or cancel this program.” I must give them solutions to choose from, with a recommendation. Because the solutions they come up with will almost always be worse than what the music director, the staff and I can come up with, and those on the board who know the least will be the most vocal. Ultimately the members of the board will be essential to solving the problems we do have. Board leadership comes from the chair but s/he can’t lead the whole organization.

Term Limits

I’m generally against term limits. If you sort orchestras into the group that is reasonably successful – virtually none of them will have presidents who stay for only 1 or 2 years. Successful board chairs should stay for 7 or 8 years, sometimes longer. And I don’t like 5-year contracts for conductors; people should work as long as they can do a good job.

Another issue about term limits: why create this pseudo-crisis about the conductor every 5 years? There’s no crisis created about the manager or the first oboe. To force a 5 year or 10 year contract on a conductor is an unnecessary crisis. Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco has a contract that’s in effect forever, except he or the orchestra can cancel it with two years notice. You can replace a manager in 3 months or so, but conductors are booked 2-3 years in advance. These contracts are known as “evergreen contracts.”

The Role of Musicians

The musicians in some orchestras are happy without being very involved in management decisions, while others get feel strongly about being consulted on the running of the orchestra. I can’t imagine beginning a search for a music director or a manager today without involving musicians in the search.

In Baltimore the board and management short-circuited the process and didn’t get the consensus of the entire committee. This caused a near riot. Most music director searches in recent decades have involved musicians.

There’s some risk in turning the process over to the musicians entirely. I’ve seen it happen in the last 10 years as a consultant, where essentially the conductor hasn’t worked out and the board says, “He was your choice. Don’t complain to us.” The board should take responsibility for the institution – they must sell the organization to the city, raise money, and represent us.

Accountability and Evaluations

As a manager, I set goals that will serve the institution; if I fail, the institution fails. We must have a method of planning and working with one another so that participants feel responsible and feel they are a part of decisions. When someone feels no responsibility, there’s a problem: “I didn’t pick him/her, so it’s not my fault if s/he fails.”

The evaluation process is rarely done the way it should be done or the way it’s done in well-run businesses. The San Francisco Symphony was well run – everyone on staff was evaluated twice a year. Everyone did self evaluations, and then the supervisor agreed or disagreed. A staff member’s pay was tied to how well s/he did. Goals for the following year were negotiated with each staff member, who was then evaluated after six and twelve months. Continued employment and rate of pay depended on meeting these goals.

Musicians are only evaluated by the conductor and it’s often only done in the conductor’s mind. The conductor rarely sits down with a musician to discuss performance. Conductors often tell the manager that it’s time for a certain musician to retire. If the manager asks, “Does he realize that it’s time?” the conductor may respond, “Of course he knows.” If the manager then asks, “Did you talk to him?” Silence. This is a very difficult position for a manager - part of whose job is to convince the conductor to speak openly with the player and particularly to be sure the player has a real opportunity to improve.

And who evaluates the conductor and the manager? The conductor is actually not evaluated, despite concert reviews. It’s not similar to the evaluations the staff get. The conductor’s evaluation is either an extension of the contract or getting fired.

Some organizations do what’s called a 360-degree evaluation, where a person is evaluated both by his/her supervisor and by those whom he/she supervises. There are built-in dangers to this approach, as people may feel that they have to protect themselves. If someone declares, “My boss is impossible to deal with” and the boss finds out, the boss might want to get even. And in some cases the boss may feel undercut by the discussions with those who report to him.

For 22 years I tried to get evaluations of my own work from the boards I worked for, and did my best to make it easier for them to do it.. I would say “Here are my goals – evaluate me a year from now on how well I meet them.” I was very specific: “We need to improve the level of guest conductors we get – here’s a list of 10 excellent conductors who don’t conduct here. If I can get 3 of them to come, I deserve an A; if I can’t, I deserve a D.” Some years they agreed to do an evaluation and base my compensation on it, but they never did. It is uncomfortable for the board to evaluate the music director or the manager.

Big vs. Small Orchestras

There is not that much difference between managing big and small orchestras. When asked for career advice by young managers I tell them that if they have a choice between being #12 at the New York Philharmonic or #1 at the Chattanooga Symphony, do the latter. For anybody who has the ability to run an orchestra, I tell them to go to small orchestra and run it. You’ll learn so much more than being a mid-manager at a large orchestra. You’ll learn all the basic things: how to deal with a board, create a budget, negotiate with the musicians, plan a season, think about the future. You learn this business by doing. Yes, there are seminars, courses, etc., but you learn from making mistakes – by doing.

Some of the great failures in big orchestras are because managers found themselves doing so many things they have never done before. If your previous job was as general manager and before that head of operations, and you are now dealing with a music director of world stature, you’re in trouble because you have may have had no practice dealing with any music director.

Certainly there are different activities in big orchestras as opposed to small – there is typically no touring or recording in small orchestras. But these areas are easily learned compared to the human skills of learning to deal with a board chair who’s over-bearing or a difficult music director.

A good metaphor for the difference between small and large orchestras is sailing. I learned to sail on a very small boat – 16 feet. I had to hang on for dear life all the time. If you didn’t pay attention for one minute, the boat could turn over, but it wasn’t hard to turn it back up and no damage was done. When sailing big boats, I was amazed at how forgiving they are – you can make a mistake and the boat goes right on. There’s a great deal of inertia because they’re so big and stable, even if you get the tiller in the wrong place - they are basically much more forgiving. Eventually you can get into trouble – the damage you do is much bigger when you hit a rock and sink. The San Francisco Symphony would still sail on if, as manager, I went away for 6 months. The Grand Valley Symphony wouldn’t be there anymore.

Management makes a difference in every orchestra, but it takes longer to see incompetence in a larger orchestra. A mistake made 3 years ago in a big orchestra only begins to show up now. In Elgin these mistakes show up right away.

Another difference is what it’s like to be a manager. In a big orchestra you’re surrounded by other people who do something similar to what you do. You’ll have a general manager, a marketing manager, a finance manager, and other managers who have some experience and who see the world more or less as you do. In a small orchestra, you’re very lonely. You may have 2-3 people on staff who may not be well paid, and who are not at the same level of experience. I really think that managing a small orchestra is a harder job than managing a big one. A pretty good manager would last longer in Philadelphia than in Kansas City.

Society Boards vs. Business Boards

Boards tend to be either Society Boards or Business Boards. By “society board” I mean that the leadership comes from old money and old society; their parents and grandparents were on the board. They are there because of who they are. A “business board” is dominated by corporate CEOs – the board chair runs a business and the committee heads run businesses. There is generally a mix of the two types, but look carefully and you can guess which board is which. You can then predict how it will behave. People who run businesses have figured out how to delegate – how to hire and give responsibility. St. Louis’ was a business-dominated board when I was there; the chair was the chair of a group of department stores, and he knew the difference between governance and managing. The board of their businesses did not run the business; likewise the board of the orchestra did not try to run the orchestra. The board chair gave me an hour a week and I had to talk fast.

Society boards are quite different – the board members have more time for the organization, are not used to delegating, and often have little experience supervising people. A manager of one of these boards can be working for someone whose only supervisory experience is with domestic help. I spent 3-5 hours a week meeting with and talking with the chair of the San Francisco Symphony. She wanted to know much more than a business board chair would. There’s generally much less turnover on a society board. A business-type board usually changes more frequently; people serve 5-6 years max and then move on to the next non-profit. They are often less committed to the orchestra, seeing their board service as a business responsibility to the community; they must make sure the arts thrive. But it’s less a part of their lives than it is for the members of a society board.


If the board is a bad one – ways have to be found to improve the quality of board members, and thus the nature of the board. There’s a riddle about what to do if you are an elephant stuck in quicksand: First, stop being an elephant.

What works is leadership – that’s the magic word. It the board is going down, it’s generally because the best members have drifted away; the board gets bogged down and just gets worse. One real leader can change this. If the board gets tired, you can hear it in the concert hall, because they’re no longer raising money or making the right decisions. The repertoire isn’t interesting anymore, the orchestra has second-level guest artists, the best players leave for better orchestras, the pay scales go down…

Change happens when somebody moves to town or someone decides to make it change. It can change in a big hurry – you can bring new people onto the board, hire a better manager and staff, etc. If you don’t survive, you can’t do anything. Without survival, there is no victory. Orchestra musicians are those most affected by the decisions made by the manager, but the actions a musician can take to improve things are very limited. Musicians can’t hire a new manager or raise money. The musicians can try to stimulate the board to take action, but they are limited.

Hiring a Manager

The board chair is usually chosen by the previous chair. In better run orchestras, the board chair comes from within the board – the chair-to-be heads other committees before becoming chair, so s/he is familiar to and with the institution. But there are many examples of people coming in from outside, becoming chair, and doing a good job.

It would be preferable for managers to have been general managers of the same organization before becoming manager, but that rarely happens. If there’s no one to promote, boards look to other orchestras to find a manager.

How do you pick a manager? The players get involved today, and a lot of searches are not very well done, particularly when an orchestra is in deep trouble. Sometimes the board says, “The past manager was a professional orchestra manager and did a terrible job. We must get someone who knows how to run a business and meet payroll.” So they hire a retired bank manager or former university dean, with no relevant experience.

What’s wrong with that approach? I find that the best argument is this: look around and see where that approach has worked – who had no relevant background, took over an orchestra, and did a great job? Virtually nobody. The list of people who’ve tried and failed is very long. Generally the non-professional orchestra manager is out within a year, and the orchestra is in even worse trouble. How much of a risk-taker are you? Hire a professional manager with a good track record and you have a much better chance of success.

What about the job interview for a manager and other staff positions: often the interviewers ask the usual questions about where the applicant went to school, why he/she wants this job, etc. Do they ask about selling tickets? No. If I want to hire a development director, I break down that job into its components and ask a candidate about relevant experience with each component.

I would not hire a finance person who’d never worked for a non-profit; it generally takes a year to figure out that we’re not supposed to make a profit, and by that time we are in some kind of trouble.

How a search committee is put together is important. You need some people with really good judgment, and you also need people who are powerful on the board and in the community. Because they were part of the search they will be more committed to the success of the person they hire. It’s important for them to be invested in the manager’s success.

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