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Orchestral Organization

0 Henry Fogel
OrchestraPortrait Editor's Abstract

Henry Fogel stepped down as President of the League of American Orchestras at the end of June, 2008, though he will continue consulting with the League about fundraising and will continue visiting orchestras around the country. Henry has years of experience in the orchestra world, and he graciously agreed to hold a session for musicians at the June conference, where he explained the structure of orchestras, and how smaller orchestras differ from larger ones. As always, his presentation was witty, laced with many stories, but also enormously interesting and educational. If you don\’t really understand what all those people on your staff are doing, read on. And even if you do, read on anyway!

What Is This Beast Called Management?

I prepared this description of orchestral organization [see the appendix to this article] for a class I teach for performance majors at Roosevelt University‘s conservatory in Chicago. I once complained to the conservatory dean that instrumental performance majors needed to know something about how orchestral organizations function; the dean replied, “So you teach it!” No good deed goes unpunished!

The most important thing to understand is that all these functions need to be performed by someone, regardless of the size of the orchestra. The smaller the orchestra, the more these different departments will be condensed. The smallest orchestras have an Executive Director. Period. The next larger have an Executive Director and a secretary.

The largest orchestras have huge staffs of 75 to over 100. It depends on, among other variables, whether the orchestra owns its own hall. Chicago had 30 more people on staff than the NY Philharmonic – I used to get flack from the Chicago musicians about the staff being too large, but we had to hire security guards, box office staff, stage hands, etc. The Boston Symphony has the largest staff of any orchestra because they have perhaps100 groundskeepers at Tanglewood. If you take the building management out of the picture, most large orchestra staffs have 75-80 people.

What do they do?

If an orchestra is owned by anybody, it’s owned by the board. They have the legal and fiduciary responsibility: they hire the Executive Director and the Music Director – even if the Music Director reports to the Executive Director – the board still hires and fires that person. No Executive Director would fire the Music Director. If anybody were going to be sued by the orchestra for lack of being compensated, or by the public for some malfeasance, it would be the board that would be sued. Most boards have directors’ liability insurance.

In the outline, I’ve listed all the various board committees for a larger organization. These committees are largely advisory, and offer advice to the professional staff. Small orchestras (under $1.5 to $2 million) frequently don’t have a Development Director, so the board must be out there even more. In large orchestras board members are expected to fundraise but they are advised and directed by the Development Department, who research whom the board members should contact. Smaller orchestras don’t have the personnel to do this research.

Most board committees are standing committees but some are what I call ad hoc committees. These are formed for a specific purpose, such as the centennial gala, or a Music Director search.

Many of my students didn’t know that the board is not paid. Not only are they not paid, they’re expected to contribute substantially to the orchestra and buy subscriptions. Why do people join a board? For some board members, it’s part of belonging to the corporate community. There are also social aspects – parties and special events. It also looks nice on a resume. And some board members just really care about the orchestra and do it for selfless reasons. Unfortunately, some join to wield power and they can be destructive. And some join because they believe that the city should have a professional and important orchestra – a sense of civic duty. In my experience, the majority of board members are helpful and constructive.

I have visited 128 orchestras during my tenure as President of the League [of American Orchestras]. The corporate ethic is becoming less prevalent. Take Sioux Falls – in the 1960s and 70s, many national credit card companies went to Sioux Falls for tax reasons. There were major Citibank and other bank offices there. Also two very big hospitals – the major hospitals for the whole part of the north Midwest west of Chicago and Minnesota are in Sioux Falls. The hospitals want doctors to be attracted to come to the city, so the two non-profit hospitals are among the biggest supporters of the orchestra.

Some cities don’t have a lot of corporations. There’s a growing trend to look at the short-term bottom line and devalue community contribution. Another problem is mergers, where big companies leave the city.

But then some amazing things are happening in very small cities. For example, Middleton MI has a new arts center with a wonderful museum, a theater, and a concert hall. But then Middleton is the home of Dow. All the constituent groups are under one structure, which has a $6 million budget for operating the center and a $70 million endowment. This in a town with a population of under 50,000.

The Board

The board has three responsibilities: overall governance, advocacy for the institution, and fundraising – both contributing and soliciting funds. If you disagree with a decision made by the majority, do it behind closed doors, and support them publicly. If you disagree with a major decision, you must resign from the board. Say a decision was made to raise ticket prices, and the Marketing Committee and staff sit down and talk about ticket prices and recommend a 10% ticket price rise. It’s the job of the trustees, on the social circuit, to explain why the ticket prices had to go up, and to explain that the whole board voted on it – it wasn’t the marketing staff taking the easy way out so they wouldn’t have to work harder to market the season. Use the knowledge you have to explain and support the decisions made. What attracts good people to a board is good people already on the board.

Musician representatives on boards – about half of orchestras have musicians on the board. They are often not required to contribute, though in some cases they are expected to – and in some cases they do anyhow. However, the musicians on the League board are expected to contribute something. It depends also if the musicians were chosen or elected to be on the board. They are probably asked but not required to contribute. However, a 100% contribution of board members is required by some external funders such as foundations, and everyone can afford to contribute something; everyone can afford to give $20.

The involvement of musicians on boards is one of the big changes in orchestras in my lifetime and I’m very supportive of it. 25 years ago, no musicians served on boards – not even on a Music Director Search Committee.

Detroit, perhaps 25 years ago, had a 1-day strike over this. The musicians had proposed that if a search were required, 1/3 of the Search Committee should be musicians. The board chair was alleged to say, “That’s like letting the inmates run the asylum,” and the result was a one-day strike. The board gave into the musicians’ proposal and the strike was over.

How the musicians are selected to serve on the board is still an issue in some orchestras. I’m an inveterate optimist – it’s better that the fight is about how to choose them rather than whether musicians should participate.

By the way, let me explain the term ex officio, as it’s often misunderstood. Ex-officio means only that a person is a member of a board by virtue of holding office, such as being elected to the Orchestra Committee. They have full voting rights and full membership privileges, unless the by-laws specify that ex officio members are non voting. However, when they no longer hold that office, they are no longer members of the board. When I was talking about having the ROPA, ICSOM and AFM leadership being on the League board, this issue came up.


My list of management personnel is for an orchestra that plays four concerts a week rather than six concerts a year. But all these things have to be done, no matter what your size.

Having a separate Artistic Department starts with the $10 to $15 million orchestras. Below that, the Artistic Department is part of the Operations Department. In larger orchestras, there is so much to be done it justifies having separate departments. The Music Director in larger orchestras does fewer than half the weeks, so they have many guest conductors to book. And they must balance the programs over the season – you could have three conductors wanting to do Mahler’s 3rd. And you must vary the programs within the season – suppose you realize that you have no French music programmed? You’d ask which of the conductors you’ve hired does French music well, and ask them to change their program to include La Mer or something else French.

There is so much more to juggle. But every function listed here must be done in every orchestra.

PR and marketing are often done in the same department but they very different. Marketing is selling tickets, while PR is creating the institutional image. There’s an overlap of skills but they’re different. This is also true in the corporate world. Orchestras usually can’t afford two departments, so they’ll have a marketing and PR professional, but how the department is structured differs from orchestra to orchestra.

Development – this is a good word because good fundraising is the development of good relations between the donor and the institution. There’s a growing role for musicians in donor cultivation and appreciation. My philosophy is that you never ask orchestra musicians to do for free what they do for a living. If you want them to perform, you pay them. They may donate the money back; that’s their choice. But it IS appropriate to ask musicians to come to donor functions. Musicians don’t realize that they’re celebrities. We used to do wine and cheese receptions for donors at the $500 to $1000 level – there were always a couple of people in that group with potential for larger gifts. We’d invite the orchestra members to come by having a sign up sheet at the beginning of each season, where musicians could check off their name if they’d like to be invited to receptions. I always wanted a blend – male/female, young/old, strings/winds. It used to be that only principal players were invited, but that’s not true any more.

One donor at a wine & cheese we held in the basement of Orchestra Hall was asking questions of the timpanist: “Why do you put your ear down to the timpani? Why do you have 8 or 10 sets of sticks behind you?” He was getting a mini-timpani lesson while he sipped his wine. In larger orchestras, it’s the development department that coordinates these events – we had a series of lunches and dinners that included an interview with a musician. Someone on staff would do the interview; donors especially liked the older musicians telling stories of the good old days. Musicians are really celebrities.

Endowed chairs in orchestras – these are often based on the personality of those players connecting with specific donors. The Principal Violist in New Jersey is from Germany, and that chair was endowed by a German donor. In Chicago, the flute and tuba chairs were endowed because of the musicians who hold those chairs (although the tubist insisted that the chair be endowed in Arnold Jacobson’s memory).

During negotiations, I always felt like I was in the middle between board members and musicians. Once we had a powerful board member with a strong anti-union bias. He was put on the negotiation committee – he was a real hawk. It was my job to let him vent but not shape the settlement. The Executive Director and the management team have to balance the board pressure and the musician needs. Often when a donor says, “I’ll do xyz if you restructure the contract,” the board is pushing the donor to do this.

On the other hand, when there’s been a strike, there’s usually a specific dollar difference between the musicians and board. A donor can come in and offer to give that amount to settle the strike. But what happens in 3 years when the contract expires – how will we manage that difference? But you have to accept the gift because of the PR damage caused by turning down money because it didn’t solve the long-term problem. The public wouldn’t understand that concept.

Finance Dept – in a large orchestra, it might be 5 people. In a small orchestra, it might be just 1 person or even a board member (the Treasurer).

Artistic Side

There is almost no such thing as a purely artistic decision and no such thing as a purely financial decision. They are closely inter-related. A complicated program will need an extra rehearsal, which impacts the budget. In the well-functioning orchestra, the Music Director and the Executive Director are a real team. If they disagree, they do so behind a closed door and no one ever knows it.

One of the first musician board members in America ended up in the Syracuse Symphony, and he related to me that the ideal relationship between a Music Director and an Executive Director would be something like this: Suppose there’s a stupid rule in the musicians’ contract that the conductor may not wear a red shirt at rehearsal. He does so and the Orchestra Committee complains to the Executive Director that the Music Director wore a red shirt. The good Executive Director will not say that it’s a stupid rule but rather will argue with the committee and tell them that the shirt was in fact blue. Then s/he’ll go tell the Music Director never to wear a red shirt to rehearsal again!

In a really well-run orchestra, the board chair relationship is also part of that. It’s the 3-legged stool of the Executive Director, Music Director, and Board Chair. Are three legs enough? No, the missing leg is the musicians. I wrote an article explaining all this for Harmony [reprinted on Polyphonic here] – I took some heat at the time from some manager colleagues but the idea is somewhat accepted now.


The fourth internal leg is the volunteers. In some orchestras, they raise between 5% and 10% of the entire budget. In Spokane, which has a $4 million budget, the volunteers raise $400,000, which is 10% of the budget.

Volunteers will have projects that need musicians. It’s an interesting problem for management – the volunteers always want the musicians to perform for free. It’s hard to explain why I couldn’t do that. Once you open that door, I don’t know where you’d close it. Some volunteers understood; some didn’t. It’s hard for them to understand, as they donate hundreds of hours for a project.

And I once had to explain to a group of volunteers why an employee had to have a lunch hour – it’s a legal requirement of employment.

Music Directors

I’m often asked if it’s important that a board member or board chair know and love music. No. It’s important that they have an intellectual appreciation for the value of it, but I’ve had some good board chairs who came to concerts and enjoyed the experience, but couldn’t tell you the difference between Mozart and Haydn or Schubert. But they passionately believed that the city of Chicago needs a great orchestra. You also don’t need a deep musical knowledge to be an Executive Director, but you need the perception of having a strong musical knowledge. Or you should know that you don’t have it and make certain you have it elsewhere on the senior level of your staff. And always cede musical issues to that other person. Every artistic decision and financial decision overlap; it’s too much to expect the Music Director to have a strong understanding of budgetary issues. Two people who don’t understand the other’s problem is a bad situation. The more you know about music, the more credibility you have.

In Fritz Reiner’s days at the CSO, a manager tried to stop him from going into overtime by cutting him off at rehearsal. Everyone looked aghast at the manager as Reiner said, “Office boy, go back to your office.” How would I have reacted? I would never have found myself in that situation!

Music Director Searches – If an orchestra does more than 4 or 5 concerts a year, one of them should be with a guest conductor. If you do about 8, you should have 2 guests. And you ought to be starting the search for your next Music Director the day you hire the current one. You should always be comparing your Music Director with the other talent out there. You need to know what else is around. And people get tired of you if you’re the only conductor in town. In large orchestras, a15-20 year reign can work because Music Directors only do half the year.

Conductors can come into a small orchestra and be loved by everybody. Ten years later, everyone might be asking, “When is he going to go?” The best keep growing and move on to larger orchestras – but those who don’t can tend to get stuck in their job. What was new and fresh when they first came can become stale ten years later. I have encountered conductors who actually grew worse over time, because they lost the freshness they had when they were young, but also hadn’t grown. The Eugene Symphony’s philosophy, when they go to hire a music director, is “if the music director we hire is still here in ten years, we made a mistake.” They see themselves as the first step in a big career.

Retention of the Music Director and musician input – no one is more equipped to judge the Music Director‘s performance than the musicians. It’s not about deciding who your boss should be. For example, the faculty at a university has serious input into selecting the university president. But there are still orchestras that won’t ask for input from the musicians. (Regarding Executive Director longevity – the job is more varied now, and involves getting a consensus. It’s less 1-person directed.) But there is a time for a Music Director to move on and hopefully you’ll recognize when that time comes.

It used to be that the board just renewed the Music Director’s contract because it was the easiest thing to do. You should renew with close to the same enthusiasm you had when you hired him/her. Smaller orchestras sometimes lament that “No other conductor would come here” but three small orchestras doing conductor searches recently (Boise MT, Columbia SC, and Lafayette IN) each had over 300 applicants, 30-50 of whom were well qualified. All three orchestras have hired new Music Directors.

Appendix: The Orchestral Organization

Board of Trustees (Directors)

Chair – Vice-Chair(s) – Treasurer – Secretary

Standing (ongoing) Committees




Nominating (Board Development; Governance)

Marketing & Public Relations

Development (Fundraising)

Education & Community Relations (sometimes separate)

Long Range Planning (Strategic Planning)

Orchestra Relations

Negotiations (sometimes combined with Orchestra Relations)

Endowment Investment

Facilities (own hall or rent)

Special Events/Social events/Galas (sometimes part of Development)

Artistic Advisory

Government Relations

Special (Ad Hoc) Committees as needed

Special projects (facility renovation, new hall, centennial)

Search Committees (Music Director / Exec. Director) – musicians incl.

  • Discussion of role of board and committees – differ from for-profit world
  • Importance of relationship between Board Chair & Executive Director
  • Relationship between staff (senior management) and committees

Three Responsibilities of Trustees

  1. Governance
  2. Advocacy
  3. Fundraising


Executive Director/President

  • Who is really CEO (can vary in different orchestras)?
  • 3-Legged Stool
  • Role of Musicians – are they the “4th Leg?”
  • Ideal traits of Executive Director

Five Departments (Structured differently in different orchestras)


  • Program Planning
  • Artist Booking
  • Care and Feeding of Artists
  • Closest Relationship with Music Dir
  • Supervise Staff Conductors
  • Integration of soloists, conductors, repertoire
  • Oversee educational and community programs
  • Oversee Chorus, Youth Orchestra
  • Commissioning New Works


  •  All logistics – stagehands, orchestral set-up, etc.
  • Touring – negotiating & running
  • Manages musician labor contract
  • Closest relationship with musicians
  • Supervises personnel manager
  • This department engages subs & extras
  • Oversees facility (or relationship with hall)
  • Might oversee office operation
  • Orchestra Library (sometimes in Artistic Department)
  • Logistics for meetings, development functions
  • Logistics for ancillary concerts (Chamber, Community programs, Education)
  • Logistics for amplified concerts
  • In smaller orchestras, Artistic & Operations departments are combined. In many orchestras, a General Manager oversees both departments

Public Relations & Marketing

  • Difference between PR & Marketing – usually separate divisions in same department.
  • Responsibility for earned revenue (ticket sales)
  • Designs or oversees all printed material
  • Advertising
  • Internal publications, newsletters
  • Press releases
  • Relationships with press
  • Manages artist interviews with press
  • Oversees things like artist & orchestra photos
  • Advises board and management on likely press and public reaction to statements / ideas
  • Promotion of music director


  • Annual Fund (individual, foundation, corporate)
  • Donor Cultivation & Appreciation – special events, galas, receptions, etc. Always works with a volunteer chair on events. At large orchestras would include patrons on tour
  • Leads/motivates board to raise money – provides knowledge, experience, technical assistance
  • Has to project for future budgeting without knowledge of what economy will be like
  • Special project fundraising (tours; radio broadcasts; one-time events like Centennial)
  • Oversees government relationships (and government funding)
  • Plans and oversees endowment drives
  • Planned Giving (bequests)


  • Annual operating budget (coordination; oversight)
  • Payroll Management
  • Benefit Management (health, pension)
  • Human Resources Dept. usually in Finance
  • If Operations doesn’t manage office administrative matters, Finance does
  • Cash Flow – managing & tracking
  • Work with Investment Committee of board to oversee endowment
  • Financial oversight of all special projects
  • Accounts Payable & Receivable
  • Oversight of all contracts
  • Oversight of legal and corporate issues (insurance, use of attorneys, gov’t licensing requirements, taxes)

Artistic Side of Organization

Music Director

  • Relationship with musicians
  • Relationship with Exec Dir/Pres
  • Relationship with Board Chair
  • Authority over and/or role in auditions, termination
  • Responsibility for overall artistic vision (varies among orchestras) – guest conductors, all programs, etc. (shared with management – degree of sharing varies)
  • Variation in amount of season conducted by Music Director, particularly different in small and large orchestras
  • Is Music Director resident in the community? If so, for how much time? Does/Should authority relate to degree of residence?

Staff Conductors

  • Assistant, Associate, Apprentice, Resident, etc.
  • Chorus Director
  • Youth Orchestra Conductor


  • Relationship with music director and management
  • Relationship between section leaders and rest of orchestra
  • Orchestra Committee(s)
  • Personnel Manager
  • Management interaction with entire orchestra as opposed to exclusively the committee
  • Board interaction?
  • Musicians work in community and education programs
  • Musicians on boards? Committees? Relationships with individual trustees. Role of musicians in governance


Women’s Associations/Guilds and Other Groups

  • Traditional volunteer organizations, over 100 years of US history
  • Younger bi-gender volunteer groups
  • Groups for professionals
  • Relationships between groups, and between volunteers and management.
  • Expectations of volunteers:
    • Need to be seen as more than money-raisers
    • Need some role of importance in institution
    • Education, Community programs; Docents
    • Need for positive re-enforcement, since they receive no paycheck for their work.
    • Often misunderstandings (why won’t musicians play free for our events? Why should staff member take a lunch hour just when we need her?)


  • How does institution get legitimate feedback from its audience?
  • How does institution learn about potential audience – those who don’t come but might?
  • How to lead the audience without losing them? (Balance between artistic risk and customer satisfaction)
  • Importance of marketing studies, surveys, focus groups – of already-existing audience and of non-attenders.

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