Publisher’s Notes by Lawrence Tamburri
New Institute Governance Plan by Lawrence Tamburri
The Turning Point by Lawrence Tamburri
Trust by Lawrence Tamburri
Symphony Orchestra Volunteers: Vital Resources by Michael Gehret
An Instrument of Knowledge by Meg Posey and Paul R. Judy
Research Update by Sally Maitlis
Decision Making in British Symphony Orchestras: Formal Structures, Informal Systems, and the Role of Players by Sally Maitlis
Rebuilding the Repertoire for the 21st Century by James Orleans
Toward a Vision of Mutual Responsiveness: Remythologizing the Symphony Orchestra by Marilyn Fischer and Isaiah Jackson
Myths and Magic: A Word from a Conductor by Taavo Virkhaus
About the Cover…by Phillip Huscher
Book Review by Paul R. Judy
Welcome to the fourth issue of Harmony! We think you will find this issue to be the most thought-provoking yet! But first, a few administrative notes.
As perhaps you observed on the inside front cover, we are restructuring the governance of the Institute. These new arrangements are described in more detail on page viii. And we have moved our office to Evanston, Illinois, where Meg Posey has joined us as administrator. We have also changed our telephone and fax numbers, and e-mail address. Please make a note of these details.
We thank those dedicated people who helped launch the Institute and welcome many new minds and hands to assist with future tasks. These are ongoing steps to build a solid foundation for Institute programs over the longer term.
Moving to the central content of this issue, we continue in our exploration of the unique dynamics of symphony orchestra organizations. A number of the essays will remind readers of the large and, in many cases, untapped human potential which resides in these organizations. More particularly, participants and observers are beginning to suggest how symphony orchestra organizations might change or are, in fact, changing to become better functioning and more effective institutions.
Preceding any “organizational change” process, there is often a turning point at which the leadership from different organizational sectors embraces new ways of thinking and relating, a time when organizational trust begins an upward trend. The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra organization passed through such a point a few years back, and the subsequent transformation provides a good example of the change which is possible in the orchestral workplace. This issue of Harmony opens with a review of this change as expressed by some of the key participants and is followed by some personal thoughts from the NJSO executive director, Larry Tamburri.
In every symphony organization, the orchestra is the central work group; it produces the primary artistic work product. To audiences and community, musicians are the most obvious and necessary participants in an orchestral organization. Operating much more in the background, however, is a cadre of volunteers whose leadership, service, and support are absolutely vital to the success of any American orchestral organization. The significance of these human resources, and the policies and attitudes needed to develop and nourish them, merit broader understanding. We asked Mike Gehret to give Harmony readers an expert’s view on what he aptly describes as the “volunteer-centered” orchestra organization.
As is the case in all nonprofit and for-profit institutions, the board of directors has final legal responsibility for and authority over the affairs of a symphony orchestra organization. The board must ensure that the organization has clear goals and the leadership and resources to achieve them. When board responsibilities are fulfilled poorly, and when the situation is exacerbated by other organizational dysfunction, disaster can result. The demise of the Oakland (California) Symphony Orchestra some 10 years ago provides a case in point. The essay by Meg Posey and Paul Judy, based on an extensively documented history of the Oakland situation, summarizes the lessons which we can learn from an organizational failure.
As noted in the Research Update (page 44) the doctoral research projects of Arthur Brooks and John Breda, which commenced in 1996, have taken longer to complete than originally contemplated, but both projects continue to look very worthwhile. Brooks recently finished his research and Breda should do so within a few months. The Institute is now considering publication plans. During 1996, the Institute was also pleased to become acquainted with a very interesting inquiry into the comparative organizational decision-making processes of three British orchestra organizations being carried out by Sally Maitlis, a doctoral candidate at the University of Sheffield. On pages 45 to 55, Sally describes her research project and presents some preliminary findings.
Musicians often complain that they are insufficiently involved in decision making within their organizations. Management complains equally often that musicians generally do not want to devote the time and learning required for such involvement and, further, that musicians don’t wish to have any responsibility for outcomes. Many musicians feel by reason of interest, education, and experience they could well be more involved in their organizations’ artistic policy and decision making. An eloquent commentator on this subject is James Orleans, a bassist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Jim is a knowledgeable champion of 20th-century music and a devotee of its role in revitalizing the orchestral repertoire. Especially refreshing in Jim’s message is a call to fellow musicians to become more active, assert more leadership, make a greater invest- ment, and assume more responsibility in their organizations.
The role of the “conductor”—especially when incorporated into the role of “principal conductor” or “music director”—is very significant in the dynamics of a modern symphony orchestra organization. The personal and professional attributes, behavior, and leadership of this position’s occupant can significantly influence the climate of the orchestral workplace. Many of the ambiguities of this organizational role go back some 150 years to the emergence of the “maestro” in Europe, as transplanted to North America at the turn of the century. Working together, Marilyn Fischer and Isaiah Jackson explore the historic myths and philosophies connected with this role and then postulate for it a new and more contemporary vision, along with some ways to implement that vision.
In a fitting sequence, Taavo Virkhaus stands back and critiques his role as a music director and guest conductor. Taavo points out the many mundane, earthbound, and mortal constraints of this job and how the times require a much more egalitarian approach—which the author applauds. At the same time, a central task of a good conductor is to inspire magical sound from an orchestra and good conductors must therefore possess some of that magic themselves.
With the score fragment on the cover, Phillip Huscher once again titillates our knowledge and our curiosity. A clue: the score’s composer had a significant role in the development of orchestral music and organization. Who was this unusual person?
Any manager or scholar interested in staying current with advanced organizational theory and practice is faced with a plethora of newly published books. A few are outstanding; many are interesting but repetitive; some are blatantly poor. Some have insights which easily carry over to symphony organizations; others have messages or approaches which are less obviously applicable. The vertical and horizontal compartmentalization within symphony organizations has long been intriguing. These well-marked “boundaries” exist in many organizations, including some of the largest and most bureaucratic. The Boundaryless Organization: Breaking the Chains of Organizational Structure explores these organizational patterns in a very readable and effective way, and the observations have special applicability to symphony organizations. We recommend this book to our readers, who will find a taste of the content on page 93.
We continue to welcome manuscript ideas and submissions and stand ready to provide editorial suggestions, from broadly conceptual to very detailed. We sense that many participants want better functioning symphony organizations, are developing greater awareness of the possibilities of organizational change, and have insights and ideas to present. We hope more and more people will use Harmony as a forum for these thoughts and suggestions.
On page 96, we are pleased to publish additions to a bibliography of research and writings about symphony orchestra organizations. We will continue to pub- lish extensions of this bibliography in each issue of Harmony and will publish an updated cumulative listing this fall.
Readers continue to send in encouraging thoughts about Harmony pre- sentations and Institute direction. On page 97, you will find some recent comments. We hope readers and observers will continue to send in suggestions and impressions.
On page 100, we list those symphony orchestra organizations which, as of March 10, have committed to 1997 support of the Institute. We thank you! With this issue of Harmony, we hope to gather additional support and present a longer list in the fall. If your organization is not in the list, please have the proper person fill in and return the Supporting Organization Register bound into the back of this issue. A suggested level of contribution support for 1997 is given in the table on page 101.
If you are a symphony organization participant, we encourage you to have Harmony mailed directly to your home or office. To do so, fill out and send in the postcard inserted in this issue or telephone, fax, or e-mail your request to us. If you are a nonparticipant and wish to have an individual or group subscription, there is an application for that purpose bound into the back of this issue.
Lastly, we can all benefit from a reminder about the pronouns we tend to use and the positive or negative effect they can have on those around us. So, as you view the inside back cover, remember that “practice makes perfect.”
New Institute Governance Plan
With the experience of its first year of operation, the Institute has refined its governance structure.
As noted on the inside front cover, a small Board of Directors has been estab- lished along with a single larger Board of Advisors which succeeds the two smaller advisory groups formed at inception.
The Board of Advisors will consist of up to 15 persons who are or have been active participants in or close observers of symphony orchestra organizations and who support the goals of the Institute. Twelve of those positions have presently been filled. Advisors individually and as a group will have the following duties:
◆ ProvideongoingadvicetotheBoardofDirectorsandmanagement,as individuals and as a group, as to the general direction, programs, and policies of the Institute, and critique specific questions, ideas, and proposals.
◆ Exchangeviewswithfellowadvisorsanddirectorsandstayabreastof industry organizational developments.
◆ Collect views from colleagues and other participants in and observers of symphony orchestra organizations about industry developments and about the Institute and its programs.
◆ Promote an interest in and support of the Institute and its programs. ◆ Foster positive organizational change and greater effectiveness in symphony orchestra organizations.
The initial advisors will be appointed for terms running from the date of acceptance in 1997 until June 30, 1998. Thereafter, terms of continuing or successor advisors may run for one, two, or three years. It will be a goal over coming years to achieve approximately evenly staggered three-year terms of office for advisors in order to achieve greater institutional continuity and commitment.
The Board of Advisors will be composed of symphony organization board members, executive directors, orchestra members, and other orchestral organization participants and close observers, in about even proportions, and representative of various organizational sizes and locations. Although the Institute may make exceptions, the Board of Advisors will not normally have more than one member affiliated or formerly affiliated with the same symphony orchestra organization and, in order better to assure independence of view, will not normally have a member who was also in an executive role with an industry group or association.
It is anticipated that the Boards of Advisors and Directors will be linked electronically for regular ongoing communications and occasional single-event communications. The Board of Advisors will have one face-to-face general meeting per annum and during the year will have meetings among smaller groups for specific purposes.
The Board of Directors will consist of up to seven persons, five seats being presently filled. The Board will have all the normal powers and responsibilities of a Board of Directors under Illinois law. It will generally oversee the management and operation of the Institute, meeting periodically during the year to carry out its duties. In addition, the board will serve as a nominating committee for members of the Board of Advisors.
A roundtable discussion with members of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra
The Turning Point
We all like to read success stories, stories about changes that work. Just such a story awaits as you begin to read this issue of Harmony. Our story
opens with an introduction, written by Paul Judy, that describes briefly the history of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO). Beginning in the 1970s, it is a history replete with organizational and financial conflict. Fortunately, it is history!
In Their Own Words
The story continues, picked up at the turning point, as related by seven members of the NJSO orchestral family. These seven came together to participate in a roundtable discussion of when, how, and why successful change occurred in their organization.
What you are about to read is an edited transcript of their discussion, one in which musicians, board members, and staff consider the elements that were involved in making changes happen. It is an encouraging recital, related with great candor, that touches on organizational aspects of the NJSO ranging from board structure to musician-staff relations. Each participant offers a different point of view, but all agree that the inclusion of musicians in decision-making processes was a critical element in this organization’s success.
And a Word of Caution
In a coda which follows the roundtable, Paul Judy sounds a cautionary note, reminding us that the NJSO still faces substantial external challenges. But his parting shot is upbeat, “It is a reasonable bet that this organization will be successful.”
The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) was founded in 1922 and has antecedents which date to 1846. The organization adopted its present name in the late 1930s, a decade during which many players in this
orchestra were also regular New York Philharmonic musicians. From its inception, the NJSO has played an extensive repertoire and has performed music with some of the world’s leading concert artists.
After World War II, the orchestra began to play for audiences of all ages at various venues in and around Newark, its base city, and at locations throughout New Jersey, as it developed significant and growing state financial support (which continues to this day). As Samuel Antek, who served as music director from 1947 to 1958, said of this period, “. . . the relationship between the orchestra and community becomes ever closer and more meaningful. The days of royal patronage and the rich ‘angel-backer’ are passing . . . orchestras must be supported by the broadest cross-section of people. . . .”
In 1960, the budget of the NJSO was $60,000 per year, a number which grew to more than $250,000 by the mid-1960s. By the early 1970s, the budget had more than tripled; a significantly expanded performance schedule exploded costs to unsustainable levels. This overexpansion led to major operating deficits which were soon followed, during the 1973-1974 season, by an abrupt cutback in performance weeks, from 36 to 23. Along with the operating and financial crisis came mounting musician and organization tension and changes in administrative and artistic leadership. As a musician who participated in this period of organizational conflict said:
I am someone who had a basic benevolent spirit when I joined the orchestra, but I lost it. I can’t overstate how hurt, how angry I was— as a musician, as a human being with feelings—that the orchestra was being run so ineptly, with such short-sightedness, with no attempt to utilize the positive abilities of the people who were working here, all of whom wanted things to get better. . . . I was invited to attend a board meeting during this period and it showed me how closed-minded and inflexible our board was. The board felt that we musicians had nothing to communicate that would be of any positive use in terms of moving the organization forward.
Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, the NJSO’s financial statements were “qualified” by the orchestra’s auditors due to ongoing operating deficits and questionable operating ability. The orchestra went on strike briefly in 1979 over an artistic matter. In the 1980-1981 season, performances were suspended and the following season, performance weeks were again cut drastically, from 31 to 11. In early 1983, the music director and the orchestra parted ways. However, despite a decade of financial and leadership turmoil, the orchestra continued to display a high level of artistry and ensemble as evidenced by the excellent reviews which its regular Carnegie Hall appearances received.
Over the nine seasons ending in 1991, the organization again experienced very high revenue and cost growth, along with regular operating deficits.
During this period, in 1986, musicians’ compensation was changed from a per-service basis to a weekly salary basis. Between the 1981-1982 and 1990- 1991 seasons, the number of performance weeks expanded from 11 to 26 and players’ minimum annual compensation grew from approximately $5,000 to $20,000. Between 1985 and 1992, a new music director helped diversify programming, musical activities, and venues and the orchestra continued to be recognized for its outstanding artistry. Leonard Bernstein is reported to have said in 1987, “This is a terrific orchestra.”
But despite steady physical and artistic growth, the NJSO organization continued to be characterized by compartmentalization, disconnection, and tension among musicians, music direction, management, and governance. It also suffered chronic financial shortfalls. The overall attitude, commitment, and vision of the board was viewed by a thoughtful musician and confirmed by a staff member as “active in its passivity.”4 The board operated with modest knowledge of orchestral operations and with no effective oversight of management. In the mid-1970s, for various well-intentioned reasons, the NJSO instituted the practice of having two persons share board leadership. But by 1990, this practice led to serious ambiguity about the responsibility and accountability of this central volunteer function.
In late 1990, another crisis was emerging. In the words of another musician:
[It was] immediately before 1991 that the crisis began. The board was holding fast to a plan that would have cut our compensation by 47 percent. We were in a play and talk situation, there was almost no negotiation going on, and very little communication. We wrote letters to every board member trying to describe our frustration with the lack of contractual progress, attempting to humanize our situation, and explaining that a 47 percent pay cut was really going to impact our families, our lives, and our affiliation with the symphony. Many people were considering leaving music or the symphony in order to make a living. The board was a solid, evil, dark, ominous entity that we did not deal with well. Victor Parsonnet, who was on the board but not yet chairman, was the only person who answered every single letter he received. This was the first hopeful sign that perhaps someone was hearing our message. It was a very important turning point.5
Beginning with that turning point, NJSO participants should tell their own story to readers of Harmony. The Symphony Orchestra Institute asked several of them to sit down together and think out loud about what has transpired in their organization since 1991. What follows is an edited transcript of that roundtable discussion.
Lawrence Tamburri: Paul Judy asked us to come together to share our thoughts about what has changed in the NJSO since 1991, and why. To get us started, let’s go around the table and briefly introduce ourselves. I’m Larry Tamburri and I have been the executive director of the NJSO since 1991.
Randy Hicks: I am principal tympani with the NJSO and have been a member of this orchestra since 1971.
Bob Wagner: I am principal bassoon and chairman of the orchestra committee. I joined the orchestra in 1979 and have served on three negotiating committees and a couple of renegotiating committees.
Victor Bauer: I am vice president for finance and treasurer for the NJSO and the former president of Hoechst Roussel. In the late 1980s, one of my colleagues who represented our company on the NJSO board invited me to attend a concert. I liked what I heard and when the symphony started their chamber concerts in New Brunswick, I took a subscription. I have been going to concerts ever since.
Karen Swanson: I am general manager of the NJSO. I joined the symphony right out of school in 1986 as an administrative assistant. In the intervening years, I have served as assistant orchestra manager and orchestra manager, as well as serving for six months in 1991 as acting executive director.
Lucinda (Cindy) Lewis: I am principal horn and also secretary of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM). I have been a member of the orchestra since 1977. When I came to the NJSO, I had previously performed in Israel and had no experience dealing with an American orchestra.
Victor Parsonnet: I am chairman of the NJSO and have been since 1991. I am currently Director of the Pacemaker and Defibrillator Evaluation Center and Director of Surgical Research. For 27 years I was Director of Surgery at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.
Tamburri: Let’s assume that those who eventually read what comes of this conversation have been briefed about the history of our orchestra and understand that we had some very troubled times. So I wonder if we can talk about a defining moment that caused things to come to a head and move in a different direction?
Swanson: Within one year, in 1991, we had a new executive director, a new music director, and a consolidation of board leadership when the roles of president and chairman were merged into one position. That was a defining moment for me. Victor Parsonnet isn’t just chairman of the board. He has grown up with this orchestra and truly approaches it with his heart, not just from a business standpoint. Zdenek Macal brought us strong artistic vision and, Larry, you brought us an openness that is not driven by ego. Macal articulated this best when he got up on the podium and said, “The past no longer exists. Forget about it. Go on to tomorrow. Stop talking about yesterday.” I think that because the three leadership positions changed simultaneously it was possible to leave the past behind us.
Parsonnet: While I agree with Karen about when things started to change, I think there are other elements that are important in trying to identify a defining moment. We made a major effort to include the musicians in all of our planning processes, our committees, and particularly in our board considerations. Musicians also served on the search committee for a new music director and for other important appointments.
The appointment of Zdenek Macal as our conductor was a stroke of good fortune. He, I, the executive director, and the general manager act as a cohesive, admiring, and cooperative unit. The level of cooperation between musicians and the board has increased to such a level that many of the musicians make contributions to the annual fund and contribute their time and effort toward reaching out to the community.
I would characterize the relationship among the board, the staff, and the musicians as one of colleagues working together for the same goals, rather than as employer-employee relationships. A true sense of affection and appreciation exists among us and is something of which we are quite proud.
Tamburri: Bob (Wagner), I get the sense that you think the defining moment was earlier.
Wagner: The defining moment for me was observing Victor Parsonnet’s level of commitment and energy. He stepped in and took real leadership of the board. He also asked some of us musicians to join in the interviewing process of executive director candidates which I think Larry would agree was different from the standard arrangement.
He explained to us that he saw little difference between running a hospital and dealing with doctors who are highly skilled professionals and running an orchestra and dealing with musicians who are highly skilled professionals. He has taught us that it is not a “labor-management” situation because we are all educated, creative people who can work together to find solutions.
The inclusion of musicians in the decision-making process was a great sign for us and did a lot to energize people like me who had become pretty cynical. I know it is difficult for some musicians to even consider trusting board members and I am sure it is just as hard for some board members to trust the musicians. We still have an ongoing project to facilitate the goal of just knowing one another.
Tamburri: You just touched on something that always bothers me. You said Victor taught us that it is not a “labor-management” situation. You don’t like to be considered labor and I don’t like to be considered management. I always look at it as the staff, not the management.
Wagner: You are right, Larry. I don’t think of us as “labor.” Maybe we’re “the help,” but we are also the product. We are the reason this organization can function at all.
Hicks: I think it takes a long time to get beyond the concept of “labor- management” because it is very deeply rooted, in my view. I am not exactly a radical and if I have trouble with this change, imagine how musicians to the right of me must feel. Even if they had 52-week, $100,000-a-year contracts, they would still feel ill at ease. It is also possible that there are board members who are still locked in the old roles. It is the unique problems we find ourselves facing that will bring rise to new relationships among the three groups.
Swanson: Actually, Randy, it is four groups. We can’t forget the audience. I want our concert goers not to see just “the orchestra.” I want them to get to know Randy Hicks—not just “that guy playing the tympani.”
Hicks: I think the board recognizes that the people who come to our performances are an asset and that the orchestra is something that is part of them. So I agree with you that we should try to get away from the label of “the audience.”
Tamburri: Let’s change the focus of this conversation a bit. The very fact that we are sitting here having this conversation means that the NJSO has musicians, staff members, and board members who talk with one another. We’ve mentioned the fact that I was interviewed by musicians as part of the search for an executive director and I also know that musicians had a great deal of influence in the hiring of the music director. So the question is: can we identify what we have done to improve communications? Remember, the whole point of this conversation is to share our story with the hope that it will make life better elsewhere in the industry.
Bauer: One of the prime problems we had in 1991 was communication. I think the staff had a pretty good idea of the problem points, but in general they were not able to communicate in a way that was understandable to someone who did not have all of the background. Given enough time, anybody can get the facts and understand them, but the key is to be able to communicate important information quickly.
For example, at one time the NJSO had trouble even generating numbers, let alone having a clear picture of its finances. Our financial organization is now much stronger and I think one of the things we have tried to do in the last four or five years is to find ways to communicate information about our financial condition to everyone. We may not be very good at it yet, but we are doing better.
Swanson: If you are looking for specifics, I think the “brown bag lunches” that we have with the orchestra between rehearsals are a good example of new ways to communicate. It is great when you join us, Larry, but it is even better that Victor Bauer has come to almost all of them. Because the numbers are always such a big issue, it is important to have someone who really understands them available to explain them to the orchestra. Having Victor with us in an informal setting brings a sense of truth and honesty.
Tamburri: Extending our thinking about communications, I have a question for Bob (Wagner). You have been coming to board meetings as long as I have been here. Would you prefer that musicians actually sit on the board as voting members or is it better this way?
Wagner: I am a proponent of maintaining a real distinction. I think musicians should be on the stage. I don’t want board members on stage. We musicians don’t have a role on the board unless we are able to go out and raise the dollars that the NJSO needs. That is the role of the board.
But just as I welcome board members at concerts and rehearsals, I appreciate being welcome at board functions. The fact that I can speak about anything I wish with the board is sometimes helpful, sometimes disturbing. But to have the opportunity to share the concerns of the musicians with the “final decision- making body” of the orchestra is very valuable.
Because individual personalities are involved, I am not sure that all musicians would feel comfortable being involved at the board level. It is the staff that must facilitate musician involvement and keep it at the forefront of the organization.
And I think it is important for those who read the transcript of this roundtable to understand that what we are doing here is not perfect. We have a long way to go and it is an ongoing process. Right now we have 15 or 20 musicians who are very committed and are willing to volunteer their time to help the organization. We need to find ways for more musicians to volunteer and know that their time is not being wasted; that they are not just there for “show.”
And even when two musicians serve on a committee, there is no guarantee that everything that is said in a committee meeting is communicated to all 70 musicians. The only guarantee is that two musicians know what was said. That is not good communication, just a beginning. Victor (Bauer) is right. We are only learning how to communicate and we have a lot of improvement to make.
Swanson: But even so, when we have a problem—whether it is financial in nature or broader than that—musicians are brought into the process. And my sense is that most of the musicians feel that even if they have not been directly involved in the discussion, they have colleagues who have been involved and will be informed of truly important items.
Hicks: In a way, better communication really hasn’t taken long to achieve. As a member of the orchestra, I can speak personally about the fact that we musicians can be a little lackadaisical in admitting how far we have come in terms of communication.
I think we need to remember that because of our proximity to New York City, this organization has never really been penalized artistically for not doing what it was supposed to do. Any other organization that has been through what we have been through probably would have just vanished. But our musicians can hold their noses and take gigs in New York to support themselves.
There is still a sizable minority of the orchestra that has not been won over. They are not willing to commit themselves and let go of their freelance mind sets. It is possible that when we move into the new hall (the New Jersey Performing Arts Center), some of the people who are reticent about letting go of their ill feelings will relax and want to become more engaged.
Tamburri: Let’s take a different tack and talk about how the contract affects communications. I have worked in organizations where the operating mode is that if you have the letter of the law on your side, you don’t communicate about an event that is going to occur because the other side just has to live with it. Here, we tend to focus on what the impact of a decision is going to be and to communicate with the proper people.
Several times a year, things happen where we believe our decisions are right according to the contract. Yet, Karen picks up the phone and calls someone on the orchestra committee to explain what we see coming up and to ask what they advise. From my experience, this is not typical in most symphony orchestra organizations.
Swanson: Larry, that cuts both ways. Over the past few years, the leadership of the orchestra has been strong and Bob (Wagner) and the rest of the committee have also been committed to maintaining a high level of communication.
Tamburri: I think a lot of trust goes into building this kind of relationship.
Wagner: I think we are such a small organization that we cannot afford to be factionalized. We all have to be focused on the same thing . . . to create the greatest music possible from the group of musicians on the stage at the time, regardless of venue.
Swanson: I don’t think a big orchestra can afford to be factionalized either. Wagner: I agree.
Hicks: They can get away with it longer.
Tamburri: Again, realizing that we are trying to think out loud in ways that might help others in our industry, can we identify any specific factors that explain why this orchestra has survived when others have not?
Wagner: I don’t know if I am going to answer your question, but I want to say that exorbitant guest artists’ fees have had a serious negative impact on our small orchestral institutions. More and more, our musician colleagues are forced to leave the profession because there is not enough work; there are not enough symphony orchestras to keep us in music. I guess I want to know how you find the sense of purpose within the organization.
Lewis: That’s part of the problem. Let’s look at some orchestras that have failed and some that have survived. The situation for the San Antonio Symphony is similar to ours. Both have had financial problems and internal union problems, but both have continued to exist in spite of deficits that should have put them out of business. This is true primarily because their boards—no matter how strong or weak they were at the time—really did want the orchestras to survive. There was at least some commitment to continue these organizations’ existence.
Contrast these situations with San Diego and Sacramento which have gone completely out of business. In those instances, the contention among the parties was so significant that nothing could be done to save them. Everybody was so entrenched in his own position that it caused an orchestra’s undoing.
The important point is that you have to have the right chemistry among the people who are involved. For the NJSO the deciding moment was when this chemistry came together. It was almost like a star was born and then an event occurred which caused the star to become a planet. This orchestra finally evolved from being a factionalized organization to one that had a common vision. Without a common vision, no orchestra is going to grow.
Tamburri: Lucinda, are you saying that only through fate can symphony orchestras reach this point? Are there actions that people can take to bring organizations to this point?
Lewis: I don’t know if unity can exist except when the personalities provide for it. It is important for boards to be autonomous because they are the ones that are responsible for governance and for raising the money. Musicians are responsible for producing the sounds that go into the product that we provide for the public.
But it is helpful for us to know what the board’s and the institution’s problems are. It is also important for the board to understand what our problems are as artists. That is how you make the institution stronger from both sides. But if your leaders don’t have the personal security to be honest with one another, it won’t work.
We all know of boards that have very paternalistic views of their orchestras.
How many times have we heard board members quoted as saying, “We are doing our best for the musicians”? Which brings up the question: who owns the institution? We all need to remember that it is a public trust. It does not belong to the board. It does not belong to the musicians. It does not belong to the staff. It belongs to the public and we are the professionals who provide a service to the public.
What can we do to make it work? I think everyone needs to be willing to expose themselves for what they are and to say what we personally can do to make the organization better. It is the willingness of each party that will determine how well it will work.
Tamburri: Victor (Bauer), are there models in the business world which we can emulate to strengthen our organization?
Bauer: Let me say that I believe that one member from the orchestra and the executive director should be full members of the board. But it is not an important enough point to argue about.
There are some management objective parallels that I do see. Most corporations have profit objectives and focus on things that provide income for the owners. Cultural organizations are a little different. For example, the idea of running deficits is probably not unreasonable—governments do it all the time— as long as you can find a way to pay your bills in the process.
The idea of communicating, or to use the current management buzzword, “empowering the employees,” is really trying to move the decision process out of senior management levels and down to whatever level has the information available to make a reasonable decision. This thinking supports the idea of having musicians on all of the major committees and on search committees that are musically directed. But we still need to recognize that there is no sense in being on a committee just for the sake of being on a committee. And in this orchestra, there are not a lot of committees that do hard, day-to-day work.
Tamburri: I would like you to think about one final question. I have heard over and over in this conversation that much of what we have achieved is a direct result of the personalities involved. What if those personalities change? What if this Victor decides to move to California and the other Victor decides to move to Hawaii?
Bauer: It won’t happen. But you have identified something that this whole organization needs to work to solve. We need to identify more people who are interested in music and who have the time and the ability to be on the board.
Tamburri: I agree that the board has to create the culture internally for the orchestra. I do believe that you can create a culture over time that will perpetuate itself but that doesn’t just happen in two or three years. I have seen it happen and it is the only way we can have a healthy symphony orchestra. Creating that culture is beyond the musicians and really must be left to the trustees.
Having said that, I want to thank each of you for your contributions to this conversation. When we read back over what we have said, I think we will find that we are strong people who hold strong convictions. We are also convinced that our collective actions are more important than our individual actions. These are the elements which we can identify that have made a difference for the NJSO.
A Look Ahead
As of early 1997, the external challenges facing the NJSO are substantial. State and federal funding reached a peak of $2.3 million in fiscal 1989 and then declined to a current level of approximately $1.2 million. Operating deficits increased significantly over the five seasons ending in 1996 and were financed primarily by increased borrowings. In 1995, a special grant from the state allowed the NJSO to retire outstanding borrowings and substantially reduce its accumulated operating deficit. Operating costs continue to mount and growth in performance revenues and private contributions is vital.
In October 1997, the NJSO will take up residency in the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, currently under construction in central Newark. This move will require even higher levels of audience support. But the leadership of every key unit in the NJSO organization appears to be cognizant of the benefit/cost/risk relationships of this venturesome move.
It is generally agreed that the NJSO would not exist today without the new levels of communication, involvement, participation, trust, and leadership initiated five years ago. Long-standing and high orchestral artistry continues to be a primary asset. As a total organization, the NJSO appears ready for its large external challenges. It is a reasonable bet that this organization will be successful.
To round out the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra story, we asked Larry Tamburri to “mull over” how he saw the role of executive director in today’s symphony orchestra organization, and especially any priorities he believed should be followed. Larry’s thoughts are captured in the following brief essay.
Symphony managers are blessed with being able to work in organizations brimming with highly creative, intelligent, motivated, and successful people: musicians, conductors, trustees, and staff members. Corporate executives envy the richness of our human resources. Yet away from the stage, an ironic lack of harmony plagues American orchestras.
Is there a catalyst which might ignite this human potential? Peter Drucker tells us, “Organizations are based on trust.” In this context, trust connotes a steadfast mutual confidence in and reliance on character and ability, and in the completeness, veracity, and proper use of the information that organizations disseminate.
In one of his books, Tom Peters states: “Trust. It’s the single most important contributor to the maintenance of human relationships.” Our industry is labor intensive. Presenting our artistic product to our audiences requires the efforts of many people. Just as the members of the orchestra must trust the musical convictions and gestures of the conductor to achieve a satisfying performance, all members of our organizations must trust the organizations’ leadership—the chairman of the board and the executive director. These leaders begin, as all leaders do, by setting examples.
The executive director of an orchestral organization holds the unique position of nexus: the point in the organization where the various components of the institution—board, music director, musicians, staff, and volunteers—intersect. The executive director can display trust in the institution and its decision-making processes by sending a message that unilateral decisions are to be avoided and building institutional consensus is our practice. Those who adhere to this principle quickly learn that building trust is not as simple as autocratic management. It is time consuming, less ego gratifying, and for some, the apparent lack of control is frightening, if not intolerable. Building trust is a long-term investment in the health of the institution.
John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene observe, “The manager’s new role will be to create a nourishing environment for personal growth in addition to the opportunity to contribute to the growth of the institution.” It is the executive director’s responsibility to work with and help develop the board, creating an organizational culture that will foster a healthy self- perpetuation of the institution. This can be accomplished through the board’s selection, nomination, and election processes. Building trust is a key to the creation and maintenance of such a culture. Committed, responsible trustees will beget committed, responsible trustees.
As its name implies, trusteeship involves trust. Ultimately, institutional trust is measured and dispensed at this level, since the board holds final authority in symphony orchestras. It is understood that trustees support the symphony through concert subscription and attendance, meeting participation, advocacy, and personal financial support. But the musicians and staff also watch to see if the board reaches critical institutional decisions through a reasoned, honest, and open discussion of the issues. Is the board weak? Does it acquiesce to an autocratic chairman, executive director, music director, or a demanding orchestra committee? Organizations develop confidence and character through the examples of their trustees’ behavior. Board membership means responsibility not just to the organization, but also to the board itself, to the staff, to musicians and to the music director.
Recently, influential members of the media have regularly expounded the notion that American orchestras are in desperate straits. While the degree of the problem and the accuracy of the facts may be debatable, it is clear to all of us that our industry is undergoing change and enduring a protracted period of instability. Peter Drucker states: “One has to make the organization capable of anticipating the storm, weathering it and in fact, being ahead of it. . . . You cannot prevent a major catastrophe, but you can build an organization that is battle-ready, that has high morale, and also has been through a crisis, knows how to behave, trust itself, and where people trust one another.”
In our personal lives, in business, and in orchestras, change is rapid, rampant, and inevitable. Coping with the pace of change is the most severe challenge symphony orchestras face. To be successful, our institutions need to be flexible in order to react quickly and intelligently to this mercurial environment.
Our institutions will be able to cope with the changing environment if they develop philosophies of shared vision based upon trust. The major stakeholders— trustees, musicians, the music director, and the executive director—must agree that the art form is important to our civilization and that it must be perpetuated. Everyone must agree to move forward in a spirit of openness and collaboration. Trust is much more than being truthful when queried; it cannot be built on passivity. Trust implies relying on one another and taking chances. The ore of today’s world—information—needs to be made available to everyone. In the “Information Age,” tools exist to ensure the continual free flow of information. It is our responsibility to use those tools.
Some will consider it naive to place such an emphasis on building trust, working collaboratively, and developing a shared vision. But there is much evidence that in both for-profit and nonprofit institutions, long-term organizational stability and strength are built on trust. Orchestral organizations are replete with exceptional human resources and their future success will be determined by how well they marshal this human potential. Creating an institutional culture based upon mutual trust is the first step which these organizations must take if they are to be strengthened and preserved.
Lawrence Tamburri is Executive Director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. He holds an M.A. in music education and an M.B.A. from Arizona State University and a B.A. in music history from Duquesne University.
I believe in dispersed leadership. The days of the star system are over and every thriving productive organization has many more than one leader. The designated leader (CEO) of the organization looks at the leadership tasks, and determines that there are some leadership tasks that can be dispersed across the organization. Some people call this the empowerment of the people; I prefer dispersed leadership because Drucker notes and many of us agree, leadership has little to do with power, and everything to do with responsibility. When we share responsibility across the circles of the organization, we are building a powerful leadership corps. When we disperse the leadership it takes nothing away from the CEO; instead, it infuses a new kind of energy within the organization. At the Drucker foundation we say, “Our job is not to provide energy, it is to release energy.” I think the great leaders of now and in the future are going to be the leaders who find the key to releasing the energies and spirits of their people.
Drucker Foundation News, April 1996
Symphony Orchestra Volunteers: Vital Resources
Volunteers. No symphony orchestra organization can function without them. But are they necessary evils or vital resources? Decidedly the latter in the mind of Mike Gehret, Vice President for Marketing and Development for the Chicago
Gehret has been involved in nonprofit management for more than 25 years, including service with three large-budget orchestras. In his essay, he shares practical and proven ideas for making optimal use of volunteer resources.
The essay begins with a recitation of the philosophical underpinnings of Gehret’s thinking about volunteers and how to involve them successfully in institutional marketing. He then explains that while there is a temptation to think that involving large numbers of volunteers will free staff members’ time, just the opposite is often true. He argues that there are few shortcuts available to staff if volunteers’ time is to be used wisely. He also explains why it is important that every volunteer have a “point of contact” to turn to for answers, advice, and help on projects.
Finding, Training, and Keeping Volunteers
Much of the essay is devoted to detailed descriptions of the actions required to find, train, and keep volunteers. Gehret suggests that when the process works, it is circular—volunteers who truly understand institutional marketing and produce successful programs attract favorable publicity, which in turn fuels successful fund- raising campaigns, thereby attracting more capable volunteers, and leading to even more successful programs.
The theme of the essay then turns to expectations. Gehret explains that both volunteers and staff need guidance as they perform tasks to support the orchestra. He also reminds readers that using volunteers wisely includes making time for just plain fun. Returning to the philosophical tone with which it began, the essay concludes with a series of questions for future consideration.
The careful review of using volunteer resources wisely which this essay presents should provide food for thought for orchestral volunteers at all levels, staff, and musicians alike.
The roles of volunteers in nonprofit organizations and, more specifically, in the development process are the subject of volumes of writing. Furthermore, symphony orchestra volunteers receive extensive attention,
particularly from the American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL) in Symphony magazine and in the work of the National Task Force for the American Orchestra as reported in “Americanizing the American Orchestra.” Each year, workshops, presentations, and panels at meetings of the ASOL and state orchestra associations are devoted to the recruitment, organization, and utilization of volunteers in the orchestra field.
This focus on volunteers reflects both the important roles which volunteers play in the governance and operation of symphony orchestras and the frequent frustration which volunteers and staff alike feel when volunteer resources are not well used or when they are inadequate to the task. While most of us involved with symphony orchestras understand the musical resources needed to mount a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 or Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand, the human resources—both volunteer and staff—necessary for the development function to be successful are less well understood. In fact, I would guess that the human-resource needs of the development program remain a mystery to all but a small group of executive directors, senior development staff, and trustee leadership. These needs are most certainly a mystery to many orchestra players whose activities are so dependent on the adequacy of such resources.
The editors of Harmony asked this author to take a fresh look at the employment of volunteers in the institutional marketing of symphony orchestras and at attitudes and approaches needed to obtain and maintain those resources. My views on the subject are formed by more than 25 years of nonprofit management experience, including nearly 20 years in institutional marketing for three large-budget orchestras. The following set of assumptions underpin these views:
◆ Symphony orchestras function best when they are truly volunteer-centered and when ownership of the organization rests with the board of trustees on behalf of the local community. The board alone can hire and fire the music director and the executive director; thus the board members have, and must accept, direct responsibility for the quality of the artistic product and for the quality of the management. Board members and other volunteers are at the center of policy-making and goal-setting processes. When volunteers are involved in this way, policies and goals become those of the whole organization, not just the staff. I know of no exceptions to this assumption.
◆ Development is not just fund raising and marketing is not just selling tickets. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) has a Department of Marketing and Development, which might just as easily be called the “Department of Institutional Marketing.” Volunteers and staff engaged in the CSO’s institutional marketing program work to help create a positive climate around the institution so that it can raise money, sell tickets, and successfully achieve the artistic goals of the orchestra.
◆ On every level, successful institutional marketing involves building relationships. The more personal those relationships, the easier it is to create a favorable climate around the orchestra. The large numbers of potential ticket buyers and contributors who must each be reached and the unique positions that volunteers, as distinct from staff, have in the community, dictate the important role which volunteers must play in the relationship-building process.
◆ Orchestra volunteers, by definition, are not compensated financially. They choose to volunteer for a variety of reasons and it is important for management to understand what motivates each volunteer. The competition for volunteers’ time and dollars is increasing; volunteers are choosing more carefully the organizations for which they will work, and the work they will do. Volunteers want to be involved— and should be involved—in making key decisions and they insist on staff support of high quality.
◆ There are no “tricks” to suggest in successfully involving volunteers in institutional marketing; there are few truly “new” ideas in working with orchestra volunteers. Rather, volunteer programs are successful because they follow a well-designed plan which relies on volunteers and staff who are devoted to the orchestra, work hard, communicate openly with each other, and pay attention to detail.
Volunteers are commonly involved with orchestras in governance activities; in direct service activities, including fund raising, ticket sales, and event production; and as advisors to the orchestra leadership in areas of special expertise, such as management consulting, and on legal and accounting issues.
The first challenge orchestras face is defining the roles which volunteers will play in each of these areas, and then determining what sorts of volunteer resources are needed to fill those roles. Several conditions must be met before this can be done. First, staff must be clear about their own roles before they can help define volunteer roles. Second, there must be important tasks for volunteers to do and they should be tasks at which particular volunteers have some likelihood of success. And third, there must be an institutional commitment to providing adequate resources to staff the orchestra’s volunteers.
The Need for Staff Support
While it is tempting to assume that involving large numbers of volunteers will free up staff time, in reality, large volunteer forces require a great deal of staff support. In fact, there is often a tendency to underestimate the staff resources necessary to provide adequate support for a large, active, and involved group of volunteers. Involving volunteers, particularly new volunteers, in the life of the orchestra is a labor-intensive activity and there are few shortcuts.
Determining appropriate staffing levels is one of the more interesting challenges that development professionals face, particularly because it is usually difficult to determine the economic contribution of a particular staff member. I also question how useful it is to apply general formulas to specific institutions. Can one generalize to the extent of saying that Orchestra X should spend 5 percent of its total budget on development; or that Orchestra Y needs 1 staff member for each 100 volunteers? Probably not.
But what is clear, at least here in Chicago, is that the economic rewards of a strong volunteer program are considerable. Data currently being gathered for a new CSO long-range planning process have helped us to look beyond the dollars raised by volunteer solicitors and through special-event fund raising. Preliminary figures show that 1,425 volunteers have contributed twice as much cumulatively over their lifetimes as 13,360 subscribers who are not volunteers. Even more impressively, the average amount donated over a lifetime by each volunteer is nearly 18 times larger than the amount donated by nonvolunteers.
The Importance of a “Point of Contact”
When we look at those volunteers whom we have been successful in involving, we find that each has at least one, and probably several, strong points of contact within the organization. A “point of contact” is the person to whom the volunteer knows he or she can turn for answers, for advice, for help on a project, or for other kinds of assistance. While that person is sometimes a volunteer, it is more often a member of the staff. If staff resources are inadequate to provide sufficient points of contact for each volunteer, the result may be a shrinking volunteer pool or a group of volunteers with many inactive members.
In the volunteer-centered orchestra, the institutional marketing staff maintains a collaborative and supportive relationship with volunteer leaders. Staff members work with volunteer leadership to set priorities that are consistent with larger institutional goals and that recognize that not all challenges and opportunities are equally important. They help
volunteer leadership to manage the larger body of volunteers and they help energize volunteers when enthusiasm and motivation begin to lag, as inevitably happens from time to time. They also furnish technical knowledge, supply clerical and other support services, furnish information, and keep records. Finally, the staff fills these functions while placing the institution’s volunteers at the center of activity—and in the spotlight—while not seeking attention for themselves.
Decisions regarding the employment of volunteer resources ought to be corporate decisions; they should be made jointly by staff and volunteer leadership, not by one group or the other acting alone. Written job descriptions can be helpful when there are questions about particular volunteer and staff roles.
However, in orchestras where volunteers and staff work successfully as a team, such questions do not often arise, nor do such questions as, “Which volunteer or which staff person has the final authority to make this decision?” Similarly, “crediting” issues (deciding which staff or volunteers get the credit for bringing about a particularly positive event or for meeting a particular goal) occur less frequently in orchestras in which volunteers and staff work as teams. In most successful orchestras, there is enough good news for everyone to share in the credit.
Where do symphony orchestras find their volunteers? First and foremost, they find them among the ranks of concert goers. Volunteers are motivated by a variety of factors including sheer altruism, a need to socialize and be with other people, developing professional contacts, social panache, and getting specific kinds of experience or training. Orchestra volunteers usually become involved because they are devoted to symphonic music and have strong emotional ties to the local orchestra. A majority of orchestra volunteers have had some formal musical training.
Enlisting a new volunteer is not at all unlike asking someone to make a contribution. Like most successful fund-raising calls, effective volunteer recruiting evolves from an existing or a newly established personal relationship. There is an adage among development professionals: large gifts result from the right person asking the right prospect for the right amount at the right time. Similarly, volunteers are more likely to enlist when asked to do so by the right person at the right time for the right reasons and in the right way.
Whether the orchestra is searching for potential trustees, solicitors for a capital campaign, or volunteer docents for an educational program, the first question
asked should be, “Who attends our concerts?” This line of thinking leads to recruiting new volunteers through ads in the program book, special events focused on music and musicians, and mailings to subscribers and frequent single-ticket buyers. It points to the importance of referrals, both from members of the orchestra “family” (those who already volunteer, as well as staff and musicians), and self- referrals. In the case of potential trustees and other volunteer leaders, this thinking suggests a preference for involving those for whom music and the particular orchestra are an important focus of their lives, rather than those for whom service is a community responsibility or the means to make particular social and business contacts.
In this respect, the process of identifying and recruiting orchestra volunteers is circular. Volunteers become intimately involved with all aspects of institutional marketing. Successful institutional marketing programs generate great amounts of favorable publicity about the orchestra, sell more tickets, and fuel stronger and more successful fund-raising campaigns. Favorable results help to attract greater numbers of the most capable volunteers, leading to ever more successful programs.
Kent Dove, in his book Conducting a Successful Capital Campaign, suggests some factors in the successful recruitment of key volunteers, which are paraphrased below. These factors are as applicable to governance volunteers, advisory volunteers, and other direct service volunteers as they are to capital- campaign volunteers. They include:
◆ Involving appropriate volunteers and staff in asking someone to volunteer. Peer-to-peer volunteer recruitment is just as effective and necessary as peer-to-peer solicitation.
◆ Meeting personally with the prospective volunteer at a time and place that can allow for an unhurried discussion.
◆ Beginning with the case statement for your orchestra and for the particular program for which you are asking the person to volunteer. People respond to opportunities and to vision.
◆ Describing the job being offered clearly. Written job descriptions are often a good idea, especially to the degree that they force the institution to think about its volunteer staffing needs and organization. Additionally, it is useful to describe how the prospective volunteer is uniquely suited to fill this position.
◆ Outlining staff and other resources that will be provided to assist the prospective volunteer in doing her or his job.
◆ Assuring the prospective volunteer of support from other key volunteer and staff leadership.
◆ Estimating the amount of time needed to do the job. The best volunteers are often the busiest; they devote large amounts of time to things that are important to them. If you try to downplay the time and energy necessary to do the job, the prospective volunteer might turn it down as not being demanding and important enough to be worthy of her or his time.
◆ Explaining how the volunteer will be involved in setting goals. If goals for the program have already been set, help the prospective volunteer understand how the goals were set, and that they are attainable.
◆ Answering questions fully and honestly.
Training and Educating Volunteers
Once volunteers are enlisted, training and educating them become the keys to their successful involvement in the orchestra. The written materials provided for volunteers and such activities as volunteer orientations require thought and attention. However, the most important factor in training and educating volunteers involves inculcating them with the culture of the institution. This activity is so critical that it cannot be left to a volunteer handbook or single orientation event.
The institution’s culture can be passed along to new volunteer in many ways. For instance, many nonprofit organizations have experimented successfully with volunteer mentors. New volunteers, whether trustees or direct service volunteers, are assigned a volunteer “mentor” who is intimately familiar with the organization. The mentor takes responsibility for making sure that the new volunteer understands how the institution functions and introduces her or him to other volunteers and staff. Mentors play an active role for the first three to six months of a new volunteer’s involvement and remain available for consultation after that time.
In addition to information provided through orientation sessions and publications, other activities can provide opportunities to pass along information about an orchestra’s history and culture:
◆ regular meetings of trustees and other volunteer groups;
◆ receptions for new volunteers;
◆ formal or informal gatherings of volunteers and staff to work on particular projects;
◆ tours of the concert hall, backstage area, and administrative offices; and
◆ individual and small group conversations.
Whether new volunteers can be quickly and successfully integrated into the orchestra “family” often depends on how well and how quickly they come to understand the institution’s culture.
Some volunteers will resist the idea of “training,” perhaps because they have been involved in a similar volunteer role for another institution or because they are resistant to having someone tell them how to do their jobs. Several techniques can help overcome such resistance. First, training should be interactive, with many opportunities for feedback from those being trained. Second, when possible, experienced volunteers should do the training, in addition to or in place of staff. And third, role playing works well as a training technique, particularly when training volunteers to ask for contributions.
Setting Expectations for Volunteers
Once volunteers are in place, there are certain expectations that the orchestra’s volunteer leadership and staff can legitimately apply.
◆ Volunteers have the same responsibility as staff to complete whatever tasks they have agreed to do in a timely, accurate, and thorough fashion.
◆ Volunteers recognize that they are the orchestra’s representatives in the community. They are in a unique position to advance the orchestra’s interests in contacts with friends and business associates; and they are also in a position to do the orchestra harm by making negative comments about the organization and its programs or about other volunteers or staff.
◆ Volunteers should be well informed about the orchestra and its programs. This is, of course, a two-way street, as the ability of a volunteer to become and to stay well informed depends on the orchestra’s programs for volunteer orientation and education and on how well it communicates with the broad range of volunteers.
◆ Volunteers should work with staff as partners and colleagues. They should keep staff informed of the progress of their tasks; they should inform staff if something occurs which affects their willingness or ability to do the job; and they should consult with staff before departing from an agreed-upon plan.
◆ Effective volunteers willingly step forward to support the orchestra with their own financial resources, as well as their time. Fund-raising volunteers, in particular, cannot ask for a gift until they have made a gift themselves.
Just as importantly, there are expectations that orchestra volunteers legitimately apply to the staff and volunteer leadership.
◆ Volunteers want to help the orchestra. But they want some things for themselves, too, including timely information about the orchestra and its programs, direct contact with music and musicians, appropriate training for tasks in which they are engaged, and exposure to a variety of interesting and enjoyable experiences.
◆ Volunteers expect to have a role in institutional planning and decision making at an appropriate level. They want to work as team members with volunteer leadership and staff; they do not want to be thought of as “free help.”
◆ Volunteers—as a function of the volunteer/staff partnership—look to staff to keep them informed of progress on tasks in which they are jointly engaged and of any factors which affect these tasks.
◆ Volunteers want and deserve appreciation and recognition for the service that they provide. Orchestras could not survive, at least not as we know them, without the volunteer leadership and technical expertise, the financial support, and the countless thousands of hours of labor which volunteers provide.
And someplace in our consideration of how we obtain and utilize volunteer resources, there must be room for fun. Enjoyment of what one does is a prime motivation for volunteers and responsibility for making sure that volunteers enjoy the tasks that they agree to do rests squarely with the volunteer leadership and the staff.
Questions Answered; Questions Raised
All that said, where are we left in our understanding of the human resources which we employ in institutional marketing in the service of our orchestras? A close reading of the preceding thoughts will raise at least as many questions for the attentive reader as it will answer. Some additional questions it has caused me to ask, and perhaps attempt to answer in some future article, are as follows:
◆ Are there orchestras whose musicians are successfully involved in the institutional marketing process? If not, should musicians be involved, and how should we go about getting them involved?
◆ How should we go about “importing” good ideas in institutional marketing from other kinds of institutions, such as colleges and universities?
◆ How can we deal with the systemic problem of underinvestment in development? Can we establish some useful standards for development investment that can be widely applied to a variety of orchestras?
◆ How can we establish a development culture in each symphony orchestra organization, raising the awareness of development programs and goals among each member of the orchestra “family,” and creating a role for each family member within that culture?
◆ Are our volunteer groups aging at the same rate as our audiences? Assuming that we need to enlist younger volunteers, are there special approaches that we need to take to reach them? Will our volunteer structures need to be revamped to accommodate the different lifestyles of young volunteers?
It is clear that volunteers play vital roles in symphony orchestra organizations. In strong orchestral organizations, volunteers are effective partners of staff and trustee leadership, providing service across a wide range of activities. Every member of the symphony orchestra “family” needs an understanding of what treasured commodities volunteer resources are. As the Symphony Orchestra Institute works to improve the effectiveness of symphony orchestra organizations, perhaps the thoughts I have shared here will help orchestras develop policies and plans that are inclusive and that use volunteer resources wisely.
Michael Gehret is Vice President for Marketing and Development of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Prior to joining the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he served for 12 years as Development Director for the San Francisco Symphony. He holds an M.A. in higher education administration from Columbia University and an A.B. from Princeton University.
Drawing fresh attention to ideas and insights previously revealed but of enduring value and worthy of renewed reflection is one objective of the Symphony Orchestra Institute. What follows is an analysis of events which occurred slightly more than 10 years ago.
In September 1986, the Oakland (California) Symphony Orchestra Association declared bankruptcy. In May 1987, Melanie Beene & Associates was selected by a group of institutional funders “to provide a detailed analysis of the issues surrounding the dissolution of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra Association.” (p. v)1 The report was published in January 1988, and was entitled Autopsy of an Orchestra: An Analysis of Factors Contributing to the Bankruptcy of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra Association. The study involved in-depth interviews with more than 70 individuals, analysis of extensive institutional records, careful organization of large amounts of data, and quite thoughtful presentation of facts and interpretations by the consulting team.
From one perspective, Autopsy is a story which was developed by and for the people of Oakland, to review and provide “feedback” about the demise of a central, cherished, community institution in which, as participants, supporters, or close observers, many had been involved. In this sense, Autopsy is a sensitively prepared, caring introspection for local study. The report undoubtedly helped many Oakland citizens better cope with the reality of the death of a beloved institution and for some, assistance in framing their own participation in that process. Even after 10 years, this essay may bring back uncomfortable and unresolved memories.
From another perspective, we believe the insights in Autopsy should be of keen interest to all who participate in today’s symphony orchestra organizations or, more generally, to participants in nonprofit organizations which depend on broad community and philanthropic support. Indeed, this more universal purpose was clearly intended by Autopsy’s funders as noted in their preface:
The consultants have made a serious effort to capture the compelling story of the Oakland Symphony in sufficient detail to enable volunteers and professionals elsewhere to identify operational patterns which recur throughout the nonprofit sector and in their organizations specifically. It is intended that this study be a working document, a management tool, an instrument of knowledge which can be generalized broadly. (p. iii)
Essays previously published in Harmony have dealt with the organizational structures and processes which need change in many North American symphony orchestra organizations. This essay presents a number of the issues related to these workplace structures and processes and then draws on Autopsy—as a well-documented, classic case study of a symphony orchestra organization which failed—to illustrate the “operational patterns” which were being followed, with tragic consequences. Of course, the reader must then ask the unpleasant question: “Do any of these patterns exist in the symphony orchestra organization in which I participate?”
Two other matters deserve mention. First, the authors of Autopsy note that mistakes and failures by specific individuals were irrelevant to the purpose of their study. For this reason, we have chosen, in our quotations, not to use personal names, employing role or job titles instead. Secondly, given the purpose of our presentation, we have organized and sequenced our topics and extracted quotations in ways which differ from the order followed in Autopsy. However, we give page references for each quotation so the reader may trace our quotations to the particular section and page in the source document.
With these introductory thoughts, we hope that this essay will help Autopsy become “an instrument of knowledge” for all participants in symphony orchestra organizations. — The Authors
The Oakland Symphony Orchestra Association was founded in 1933. In its first season, it presented four concerts in the lobby of the local YMCA (the Association later moved to the Oakland Civic Auditorium). The founding conductor served for 24 years, until his death in 1957. Two music directors served until 1971, during which time the season expanded from eight concerts per season to twenty- four. In 1964, a youth orchestra was founded within the Association and it achieved international recognition by the mid-1970s. In 1966, the Oakland Symphony received a Ford Foundation matching grant of $1.35 million, one of 61 orchestral grants awarded.
Starting in 1971, under the leadership of a fourth music director, the Association expanded its season to 33 concerts, initiated a pop series, commenced a youth concert series, started an in-school educational program, and gave free concerts in public places to reach more diverse audiences. The orchestra also undertook other organizational and programming innovations which led, in 1977, to a national award for adventurous programming.
In 1972, chafing under the crowded conditions and poor location of the Civic Auditorium, the Association acquired and renovated the 3,000-seat Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland. Following its opening, the Association sold nearly all its subscription seats and sold out a majority of the tickets to its individual concerts. Even with a full house, however, the new venue, with its renovation and operating costs, proved a financial burden. In 1975, the Association transferred the theater to the City of Oakland for $1, in exchange for 40 years of free rent and used the Ford Foundation funds, which had been earmarked for a matching endowment, to retire its renovation loan.
When the fourth music director resigned in 1979, a young African-American was appointed. The new music director brought to the orchestra an impeccable guest-conducting record and renewed energy and also gave prestige to the Association in the eyes of Oakland’s growing minority population. Under the baton of this fifth music director, the orchestra again in 1981 won an award for adventurous programming. The music director’s untimely death in 1982 left a leadership void in the organization at a very difficult time.
For an intervening year, the orchestra obtained the services of a nationally known conductor as artistic consultant and then retained its sixth and final music director in 1984. Further expansion of the season took place and although the Oakland Symphony continued to receive favorable reviews, subscription sales stayed flat and individual ticket sales declined. A strike by the musicians took place during the 1985–1986 season, resulting in cancellation of the October opening. The November 1985 settlement included a significant increase in orchestra services and player compensation. Also during this two-year period, the board underwent radical and controversial change.
In the spring of 1986, the Association announced the largest season ever, with services added in two other venues. In addition, the Association announced that it was shifting its subscription season to its former home at the Civic Auditorium, leaving the Paramount. A month after these announcements, management announced that the season was being cut in half, citing a financial crisis. This cutback required reopening with symphony musicians a contract which had been signed just eight months earlier. Management and players were unable to reach any agreement and within a month the players filed an unfair labor practices complaint. A few weeks later the Association filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
In the one negotiating meeting held during the month after the Chapter 11 filing, the Association and players were unable to reach any agreement. In September 1986, the Association filed for liquidation under Chapter 7 of the bankruptcy code. Thus, just more than 10 years ago, the Oakland Symphony Orchestra Association died at the age of 53.
Mission, Goals, and Planning
One of the most telling statements in all of Autopsy is the following: “A major stumbling block for the Oakland Symphony was its inability to define its mission clearly.” (p. 28) As the authors report:
The Oakland Symphony’s plans were often idealized visions rather than delineations of carefully constructed, achievable objectives. As a result the long-range plans served to reinforce board and management’s inability to perceive the difficulties of the Symphony’s situation. In each of these plans, the narrative stresses the what— management and board’s ideal vision of what it wanted to achieve— with little attention to why these goals were appropriate or how they were to be achieved. (p. 27)
In order to meet the stated goal of becoming a “major orchestra,” which appeared to override other issues, the Symphony’s budget jumped to $2 million- plus within two years, far ahead of schedule. However, none of the additional aspirations was met. As the authors report:
While it is unclear whether the organization understood the financial implications of striving for major orchestra status, that goal was part of its institutional rhetoric. While the rhetoric of “major orchestra status” was not consistent throughout the years (nor did the symphony ever formulate a realistic plan to achieve it), desire for growth and expansion was routine. These aspirations appear to have been equally driven, at various times, by board, management, and music directors. According to one player, the musicians were often surprised on reading the long-range plans: “We were all in the music library when they handed out these bound long-range plans. I looked through it and thought, ‘Gee, this is a bigger operation than I thought. They really want to make something out of this orchestra.’” (p. 29)
. . . The application [to the NEA] notes a record number of subscribers; a successful regionalization plan; and a board restructuring resulting in a more effective governing body, with a twenty-two-member board of trustees, a seventy-member board of directors, and “a city council that has affirmed their commitment to the organization in the years ahead. . . . Board, management and artists now have what is probably the clearest understanding of mutual goals and objectives in the history of the organization. The labor dispute has proven cathartic . . . and all involved parties have expressed a renewed and cooperative commitment to the future stability of the institution.” (p. 34)
. . . Eight months after the production of [the January 1986 plan] the Association was out of business. The disparity between reality and the organization’s long-range plans raises questions about how seriously they regarded their planning process. (p. 35)
Board of Directors and Governance Leadership
In any symphony organization, the board of directors must be the prime mover in the development of a clear, widely understood, and agreed upon declaration of mission and goals, as well as a realistic plan to achieve them. This process was clearly deficient in the Oakland Symphony organization. Autopsy offers some key insights into the composition and functioning of the board of directors and its contribution to the Symphony’s demise.
Throughout its history, the board of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra Association was an exceptionally troubled one . . . unable to respond appropriately to change, and lacking in effective leadership. This fact, as much as any other internal factor, accounted for the bankruptcy of the Oakland Symphony. (pp. 101-102)
. . . The history of the board of directors is one of factionalism and divisiveness, which made it difficult for any board chair to effectively lead the organization.
Five factors combined to render board leadership problematic: the unwieldy size of the board; factionalism and lack of board commitment; the absence of a charismatic, effective leader; the board’s inability to deal with the transition from a community orchestra to a full scale, professional symphony orchestra; and the 1984 adoption of a board reorganization plan which proved disastrous in conception and execution. (p. 95)
. . . One of the reasons frequently given for the board’s ineffectiveness is that it was closed to outsiders and self-perpetuating. (p. 95)
. . . The major consequence of the board’s large size was a sense of non-involvement and lack of “ownership” of the organization among its directors. When crises threatened, it was difficult for individual board members to believe that they could make a difference. (p. 96)
. . . A significant number of board members are perceived . . . not to be interested in symphonic music and do not attend the Symphony’s concerts . . . and do not take an active role in governance or policy making; and several give the impression that they are on the Board only to enhance their business or social positions in the community. These perceptions have created a lack of mutual respect and trust among members, resulting in a factionalism which undermines effective leadership by the group as a whole. 3 (p. 97)
Although probably pursued with the view to improving its functioning, a 1984 effort to reorganize and recompose the Oakland Symphony’s board of directors, in the midst of very deep-rooted operational problems, compounded the situation.
In reality, the new plan did not achieve its goals. Many of the former board members claimed that no one made clear that voting in the new bylaws meant voting for their own disenfranchisement. Many of these made no secret of their displeasure, exacerbating the community perception of the Association as a group plagued by “internecine struggle,” and worsening the funding and support climate. The new structures . . . were cumbersome and confusing, and more difficult and time-consuming to staff and organize. (p. 101)
Interviews with board members by the authors of Autopsy yielded some further insights into board priorities and operation:
Historically, the Oakland Symphony Board had been a large group involved in the little decisions. Board minutes reflect much concern with details of parties and dinners, and with the minutiae of day-to- day administration. In that sense, it was a very “hands-on” board. . . . The board distracted itself from urgent financial problems by focusing attention on less compelling issues. . . . One board member noted, “We were in terrible financial trouble—nothing but doom and gloom—and we went to a meeting and approved a $400,000 acoustical shell. We had champagne to celebrate. The next meeting, it was doom and gloom again. It was manic.” The orchestra had ever more serious marketing problems—yet at the board meetings the discussion of how to solve those problems centered on how many tickets board members should buy. (p. 99)
In 1983, a member of the Oakland Symphony’s board told his colleagues that he was “fascinated” by the ongoing crisis, and that the mix of human concerns and the various intangibles diminished the likelihood of finding a workable solution to the problem. “So,” he said, “it becomes a matter of degree and how you can stagger your way out of it.” (p. 1)
General Management and Administrative Leadership
No organization can function without the leadership and inspiration of good general management. As Richard Hackman has said, the executive director is the “nexus of the orchestra organization.”4 The Symphony Orchestra Institute’s statement of precepts and direction outlines the need for a close and effective relationship between a properly functioning board, an able general manager, and an involved music director, working toward clearly defined organizational objectives, with employees and volunteers actively engaged. The Institute believes that this type of leadership is vital to an orchestra organization’s development and sustained viability.5 In discussing the executive leadership of the Oakland Symphony, Autopsy reported:
The ineffectiveness of its professional managers mitigates the board’s exclusive responsibility for the demise of the Oakland Symphony. There is a close interrelationship between volunteer board and paid staff, and the responsibility is a shared one. As lay leaders, directors must in a sense be “led to lead,” particularly as the financial and management issues of symphony administration become more complex. It is clear that the professional administrative leadership over the last ten years was unsuccessful in providing this subtle direction, and unable to alter the course of the Oakland Symphony as it headed toward bankruptcy. But even this failure of staff is one in which the board has a part, in that the board was responsible for hiring its executive directors. (p. 101)
. . . It is conventional wisdom in the nonprofit arts world that no organization can rise above the level of its board of directors. A strong board will not tolerate a weak manager. A strong manager, unable to change a weak board, will eventually move on to a better situation. Thus, more often than not, the board/management axis tends to align itself over time either as strong board/strong management or weak board/weak management. The latter was the historical tendency at the Oakland Symphony. (p. 86)
. . . The board (primarily through its chairman and executive committee), the music director, and the executive director represent three distinct, and sometimes mutually exclusive, points of view that must be continually negotiated and amended. Orchestra operations rest on this three-legged stool. Excessive weakness or strength in any leg will upset the delicate balance required for effective administration. (pp. 86-87)
. . . [The final executive director] cannot be held accountable for the years of indecision and lack of direction that created the financial crisis of the Oakland Symphony. During [his] administration, however, the lack of candor that characterized the organization in its last ten years increased. In correspondence, grant applications, and press releases, the Symphony administration had difficulty admitting the reality of the situation to itself, to its funders, and to the public. (p. 90)
. . . The picture that emerges [from interviews and management analyses] is not that of a team but of a grouping of highly compartmentalized individuals, each pursuing particular ends with no clear guiding vision of the organization’s overall course. Once again, individual examples—turnover, poor communications, low staff morale—point to the root problem: the Symphony’s lack of a clear sense of its mission and direction and management’s inability to remedy that situation. (p. 92)
Artistry and Programming
As reported in Autopsy, the consultants found that, as is true in many troubled American orchestras, “Quality of performance per se did not contribute to the orchestra’s demise.” (p. 6)
However, in transmitting this fundamentally good artistry to the Oakland audiences and community, the expansion of programming beyond the community’s capacity to absorb it and the absence of a clear institutional vision are well documented.
The lack of clear institutional identity and purpose which affected the Oakland Symphony as a whole was reflected in the orchestra’s artistic programming. (p. 6)
. . . The amount of programming produced by the Oakland Symphony was one of its major problems throughout the ten years leading to its closing. This expansionist pattern required more staff time, effort, money, and audience, than it was possible for the orchestra to generate. Individual new activities were good ideas, but in the aggregate they contributed to the Symphony’s undoing. (pp. 9-10)
Instead of seeking an artistic identity distinct from its San Francisco counterpart, the Oakland Symphony gradually edged towards similarity (and therefore direct comparison) . . . (p. 11)
With respect to its long-standing, loyal (and too small) audience, the Oakland Symphony was not in competition with San Francisco; in the eyes of its potential audience, it probably was. (p. 7)
Marketing and Audience Development
The authors of Autopsy also analyzed the Oakland Symphony’s marketing program.
Change may often be called for, and is not negative when there is reason for it. But change for the sake of change, without plan, research, or reason undermined the marketing efforts of the Oakland Symphony. (p. 41)
Considered solely from a demographic perspective, a significant potential audience for symphonic music clearly exists [in the Oakland area]. Demographics alone cannot be considered the cause of the Symphony’s demise. Other factors that prevented the Symphony from reaching its full audience potential—factors at least as significant as the city’s demographic makeup—include ineffective marketing, unrealistic ticket sales projections, competition [or perception of competition] between the Oakland and San Francisco Symphonies. . . . But an audience for symphonic music—or at least a potential audience—exists in East Bay communities. (pp. 20-21)
And the following Autopsy citations provide additional insights into the Symphony’s marketing problems:
From the Oakland Symphony’s first season in the Paramount Theatre (1973-74) to its final, cancelled season (1986-87), the Symphony experienced a growth of more than 100% in mainstream concert performance activity. In other words, the marketing staff had 100% more tickets to sell in 1986 than in 1973. This increase in supply, however, was not driven by any increase in demand from the market. The increased concerts were deemed necessary to satisfy union contracts, and to produce income necessary to meet the budget as approved by board and management; but historical precedent gave no indication that East Bay audiences intended to double their attendance at Oakland Symphony activities. (p. 37)
. . . The Association compounded the problem of oversupply by devising marketing strategies that confused patrons and box office representatives. Through the way it packaged its product, the Association increased the difficulty of its sales task. Constant changes in the names of series, in the times and locations of performances, and in the number of concerts in given series made “automatic renewals”—the basis of a good subscription campaign—difficult to achieve. (pp. 40-41)
In the final analysis, a sound resolution among marketing concerns, artistic vision, and realism was not achieved.
In a sense, marketing represents the intersection of vision and reality— the measure both of the public’s interest in an organization’s artistic vision and product, and of management’s effectiveness in placing that vision before the public eye. Devising and sustaining a successful program to market that vision requires a clear sense of what the product is and who is likely to buy it. . . . In a very real sense, the Association’s marketing efforts were hindered by the institution’s lack of identity—who it was, who it wanted to be, and whom it wanted to serve. This lack of focus, coupled with high staff turnover and the consistently unrealistic marketing goals which board and management set, guaranteed that those programs could never succeed. (p. 46)
. . . The Symphony was not successful in reaching its potential audience, i.e., those East Bay residents whose demographic profile matches that of the typical symphony concert attender. That this was in part a failure of marketing and planning is clear. (p. 14)
Development: Funding and Volunteers
A strong development program, including the recruitment, structuring, and support of an effective volunteer corps, is a unique and special functional need in the management team of a symphony orchestra organization. Insights into this aspect of Oakland’s organizational problems are captured in the following excerpts from Autopsy.
In fundraising, as in other areas of its operations, the Oakland Symphony did not readjust its goals when it failed to meet them, but continued to bet its future on unrealistic expectations of contributions from its community. (p. 60)
. . . Development staff consistently felt that a weakness in the organization was lack of board understanding of the board’s role in fundraising and lack of board participation in the fundraising effort. According to one development director, “There was wealth on the board, but it was uncommitted. They were not giving to capacity.” As a consequence, staff tended to focus its attention more on foundation and business support, which was easier to obtain. (p. 48)
Working relationships within a board are often known in a community and can have an impact on fund raising.
The history of divisiveness within the board . . . hampered its fundraising efforts. A 1977 [nearly 10 years before the organization’s death] consultant’s report comments on the dissension: “Unluckily this internecine struggle is perceived not only internally, but widely outside the Board and, regretfully, by some important sources of contributed income.” (p. 51)
Underestimating the role of volunteers was also a factor in the Oakland Symphony’s demise. The Oakland Symphony Guild (known as the Oakland Symphony League after 1985) numbered more than 1,000 members in the 1960s; by the time of the Symphony’s death, that number was just over 200. As a result, the League began to feel left out and a request to add a League member to the board in an ex-officio capacity was denied. As Autopsy reported:
It’s a maxim of arts administration that volunteers can be a mixed blessing, but at a critical level they represent the organization’s most direct link with its community. Here, as with the board reorganization plan, management and board, rather than capitalizing on the strengths of the Oakland Symphony family, did not effectively manage its community support. (p. 93)
Symphony orchestra organizations often are faced with the prospect of receiving substantial funding from a single source. Such funding can be vital to sustaining the organization’s viability, if not its survival, but overreliance can induce dependency and laxity or a false sense of security, relief, and optimism. Even the community’s perception that an “angel” might be available, can have unusual behavioral consequences. These circumstances existed in Oakland.
It is difficult to evaluate whether [the largesse of a substantial community figure and former board chairman] constituted an overreliance by the organization on one donor, particularly in the last ten years that are the focus of this study. It is perhaps more accurate to assert that [this person’s] not inconsiderable clout and resources had, in the earlier years of the organization, contributed to the creation of an assumption on the part of the board that someone would always be there to help the Symphony out of the financial crisis of the moment. The Ford Foundation’s ten-year grant program and the NEA’s Challenge Grant likewise contributed to creating a historical buffer that postponed the necessity of finding immediate, structural remedies to the financial shortfalls. (pp. 50-51)
Financial Policy and Management
Orchestra organizations must be especially diligent in their financial management. Oakland’s failure in this regard was tragic. As Autopsy points out:
As early as a March 1977 Executive Committee meeting, a board member stated that he “hated to keep repeating it, but we have to face the fact that we are up against a crisis if we don’t sell the tickets and raise the money this year. It goes without saying what will happen. There will be no symphony.” . . . The Executive Committee took no action. At no time from 1976-86 was any fundamental change made in the structure or operations of the increasingly troubled orchestra. Instead the Association continued its pattern of accepting deficits, and in the face of those deficits continued to expand. (p. 61)
. . . Financial management was inadequate until the last two years prior to bankruptcy, when for the first time the organization hired a controller with long-term nonprofit financial management experience. . . . In addition, the audit did not readily reveal the true financial situation of the organization, and obscured the fact that the Association was insolvent more than a year before bankruptcy. (p. 61)
. . . The usual pattern was for the Finance Committee to develop in April a budget which showed a deficit. By June the deficit was plugged (usually by increasing ticket sales income projections) and the board approved a balanced budget. (p. 67)
. . . [The Oakland] situation demonstrates the force of inertia in an unhealthy organization: In light of all factual evidence to the contrary, with consultants’ reports predicting financial catastrophe and offering alternatives, the Association continued to conduct business as usual. (p. 68)
In addition to being steadfastly unrealistic about operating results, the Oakland Symphony’s financial and accounting policies relating to its endowment were very questionable.
Many outside observers expressed shock at the Association’s management of its endowment, and asked if the endowment principal was inviolate. . . . Various managers . . . asked to see [documents concerning the endowment] but without results. . . . Fundraising materials, however, make clear that donors were led to believe their gifts to the Ford Endowment Drive were for permanent endowment. . . . the Ford Foundation’s $1 million was never placed in the endowment, but went immediately into the operating fund. (p. 70)
In summary, a financial control system will prevent unrealistic and unsound growth only if administered with discipline. Until too late, this was lacking in the Oakland organization.
Good planning and accurate financial projections are the underpinnings of a well-run organization. For the Oakland Symphony to run consecutive years of unbudgeted deficits suggests planning that was inadequate. The goals that the Symphony established were seldom achieved and never addressed the Symphony’s central operational issue—its mounting deficits. Instead, long-range plans called for increasing expansion. (p. 27)
Real Estate and Facilities
By the nature of their art, orchestras need real estate to carry out their primary purpose. These needs—a concert hall and directly supporting facilities — involve special-purpose real estate which in turn requires substantial financial resources and creates risk on the part of some community entity, whether the orchestra organization itself or another institution. Office and other space requirements add to this need. The financial implications of required real estate, whether rented or owned, are significant to most symphony organizations, as are also many operational factors, including acoustics and other performance and audience issues. The relationship between a symphony’s operations and its primary venue can be very complex. In some cases, the two are inseparably intertwined.
As Autopsydescribes in some detail, chronic real estate problems contributed significantly to the overall troubles of the Oakland Symphony. In the early 1970s, the Association purchased the recently closed, 40-year-old, 3,000-seat Paramount Theatre, leaving its long residency at the city-owned 2,000-seat Civic Auditorium. Projected higher operating costs and a building restoration plan were to be financed with the principal and earnings of a special building endowment to be raised. The Association promptly embarked on its restoration plan financed with a bank loan. By early 1975, with the restoration expenditures long completed and higher operating costs in effect, the new building campaign had fallen far short of its goal. The bank loan and other liabilities remained outstanding and facilities-operating costs continued to be high. To avoid these costs, including the elimination of property taxes, the Association arranged in 1975 to transfer the building to the City of Oakland in return for a lease which, given certain assumptions, was to be rent-free for 40 years. But, as Autopsy reports:
. . . there was still the $1 million restoration note and the accumulated deficit. After the Paramount’s transfer to the city . . . (and) at the end (in 1976) of the ten-year Ford Foundation matching endowment program, the Association gained control of the $1.2 million Ford funds which had been kept in a separate trust until the Association met its match and the ten-year period ended. Rather than placing this $1.2 million in the endowment, the board placed it in the operating fund. They then used it to pay off the bank note and the existing debt.
At the inception of the restoration project, the Association treated the Paramount as a separate entity with a separate set of books. With the transfer to the City, this separation was now real and conflicts heightened. In addition, the operational assumptions underlying the expectation of free rent were mistaken or poorly judged and the Association was soon paying growing and unexpected rent and other facilities costs.
The Association added to its burdens by commissioning costly architectural studies in 1976-1977 and by the 1983 purchase and installation of a stage shell in the city-owned Paramount. By 1986, plans were completed to leave the Paramount and return to the newly renovated Civic Auditorium theater, renamed the Calvin Simmons Theatre. Before the first subscription concert there, bankruptcy overcame the Association.
Autopsy summarized the history of facilities woes of the Oakland Symphony Association as follows:
. . . by 1986 the Symphony had come full circle, with an enormous loss of focus, time, energy, and money spent on the Paramount Theatre. (pp. 24-25).
With a longer lead time and more careful planning, it is not inconceivable that better strategies could have been worked out for city ownership and maintenance [of the Paramount Theatre], as is the case in the majority of arts facilities. With better long-range planning, the Association could have negotiated occupancy terms that would have been more suitable to the orchestra’s long-term needs. More importantly, the Association not only could have raised more funds, but could also have created a real sense of community ownership. And of critical significance, it could have kept the $1.2 million Ford Foundation grant in the Symphony’s permanent endowment. (p. 26)
Orchestra Personnel and Management-Player Relations
Symphony musicians quite often feel that governance and management have inadequate vision, especially when an orchestra’s artistry is well acknowledged. Why can’t more demand and support be created for wonderful orchestral performance of great music? Why can’t more tickets be sold and more contributions be developed? Are our sights high enough and are staff and board working as hard and effectively as they might?
Managements and boards quite often agree with musicians as to their artistic capacity and that audience and contributor support should be high. But they must then temper vision and goals with organizational and marketplace realities. However, pure naiveté, along with pressure for quick results, sometimes overrides clear thinking and step-by-step patience. And sometimes, too, the uninformed expectations and demands of musicians reinforce the dreams of management and governance with the result that everyone embraces unrealistic goals. This happened in Oakland.
Management carried [its] expansionist message to the bargaining table . . . thereby encouraging expectations on the part of the players of more and more employment. If management most often said at contract negotiation time, “Just give us a little more time to get things in order,” still the intention of continued and significant growth was implicit in management’s stance.
Unfortunately, while player expectations conformed to management rhetoric, neither was in touch with the economic realities of the cost of providing significantly increased employment to eighty- six players and the ticket sales and contributions that would be required to support that goal. (p. 76)
A shift in the composition of orchestra personnel over time compounded the Symphony’s situation.
While the size of the Oakland Symphony was not significantly increased during negotiations [after 1974–77], the amount of employment to be offered its eighty-six members was. The question of “full-time employment” preoccupied negotiators on both sides of the table throughout the Symphony’s unionized history. The orchestra grew from an essentially amateur, community group, in which the vast majority of members had other, full-time employment, to one characterized (by players and management) as a “fully professional ensemble.” As this professionalism occurred, and the membership of the orchestra shifted from part-time players toward primarily full- time musicians, the pressure to provide more employment grew. In its last ten years, the Symphony experienced a 44% turnover in musicians. During those years, the balance among the players shifted from those whose purposes were best served by part-time nighttime only employment, toward players, usually younger, who looked to . . . the Oakland Symphony to provide the major part of their livelihood. (p. 75)
It is an ongoing dilemma that the compensation level for musicians in symphony orchestras—even those that are advancing—can differ substantially between communities. Musicians have difficulty coming to grips with the reality of these historical, organizational, and geo-economic differences and the slowness with which they are changing or can be changed. The Oakland musicians proved to be no exception.
[From 1976–1986 players’] earnings had increased more than three times the cost of living, and activity had more than doubled. Measured against their income ten years ago—or compared to player income at other similar-sized orchestras—the Oakland Symphony was making progress. Why then was there growing disillusionment among the players about their wage situation?
The difficulty was that the players did not tend to measure progress by how far they had come, but by how far they had to go—to reach full employment status, and earnings comparable to those of full- time, “major” symphonies. (p. 78)
As is the case in too many symphony organizations, regular, genuine, and truthful management-player communications were not developed in the Oakland organization.
An important aspect of [its] labor relations history is the repeated pattern of the Association saying first “we can’t afford this,” then agreeing to contracts which called for ever-expanded activity. As a result, the musicians perceived the Association saying “no” but not meaning it; saying “we don’t have the money,” and always finding it. When the end finally came, and the money really was not there, the musicians had no particular reason to believe management’s claim. (p. 81)
. . . The Executive Committee minutes show that player representatives were invited (or at least permitted) to present their point of view to that committee at more than one meeting. With this and other more formal communication structures in place beginning in 1983, it is hard to understand the comment, often repeated among the players interviewed, that “the players never had any input.” Several players interviewed expressed the view that management/board never sincerely heeded the opinions of the musicians on these committees. Other players held the view that deepening distrust of management by the players prevented the standing communication channels from functioning effectively. . . . One player member said, “We just thought it was more rhetoric.” Another player said, “All they ever used those meetings for was doom and gloom. There wasn’t any real attempt to communicate.” (p. 82)
In the midst of ongoing negotiations, the musician’s negotiator—the president of the American Federation of Musicians’ (AFM) local—resigned, creating a leadership void which the Oakland musicians decided to fill by inviting a New York City AFM official to represent them and negotiate on their behalf. At about the same time, the Association retained a local attorney to represent and speak on its behalf. As opposed to helping in communications, the new representatives appear to have deepened the gap between the players and the Association.
[The musicians] turned to . . . the AFM in New York [and] . . . the head of the Symphony Department agreed to assist in the 1985 contract talks. . . . According to some players interviewed . . . “management wouldn’t listen to anybody but [the AFM official], so when he wasn’t around nothing got done.” While some players interviewed feel that [the AFM official’s] involvement was positive, and brought a level of professionalism to the negotiations that would not have been possible otherwise, others expressed the view that his tactics (which one player characterized as “old time union tactics that don’t work anymore”) polarized the members of the orchestra. Some feel his “rabble rousing” style was counterproductive and led the orchestra to push for unreasonable demands. One player said, “He told us ‘management will always say they don’t have the money, but they’ll always find it.’ Only this time they didn’t.” (p. 83)
. . . While the players’ leadership was urging them to hold firm in their demands . . . the Association’s new spokesman [a San Francisco labor attorney and Oakland Symphony board member] was discoursing on financial limitations and . . . taking control of bargaining for management in such a way as to further confuse an already troubled situation. The division of opinion about [the efficacy of the Association’s representative] is rather like that concerning [the musicians’ representative]—board members interviewed feel in the main that the Association was well served by [its representative], and that he brought an increased level of professionalism and reality to the bargaining. . . . Orchestra members interviewed hold the view that [his] personal style, tactics, and “strike breaking” mentality made any reasonable accommodation impossible. Whatever the truth, it is clear that the deteriorating relationship between players and management became another factor that contributed to the symphony’s demise. (p. 83)
In a dilemma which many North American orchestras face, Oakland Symphony musicians resisted any reduction in the size or structure of the orchestra.
The idea [of creating a core orchestra, in order to provide fuller employment to a smaller ensemble] foundered when players and management could not agree on how to select the forty core members. . . . There was bitter conflict over this issue, and one Players Committee was unseated when it recommended management’s audition proposal. Ultimately, management agreed to . . . equal rotation. Later contracts . . . instead dealt with “individual player services,” whereby players were assigned to various partial-orchestra services. (p. 84)
. . . The multi-tiered contract concept, whereby specific groups of players are guaranteed different numbers of services, has been used to good effect by a number of regional orchestras as a way to provide full employment to at least some players without undermining the financial stability of the organization. The Oakland players’ demand for equality effectively prevented the development of a tiered contract. . . . Arguably, their insistence hastened the extinction of the Oakland Symphony. (p. 84)
As is too often the case, communications progressively deteriorated.
The final months of the Oakland Symphony illustrate how large the discrepancy between rhetoric and reality had become, as well as how complete was the breakdown of communication between players and management/board. The settlement of the November 1985 strike called for a 45% increase in services over the term of the contract, and weekly employment beginning with the contract’s third year. Meanwhile, the debt crisis was deepening. There were some attempts to communicate the financial situation to the musicians . . . [although] there was no public mention of the crisis throughout the spring, and the players received no further official indication of the seriousness of the problem. (pp. 84-85)
. . . Players and management have widely divergent opinions of the other’s role in the orchestra’s ultimate demise. Each accuses the other of refusing to bargain in good faith . . . [and] it is clear that the deterioration of the relationship between the parties was so complete as to render communication impossible. Without communication, a solution was not to be found. (p. 85)
In the end, the rhetoric, fantasy, and leadership deficiencies among governance, management, and musicians, and the absence of authentic communications, provided the death blow to the Oakland Symphony Orchestra Association.
[The] “credibility gap,” which widened over a number of years and under a number of Association administrations, affected the relationship between the orchestra and the management to such an extent that during the bankruptcy period, the face-to-face talking that was necessary to save the situation was impossible to achieve. (p. 81)
. . . These then are the key factors forming the context of labor/ management relations as the Oakland Symphony entered its critical last years: the size of the orchestra, which was a significant economic deterrent to expanded activities; the increasing pressure for full employment from the orchestra members; the discrepancy between management rhetoric and hard financial realities; and a volatile leadership situation for both management and union. These forces coming together in the last contract negotiation of the Oakland Symphony, and the contract which resulted from that negotiation, may well be said to be the most immediate cause of the orchestra’s demise. (p. 76)
. . . [But] it would be neither fair nor accurate to blame the demise of the Oakland Symphony on the 1985 contract negotiations. The 1985 contract surely precipitated the bankruptcy, but it did not create the situation. Those negotiations were the culmination of years of unrealistic expectations on the part of the players and the Association managements and board members. For the board and management, there was the desire to be “major,” as a matter of civic and musical pride. For the players, too, there was the desire to be “major,” both in terms of earnings, and in professional comparison with their colleagues. These desires, however, obscured the extremely problematic realities of Oakland’s situation—its place in a secondary market competing with San Francisco; its chronic inability to generate sufficient increases in audience and ticket revenue; and its worsening financial crisis. (p. 85)
The legal and financial concepts of bankruptcy carry an aura of finality, but typically bankruptcy is the result of serious organizational defects. The Oakland story is a classic and carefully documented example of progressive and ultimate organizational failure. The costs of such failures to organizational participants and to their communities is large. The world of symphony orchestras unfortunately contains too many examples of chronic organizational dysfunction accompanied by, or susceptible to, serious if not terminal financial problems, attended by much misdirected human energy and unnecessary emotional distress.
The Oakland story suggests that each participant in a symphony orchestra organization should spend more time thinking about how his or her organization could better and more soundly function, how change toward that end can be achieved, and what his or her role might be in that process. People in leadership roles in governance, staff, and the orchestra should especially address these questions, involving all participants in open discussion and working together to identify and pursue programs of change.
The Symphony Orchestra Institute wishes to thank Melanie Beene for her consent to publish the quotations which appear in the above essay. The quotations are from Autopsy of an Orchestra: An Analysis of Factors Contributing to the Bankruptcy of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra Association, which can be obtained from:
Melanie Beene & Associates
1339 Diamond Street
San Francisco, CA 94131-1823
The cost is $20.00, plus $3.00 for shipping and handling.
Meg Posey is the Institute’s administrator, a student at Loyola University Chicago, and a freelance writer. Paul R. Judy is founder and chairman of the Symphony Orchestra Institute.
In early 1996, the Institute funded two doctoral research grants. Recipients were Arthur Brooks, a Ph.D. candidate at RAND Graduate School of Policy Studies in Santa Monica, California, and John Breda, at the time a candidate for an M.D. degree from the University of Massachusetts.
Arthur Brooks has recently completed his research analyzing the choices which symphony orchestras have in creating demand for their goods. (For a more complete description of this research, see Harmony, April 1996, pages 52 to 54 and October 1996, page ix). Arthur’s findings will be published later in the year, probably in both complete and synopsis form.
Dr. John Breda is nearing completion of his research into the psychological stress which orchestral musicians experience. He is analyzing findings within the project’s data universe as well as making comparisons with the data for other occupations. John had an excellent response from musicians to a questionnaire he circulated in the middle of 1996. His research should be completed within a few months.
During 1996, the Institute became familiar with symphony orchestra organizational research taking place at the Institute of Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield, in England. Sally Maitlis, a doctoral candidate, has for some time been working in the areas of organizational psychology and human resource management. In 1995, she became especially interested in the decision- making processes existing within symphony organizations in Great Britain, particularly in light of changes in their economic environment. Sally has spent more than a year closely observing the internal processes and decision making within three orchestral organizations. A description of her research and some preliminary findings are reported in the pages which follow. The Institute will publish the overall results of this research later this year.
Various scholars have approached the Institute to report symphony- organization-related research they have undertaken or are considering. The Institute welcomes such information and inquiry and seeks, among other things, to put scholars with common interests in contact with each other. The Institute continues to evaluate alternatives for sponsored research, especially projects that are closely related to organizational change being considered or taking place in symphony orchestra organizations.
How are key decisions made in British symphony orchestras? What formal and informal decision-making systems exist? How do they vary between orchestras? In particular, what is the role of musicians in important artistic and commercial matters and how satisfied are they with the decision- making processes in their organizations?
These are the questions underlying a study of decision making and change in symphony orchestras which I am conducting at the Institute of Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield, England. Organizational research on orchestras, in particular British orchestras, is relatively rare. One notable exception is the major comparative study of 78 United States, United Kingdom, and German symphony orchestras which was carried out by J. Richard Hackman, Jutta Allmendinger, and Erin Lehman.1 In an interview published in the April 1996 issue of Harmony, Hackman identified such factors as adequate financial resources and good leadership as critical to an orchestra’s effectiveness, both as to its artistic performance and in terms of member job satisfaction.2 However, little research exists which examines, in depth and over time, the day-to-day functioning of such organizations, especially considering the parts played by musicians when they are not on the stage.
My research involves a study of the decision-making and related organizational change processes of three British symphony orchestras. To date, I have followed these orchestras over the period of a year. The study is ongoing and since detailed data analysis is currently in progress, this report presents only an overview of preliminary findings. The report describes the three different types of symphony orchestras which exist in Great Britain and, outlining the research methods adopted to study them, examines the decision-making systems in place in one orchestra from each category. I anticipate that the results of my completed research will be available later this year and will be published by the Symphony Orchestra Institute.
Three Types of Symphony Orchestras
The 13 full-time symphony orchestras in Great Britain fall into three distinct categories: regional contract, BBC contract, and London independent orchestras. While the first two categories employ musicians on permanent contracts, as is the case in most symphony orchestras in the United States, the London independent orchestras are distinctive in comprising freelance musicians who are self-employed but who work together regularly in a particular orchestra. These three categories of orchestras also differ in their primary sources of income, their key activities, and their governance structures. These features are summarized in Table 1 below.
The Study Method
This study examines three orchestras, one from each of the categories described above: a regional contract orchestra, a BBC contract orchestra, and a London independent orchestra, called here, for the purposes of confidentiality, the
Table 1. Types of British Symphony Orchestras
Regional, BBC, and London orchestras. Data were collected over a one-year period, using a variety of methods. I conducted interviews with the managers in each orchestra, with the musicians on the representative orchestra committees, and with a wide range of other players. In addition I attended, as an observer, most meetings that were held in each orchestra over the one-year study period. These included management meetings, orchestra committee meetings as well as those held with the full orchestra, meetings between management and players, and board and trustee meetings. I spent time on tour with two of the orchestras, which provided the opportunity for much informal discussion and observation. Players and managers in two of the orchestras also completed detailed opinion surveys. Finally, I carried out extensive analysis of current and historical documentation about each orchestra.
Decisions in British Symphony Orchestras
The decisions examined in this study spanned a range of artistic, financial, and personnel issues. They included: appointing or renewing the contract of the principal conductor (music director), re-engaging guest conductors, choosing the repertoire to be played, appointing players to key positions in the orchestra, dealing with a player’s unsatisfactory standards of performance, determining players’ pay and contract conditions, identifying new areas for income generation and cost saving, and developing collaborative relationships with other orchestras. I initially chose these decisions because of their apparent significance in artistic, commercial, and often political terms and because they had arisen in all three orchestras during the period of study, offering the opportunity for comparative analysis across organizations. In discussing this decision set with players and managers from each orchestra, I found confirmation that these were key issues facing their orchestras during the study period. Over time, such decisions are likely to arise in many orchestras, in Great Britain and elsewhere.
Who Has a “Say” in Decisions? How Does This Happen?
The following sections examine decision making in the three orchestras, first describing their governance structures, their formal schedules of meetings, and their informal decision-making interactions. Then the nature of players’ participation is investigated in each orchestra in turn. Here, three elements are considered central to employee participation: the level of interaction between players and key decision makers, the extent of information sharing relevant to the decision, and the degree of influence players have on the decision process and outcome.3 These concepts are used to describe players’ involvement in decision making in each orchestra. Finally, I offer a preliminary comment on player satisfaction with the existing systems.
Regional Orchestra: Decision Structures and Systems
Organizational Governance Structure
The Regional is officially governed by an external board of directors, a structure typical of most United States symphony orchestras. As outlined in Table 1, the board comprises elected members from the local business and arts communities, a number of town councillors, and three employee directors: two players, and one member from the administration. Both the managing director and the principal conductor (music director) are accountable to this board. The players have a representative body comprising an elected committee of six, whose role is to represent players’ views and interests.
Meetings: Formal Decision-making Forums
The board meets bimonthly. The managing director also attends, as does the chairman of the orchestra committee, as an observer. In addition, five board subcommittees exist to consider matters of finance, artistic policy, marketing, sponsorship, and education. Each subcommittee is scheduled to meet once between board meetings.
The orchestra committee meets as required, typically every few weeks, to discuss a range of issues, including day-to-day logistics, but also programming and key appointments. This committee meets quarterly with management and some board members at the consultative committee meeting. The consultative committee itself has three subcommittees, considering artistic matters, concert logistics, and marketing. These subcommittees meet once between each meeting of the consultative committee. Full orchestra meetings are called every few weeks by the orchestra chairman to inform other players of developments on matters such as pay negotiations. The senior management team meets weekly to discuss ongoing matters and medium-term plans.
Most of these meetings (board, consultative, subcommittee, and senior management) are scheduled well in advance and minutes are taken for subsequent distribution. The Regional clearly has an extensive and complex system of meetings for information sharing and decision making.
Informal Exchanges: Additional Opportunities
Despite the great number and range of formal meetings, much important interaction in the Regional nevertheless takes place informally. In particular, the managing director and one key board member are in quite frequent contact to discuss specific matters, as are the player directors with the managing director and, separately, with the board member. The artistic director is also in fairly regular contact, backstage and informally, with players from the orchestra. As in most orchestras, daily exchanges among players on a variety of matters are common.
The Nature of Player Participation
The intricate system of meetings outlined above shows high player interaction with official decision makers in the Regional orchestra. Not only do certain elected players attend board and subcommittee meetings, the full orchestra committee also meets regularly with a subset of the board and other managers to discuss a wide range of artistic, financial, marketing, and other matters in the consultative committee meeting and meetings of its associated subcommittees. Along with regular face-to-face interaction, these forums enable a considerable amount of information sharing in both directions. Informally, too, the two player directors maintain informal relationships with the managing director and a key board member.
But how much influence do players in the Regional orchestra have in major decisions? I observed in the scheduled meetings players expressing their views on certain decisions that were made concerning conductors, repertoire, and the way in which player appointments and retirements were handled. Largely, however, player influence was limited to offering their thoughts to the main decision makers—the senior management, the principal conductor, and key members of the board. A greater source of player influence possibly came through the informal channels which the two player directors maintained with the managing director and with the key board member. In this way, and particularly because of these players’ personalities and what was perceived to be their generally moderate and considered stance on orchestra matters, their views were quite often sought and given serious consideration.
Player Satisfaction with the Existing System
Despite the relatively high levels of interaction and information sharing the player representatives experienced, their lack of influence was frustrating, for themselves and for others in the orchestra. This feeling may have been especially strong because there was a widely held view that some poor artistic and commercial decisions had been made in previous years and that these decisions were taking time to be righted. Although players did not consider it their responsibility to manage the orchestra, their anxiety about what they perceived as past mismanagement kept player attendance at meetings high and their desire for involvement in decisions considerable. Meanwhile, the player directors, seeing ineffectiveness in the formal systems, made it their business to try to influence decisions through the informal channels available to them.
BBC Orchestra: Decision Structures and Systems
Organizational Governance Structure
The BBC orchestra is part of a music production department within the BBC and the managing director and senior producer responsible for the orchestra also have duties and commitments relating to other music production activities. Most of their time, however, is spent on orchestral matters. The managing director reports to two very senior BBC managers. One of these, the editorial manager, has editorial responsibilities for a number of production areas including music, and the other is the controller of the BBC classical music radio station, the orchestra’s main customer. The principal conductor of this orchestra is answerable to the managing director and senior producer of the orchestra. As in the Regional orchestra, the players have an elected committee, in this case five players, again with a role to represent the players’ interests and opinions.
Meetings: Formal Decision-making Forums
During the course of my study, there were comparatively few meetings in the BBC orchestra. No regular, formal meetings were scheduled between the managers identified above and although meetings for all the staff of the music production department team were planned monthly, they were often rescheduled because of other senior management commitments. Small groups of four or five senior managers attended planning “awaydays” every few months and the managing director had similar meetings with his editorial manager a few times a year.
The orchestra committee met at least once every two weeks (very largely to discuss day-to-day concerns), and met with managers in the orchestral office monthly (typically to pass these matters forward). As in the Regional orchestra, the orchestra chairman called full orchestra meetings every few weeks. The orchestra chairman often expressed the concern that he was unable to get dates from the busy senior managers for what were supposed to be the quarterly meetings during which the orchestra committee was scheduled to meet with the managing director and senior producer to discuss wider artistic and strategic matters. However, about twice a year, the managing director and senior producer addressed the full orchestra on such issues, informing them of plans and decisions and taking questions from the players.
Informal Exchanges: Additional Opportunities
The atmosphere in the BBC orchestra is one of high informality. Many discussions take place between managers in passing, or, for example, when traveling to or from concerts. Being based in open-plan offices adds to the ease of such informal exchange. In addition, while there are relatively few meetings for players to interact with decision makers, the orchestra chairman makes it his business to have considerable informal contact with management. During my study, he daily took questions and concerns into the orchestra management offices, feeling it important and enjoying this part of his role. Another set of informal exchanges occurred between the players and the senior producer, who often worked closely with them on recordings for broadcast. During breaks he had the opportunity to pick up the views of those who came to chat with him about conductors and repertoire. As in the Regional orchestra, the degree of informal exchange among players was high.
The Nature of Player Participation
As described above, neither the governance structure, nor the number and type of scheduled meetings encourage extensive player participation. Formally, interaction and information sharing are low and therefore, influence through these channels is low, too. The orchestra committee here was said to deal with “tea and toilet” concerns. They were not seen as having an influence on major artistic, financial, or other strategic decisions and indeed, did not consider this their responsibility. The meetings held with orchestral office management were primarily geared towards logistical or detailed contractual matters. When they did meet with senior management, discussions were more concerned with artistic and financial issues, but these meetings were relatively rare. Senior management addresses to the full orchestra were primarily information sessions, considered to be for the players’ benefit. Similarly, although the orchestra chairman spent considerable time in the management offices, this was largely information- seeking, rather than decision-influencing behavior. When players did have an influence in decisions on matters such as conductors, or player personnel matters, this was much more likely to happen through informal exchanges in a break or over lunch with the senior producer.
Player Satisfaction with the Existing System
Both formally and informally, player influence in major decisions in this BBC orchestra is limited. However, most players are reasonably content with this arrangement, not considering it their business to intervene in such management concerns, a particularly common feature of the “us and them” climate in many parts of the BBC. Players generally perceive their senior managers as highly competent in the key artistic and financial decision areas. Equally, BBC managers believe they are the best-placed people to make decisions for the orchestra and do not seek great input from the players. And while the orchestra chairman makes efforts to extend his information base, even he does not strive for much greater powers of influence.
London Orchestra: Decision Structures and Systems
Organizational Governance Structure
The London orchestra is officially governed by a player-elected board, made up of seven player directors, the managing director, and a small minority of external members drawn from the local business community. The principal conductor reports to this board. In addition, the orchestra has a management committee of local business people who act as financial advisors. The orchestra committee comprises the seven player directors.
Meetings: Formal Decision-making Forums
Formal meetings in the self-governing London orchestra are generally held regularly, but relatively infrequently. Board meetings take place approximately quarterly, covering a very wide range of matters, including player appointments, specific artistic and commercial projects, and longer-term financial and strategic plans. Also held approximately quarterly are management committee meetings, which are attended by the managing director and the orchestra chairman and vice-chairman. These meetings are almost exclusively concerned with the orchestra’s financial planning. The orchestra committee meets as required every few weeks, typically to discuss player personnel matters. There are no formal management team meetings.
Informal Exchanges: Additional Opportunities
As in the other orchestras, informal exchanges among players are high and members from the orchestra committee share information with each other and with colleagues as opportunities arise between rehearsals and on other occasions. Similarly, informal communication takes place among members of management, although some of those I interviewed commented that the physical layout of the offices makes this difficult. Extensive informal discussion takes place between the orchestra chairman and the managing director. They speak daily, in person or by telephone, exchanging information and views on a very wide range of organizational decision matters.
The Nature of Player Participation
In examining player participation in a self-governing orchestra, it does not really make sense to ask how much interaction, information sharing, and influence players have with key decision makers. Instead, it is important to clarify the precise roles of the players and other primary actors in various decision-making processes. This is what I observed during my study.
While player directors attended meetings with the orchestra’s external board members and financial advisors, much of their input to orchestra decision making happened in the ad hoc orchestra committee meetings that took place between rehearsals. Here, they discussed many personnel matters, for example, appointments, demotions, and sorting out interpersonal difficulties between certain players. However, player directors were not expected to rely on their own judgements to make hiring and firing decisions, as management or the principal conductor might in a managed orchestra. Section principals were highly influential in these decisions which were then ratified by the elected players. On certain matters such as key conductor appointments, the orchestra chairman, having presented the recommendations with some reasoned argument, would take a vote from the full orchestra.
The player directors in the London orchestra considered themselves responsible for the major artistic and financial decisions the orchestra made, and did not take their positions lightly. However, most were very open about their lack of understanding of accounting and other financial material discussed in board and management committee meetings. They saw the managing director and external members as critical decision makers in these matters.
In some areas, the managing director was more influential than one might have expected in a self-governed orchestra. Although he described himself as “employed by the players,” which was factually correct, he was not driven solely by their instructions. Knowledgeable and well-connected in the business, he took responsibility for the great majority of decisions concerning conductors, and with them repertoire, and for a wide variety of income-generating activities, including long-term strategic initiatives. He maintained a close working relationship with the orchestra chairman, whose understanding of this side of the business was also considerable. Thus, interaction and information sharing were particularly high at this managing director-chairman apex. Together, these two had very considerable influence over decisions that were made on a wide range of artistic, financial, and personnel issues.
Player Satisfaction with the Existing System
Perhaps as an inevitable result of the high interaction and exchange between the managing director and the orchestra chairman, other player directors at times felt uneasy that they did not know more about the orchestra’s current activities and future plans. In describing these feelings, the London players
sounded quite similar to those in the Regional orchestra, as they expressed anxiety about their ignorance and their impotence in the decision-making process. Overall, however, most players in this orchestra felt it was well directed by the managing director-chairman team and were grateful to see them continue in this way, not seeking to add the burden of such responsibilities to their already busy schedules.
Summary and Interim Conclusions
Three quite distinct decision-making systems are described above, each containing different kinds and degrees of player participation. While players in the Regional orchestra, with substantial representation on its multiple decision- making committees and subcommittees, were well informed about the issues facing their orchestra, they were not highly influential in decision outcomes. Formally staged interaction between players and management was much rarer in the BBC orchestra and overall, whose input into important decisions was very limited. The governance structure of the self-governing London orchestra meant player participation was built into the fabric of the organization. Nevertheless, for speed of response and because of the particular management skills of some individuals, many decisions were made within a centralized core team.
These differences clearly relate neither solely to the organizations’ governance structures nor to the formal systems of meetings that exist in each. In traditionally managed orchestras, the openness to player input shown by key managers was an important factor in determining the extent of participation allowed, which itself could depend on management perceptions of and relationships with certain player representatives. Other critical components in participative decision making were, of course, the levels of ability and interest that players showed in dealing with organizational issues.
A brief preliminary examination of players’ satisfaction with their orchestras’ decision-making systems suggests that their desire for involvement was dependent on a number of factors. For example, in orchestras where the decision makers were perceived to be competent, players were less concerned about interfering with an apparently effective system and were comfortable with little information and limited influence. However, in the Regional orchestra, where players were not convinced that their organizational problems were being addressed adequately, the considerable information they possessed and the levels of interaction they had with key decision makers may have increased their anxiety to influence matters themselves. In the self-governing London orchestra, players’ beliefs in their own potential power appeared more important than the frequency with which they exercised these rights, especially since they very directly experienced the orchestra’s growing success through increased quantity and quality of work. These points are summarized in Table 2.
This short piece, written while data analysis is still in progress, does not begin to consider the full complexities of decision making in symphony orchestras.
Players’ interest in participation and their ability to affect decision outcomes clearly vary with each orchestra and depend on much more than established structures and meeting schedules. Not only must there be the opportunity for participation, created by the governance structure or the management, but additionally, for players to become involved in organizational matters, they must have the skills and motivation to do so. Even in this brief overview, the importance of such factors as the individual personalities of key player representatives, the perceived competence of the official decision makers, and the extent to which players believe their views have relevance all appear to be critical factors in determining the nature of player involvement in an orchestra’s decision making. These points will be elaborated and further developed in a future article or report which the Symphony Orchestra Institute will publish, providing both players and managers with a better understanding of symphony orchestra decision-making processes and of players’ current and possible future roles in them.
Sally Maitlis is a researcher at the Institute of Work Psychology, University of Sheffield. She holds a BSc degree in psychology from the University of London and is currently completing her doctoral studies at the University of Sheffield.
1 Allmendinger, Jutta, and J. Richard Hackman. 1991-1994. Cross-national Study of Symphony Orchestras. Cambridge: Harvard University.
2 Judy, Paul R. Life and Work in Symphony Orchestras: An Interview with J. Richard Hackman. Harmony 2 (April 1996): 1-14.
3 Wall, T. D. and J. A. Lischeron. 1977. Worker Participation. London: McGraw Hill.
American orchestras’ failure to perform significant 20th-century works with great frequency has created an enormous “black hole” in the repertoire of new music. This bold statement is the major thesis of the essay which follows.
To buttress his contention, James Orleans, a bassist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, undertook an intriguing and substantial review of his own orchestra’s performance history since the 1920s. Readers will learn that earlier in the century, new works were programmed regularly, season after season. Orleans concludes that this is no longer true.
Understanding the Barriers
He then explores the barriers which have diminished the acceptance of more contemporary programming. He acknowledges that the blame must be shared by many: conductors, players, conservatories, the entertainment industry, and others. He suggests that today’s music directors do not have the same level of commitment to new works as did their predecessors.
Arguing that musicians know a great deal about music, and that many musicians know a great deal about new music, Orleans says “it is time for musicians . . . to cast off the shroud of victimization and find ways to become more actively involved and taken seriously by decision makers.” It is his belief that involving musicians in artistic decision making is one road to greater workplace satisfaction.
Following the programming review and analysis, Orleans turns his attention to a long and thoughtful list of activities which orchestras, and especially musicians, might undertake to prepare for the next century. He entreats against a “quick fix” and again encourages all who treasure the art form of symphonic music to make substantial contributions toward rebuilding the repertoire.
Editor’s Note: This letter expands on an article by the author appearing in
Counterpoint, Newsletter of the Musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Vol. 3, No.1.
Hardly a day goes by when one doesn’t hear or read something about the predicament of symphony orchestras: subscription sales are dwindling; public support for the arts is waning; the repertoire has stagnated; the audience is graying; recording companies are withdrawing from the standard classics en masse. That we find ourselves in such a predicament should really come as no surprise to us. The same thing happens
when one crop is harvested from the same soil for too many years. We are now faced with the daunting task of building new audiences, apparently out of thin air and we can’t attract them with the music—tired, pretentious, and elitist are some of the favored adjectives used to describe it—we’ve been playing for a hundred years. Our unwillingness to cultivate a new repertoire of music to meet the cultural changes of the last few decades has placed us in this Catch-22. Clearly there are major problems with the way we have “planned” for the future of the art form.
The notion that we must cater to popular tastes in order to survive, promulgated by the infamous Americanizing Report and other criticisms of the symphony orchestra, has been widely accepted as gospel by many in leadership positions. I have serious disagreements with the direction of this particular bandwagon because it totally disregards the urgent need for an artistically responsible revitalization of the symphonic repertoire.
Robert Freeman mentioned this in his article “On the Future of America’s Orchestras,” in the last issue of Harmony: “The repertory must continue to grow, producing new works of passion and imagination that move contemporary American audiences.”1 So far, the creative programming energy that should be directed at this task is being spent producing “events” with appeal to youth, diversity, and popular tastes as their catalyst. Galas, Three-Tenor-type extravaganzas, jazz artists playing classical concerti, and all manner of celebrity- focused events are finding their way onto the concert stage. Many feel that there is enough room in a 52-week schedule for these types of affairs. But when you see how few truly exceptional and revelatory performances actually occur in a performing lifetime, you don’t want a single such opportunity taken away, which is exactly what these market-researched presentations do. It is the pursuit of the sublime that makes our work as musicians worth doing at the highest level, not the pursuit of the lowest common denominator. Our audiences have always come to us expecting considerably more than that.
The Myth of Shrinking Audiences
What does it mean that the audience is aging? Hasn’t the audience for classical music always consisted predominantly of older individuals? Indeed, profiles of audiences in New York and Los Angeles over past years have shown that half the subscribers were more than 55 years of age, with 44 percent of the Los Angeles subscribers more than 65 years of age.2 In a recent article, Henry Fogel, president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, said, “The last time we did a major marketing survey 5 years ago . . . we found the median age of our subscribers is 55, which is exactly what it was 30 years before.3 Consequently, older members of the audience want to hear Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms and have traditionally been subscribers, while the younger ones do not feel the same connection to the classical composers and are not buying subscriptions, preferring to pick and choose their concert nights.
Our leaders would have us believe that the logical course of action based on this scenario is to dilute the art in order to convince the younger (less sophisticated?) crowd to subscribe. It may be true that they have had less musical education and exposure to serious music than their parents, but let’s not make the assumption that they will never be able to appreciate the best the art has to offer. Perhaps subscribing, as the most important way to sell tickets, is dying out and we need to substantially modify our marketing strategies to address the industry wide increase in single ticket sales.
Of course the audience is aging; so is the general population. It is not insignificant that the baby- boomers are turning 50 this year at the rate of almost 10,000 a day and will continue to do so for some time. Couldn’t it be that they are poised to make the move to symphonic music in the next five to ten years? It is pretty clear to me that people not raised with serious music tend to turn to it only after their careers, family lives, and finances have stabilized and their hearts and minds are ready for its greater intricacies, subtleties, and deeper emotional and intellectual rewards. The youngish urban professionals we are presumably reaching out to with the new “diversified” programming have simply not yet arrived at the point in their lives at which they are ready for symphonic music. So, instead of resorting to popularization, the wiser move would be to dedicate this next decade to a careful, artistically responsible revitalization of the symphonic repertoire, in preparation for the next wave of those seeking music of substance.
Building a Repertoire of Contemporary Music
I have been an avid proponent of 20th-century music since I began my orchestral career 15 years ago. Sadly, most of the contemporary music I grew to love years before I became a professional has never appeared on my music stand. Integrating the remarkable works of this century into the catalogue of symphonic classics has been a long-standing concern of mine, but now I see it as perhaps the most important task facing the leaders of American symphony orchestras. The most recent spate of press lamenting the state of our affairs is what finally sent me searching for a concrete way to go about this expansion of the repertoire.
I began by looking through the performance histories of 20th-century works introduced since the 1920s by my own orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Among Pierre Monteux, Serge Koussevitsky, and Charles Munch, a large number of now well-known works were introduced to the BSO’s repertoire. Koussevitsky, the orchestra’s music director from 1924 to 1949, was well known as a champion of new music. What I wanted to find out was precisely how that commitment manifested itself in his programming. The records clearly indicate that under Koussevitsky’s directorship there was a concerted effort to bring important new works into the orchestra’s regular repertoire. For instance, Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, which was first conducted by Richard Burgin (the orchestra’s long-time concertmaster and assistant conductor) in 1934, received repeat performances in 1936, 1940, 1944, and 1947-1948. Monteux (music director from 1919-1924) returned to conduct it in 1951-1952 and 1958. After Monteux introduced Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite in 1919 it was taken up by Koussevitsky in 1925, 1926-1927, 1928, 1929, 1931, 1935, and 1939. Petrouchka (also introduced by Monteux, in 1920) got the same treatment by Koussevitsky with repeats in 1925, 1926, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1933, 1934, 1941 (Burgin), 1942, and 1945! Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony (introduced in 1939) was given repeat performances in 1940, 1941, 1943, 1944-1945, and 1948 (between Burgin and Koussevitsky), with Burgin continuing the trend in 1952- 1953, 1956-1957, 1961, and 1966-1967. A number of other pieces were championed under his guiding hand, all of them, at the time, new and unfamiliar to audiences and players alike.
Charles Munch also saw the importance of extensive repeated programming. Munch (music director from 1949-1962) gave the United States premiere of Honegger’s Second Symphony for Strings (one of the masterpieces of the string orchestra repertoire) in 1946 with the BSO. Koussevitsky repeated it in 1947 and 1948. When Munch returned as music director he programmed it again in four seasons within eight years (1952, 1953, 1956, 1960, returning with it again in 1963, 1966, and 1971). Between the two conductors, this averaged out to once every two and a half years— for 25 years! This is unheard of today. Honegger’s Fifth Symphony (also an American premiere) received repeats averaging once every 18 months in the last 11 seasons of Munch’s tenure.
In contrast to this practice, none of the works introduced to the BSO in the past 25 years have been given similar attention. In fact there have been repeat performances of only a small handful of post-World War II pieces of music and only a slightly larger handful of post-World War I pieces. In the past two and a half decades, the BSO introduced thirteen works by a single active composer, some of them given their United States and world premieres. Commendable, but not one has been programmed again. None of the many wonderful Tippett works introduced by Colin Davis (as principal guest conductor) has been taken up since its initial BSO performance (the 2nd Symphony being one of the 20th-century masterworks that should have joined the repertoire by now).
In the case of commissioned works, the comparisons are equally striking. Koussevitsky gave Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (premiered by the BSO in 1930) repeat performances in 1931, 1932, 1936, 1939, 1942, and 1947. Concert Music for Strings and Brass by Paul Hindemith (premiered in 1931) received repeats by Koussevitsky in 1932, 1934, 1938, and 1940. Of the 16 or more commissions premiered in the past two decades only two works (both in 1980-1981) have had repeat performances: Roger Sessions’ Concerto for Orchestra (repeated once in 1988), and Bernstein’s Divertimento (repeated in 1988 with Bernstein conducting, and in 1995). Dutilleux’s Second Symphony (a 1955 BSO commission and a work widely performed in Europe) only recently received its first BSO performance in more than 25 years. That Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is considered a signature piece of the BSO is due, in some part, to the fact that Leinsdorf (music director from 1962-69) replayed it in 1961, 1962, 1963, 1965, 1968, and 1970. The repeat performance of commissioned works by the BSO has virtually come to a halt in the past quarter-century. None has received more than one repeat performance under the baton of recent music directors.
This is how important new works entered the repertoire. This is how the repertoire was built. There is really no other way it can be built. Few conductors working today understand this. No wonder today’s audiences are estranged from even the finest new works of the 20th century. Our orchestras no longer give them enough opportunities nor reasons to become acquainted with them. Today’s new music programming consists mostly of short colorful concert openers (to fill the “requirement”) with “world premiere” status needed to justify the appearance of the rare major work.
It is not merely the isolated performance of a new work that fulfills our responsibility to the repertoire, for that alone smacks of tokenism and reinforces in our audience the idea that new music is an aberration not worthy of their, nor our, continued attention— disposable music. It is the continued championing of those new works of great merit that will truly build the repertoire of the 21st-century symphony orchestra. Visionary conductors such as Koussevitsky and Munch began the hard work of expanding the repertoire and all but a few of today’s conductors have completely ignored their efforts. One notable exception is Pierre Boulez. Talking about 20th-century music, he recently said, “Pieces have to be repeated and repeated and repeated, not only for the audiences but also for the musicians . . . because when the music is performed so many times and the musicians are at ease with it, a kind of confidence is established between the audience, the musicians and the composer.”4 It is the inattention to this crucial task, whatever the reasons, that is primarily why we are in such a predicament with audiences and recording companies.
Koussevitsky didn’t wait for posterity to make choices for him. He saw himself as having a hand in it. There has to be a way to regain this sense of enthusiastic responsibility to the repertoire or, I fear, we are lost to the popularization movement. If each of the world’s musical directors was to step up to the podium with just a few major post-World War II pieces and unapologetically announce, “These are works that I cherish. I want my orchestra and my audience to learn them and come to love them as I do,” and then proceed to program them every other season for at least 10 years, our worries about a healthier future for the repertoire would recede. I am unwilling to accept that the repertoire cannot be addressed this way simply because of the precedence of international conducting careers.
The absentee music director has been lamented and called into the discussion of the symphony’s woes for years, yet it appears to have been completely accepted by orchestra managements with little more than a shrug of the shoulders. Administrators have given up on the ideal of the Koussevitskian music director because they feel they have no influence over their world-renowned celebrity conductors. So they have uniformly taken steps to fill the void by hiring artistic administrators. At least 17 of the top United States orchestras presently employ full-time artistic administrators. The responsibilities actually taken on by the music director appear to have diminished considerably while the perception of his ultimate authority has remained unchanged. This is a definite hindrance to repertoire building, but not an insurmountable one.
Barriers to Reinvigorating the Repertoire
Certainly there are barriers to the acceptance of more contemporary programming for the symphony orchestra. The explosion of complex compositional trends in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s alienated many listeners and players from virtually all 20th-century music. This rejection of the new styles and languages and the cessation of frequent performances of historically significant 20th-century works combined to create the unfortunate perception of an enormous black hole in the repertoire out of which “acceptable” new music has yet to emerge.
Although there were many fine works containing passages of great beauty and excitement written in the newer styles and techniques (by Henze, Maxwell- Davies, Lutoslawski, Gerhard, and, yes, Stravinsky, to name a few), most symphony audiences were not ready or willing to make the leap in listening that was required of them, nor were they eager to engage in the sifting process. And few on the podium were knowledgeable about or committed enough to the new music to make the wisest choices. This is where most conductors simply failed to do their homework. A reinvestigation of the “missing links” of the repertoire, as I call them, will reveal marvelous works by Martin, Martinu, Hindemith, Fine, Piston, Scriabin, Britten, Berg, Honegger, Dutilleux, Tippett, Schuman, and others who wrote in more traditional languages with clearer links to the symphonic tradition.
Players’ conservativism influences the situation to some degree, as well. There are still few orchestra musicians who have a broad knowledge of, or an affinity for, the post-World War II repertoire. Much of this unfamiliarity stems from the inadequacies of conservatory training where generation after generation of instructors reinforce the “bitter pill” attitude among their students by routinely disregarding newer instrumental works in favor of the standard chestnuts of the solo and chamber repertoire. Young aspiring soloists with interests in contemporary music are often dissuaded from pursuing this avenue because it would doom a celebrity career. Most undergraduate conservatory harmony and theory curricula touch only cursorily on contemporary music. Tertian harmony and Common Practice are all that young musicians get before they go off to auditions. A look at the audition lists for the major music festivals and symphony orchestras over the past 25 years will show, in a microcosm, just how little the repertoire has progressed.
The entertainment industry gets a large dose of blame, as well, for cultivating shorter and shorter attention spans among Americans and catering to our baser interests and more immediate gratification requirements. The elementary schools, the federal government, the pop music industry, television, corporate culture, celebrity worship, acid rain, talent agents, you name it; we have all felt their influences.
What it all boils down to, however, is that our orchestras still operate under a hierarchical system which ostensibly places all responsibility on one individual. And whether that leader fulfills those duties or not, his ultimate authority will not be called into question. This worked quite well in the first half of the 20th century because those leaders did indeed take on the responsibilities over which they demanded control and had the respect, albeit fearful, of their players. Today’s music directors are so removed from the day-to-day operations of their orchestras that they appear to their musicians as little more than permanent guest conductors.
There has been some recent discussion on the subject of increased musician involvement in organizational matters of the symphony orchestra. With little hope that the next generation of conductors will be any more willing (or able) to address the everyday concerns of an orchestra than the present ones, perhaps it is time for musicians to accept the sad reality of the situation, cast off the shroud of victimization, and find ways to become more actively involved and taken seriously by the decision makers.
Paul Judy, in the third issue of Harmony, touched upon an attitude that poses a stumbling block to such change when he wrote that many people in management “do not seriously wish to have players involved in anything more than music performance,” and that many musicians feel that “any organizational involvement or contribution beyond strictly defined musical performance tasks is a legal and moral affront or must be carefully and contractually defined through extensive bargaining and documentation.”
These comments are insightful and show how difficult it may be to get musicians and managers to look beyond their own desks, even for the sake of the art. They also point out the growing need for musicians to become more fully knowledgeable of all matters relating to the operation of their orchestras. Certainly there are orchestra players who have unique extramusical talents and ideas to offer to their organizations and channels should indeed be opened for them to participate. But it is not so much having involvement in the non-musical organizational matters that is our greatest concern. It is in the specifically musical and artistic ones where we feel we can be of most value. Where we are asked for help by management (if we are asked at all) it is in fund raising and image building. In the areas where we are the most knowledgeable, experienced, and committed, we are consistently ignored. I believe it is because managements still operate under the assumption that their conductors are taking adequate care of artistic matters and do not see the quicksand into which musical integrity and quality are sinking. This is what frustrates musicians, not that we are denied participation in the capital funds campaign.
Presently, the only way for musicians to exert leverage is through our union. Unfortunately, collective bargaining is not set up to adequately address artistic concerns. These issues tend to get sublimated or translated at the table into money, scheduling, and time off, with industry parity the goal. As a way to express artistic dissatisfaction this is neither satisfying nor effective. In some ways it is musically self- defeating. One result of this focus on working conditions is that our unique endeavor ends up feeling more like just another job. A raise in pay does not persuade us to practice more or to play in better tune, nor does an additional week off inspire us to listen more carefully to each other on stage. An orchestra’s productivity is enhanced not by monetary rewards but by artistic ones—visibility and appreciation as a virtuoso ensemble; vital, challenging, and exciting programming; strong visionary leadership—all of which we see receding into the oblivion that appears to await the art form. Is it any wonder that our morale has sunk to dangerous levels? I believe that giving musicians’ artistic concerns more weight would help to alter the destructive just-a-job mentality and bring us greater workplace satisfaction.
Suggestions for Symphony Orchestra Organizations
There are a number of things our organizations, and musicians specifically, could do to prepare symphony orchestras for the next century. Let me offer some ideas and suggestions as to how musicians might directly influence the future of the art form in ways that retain its validity as such. Some of these ideas presume a degree of positive and creative change in the balance of the traditional symphony organization, but it is obvious to me that the time has come for musicians to assert their involvement in these matters, along with accepting the work and responsibility that such involvement entails.
◆ A “think tank” for musicians (to use Pierre Boulez’s term) would be of great use to us. By beginning to address organizational problems at the artistic level ourselves, without the intrusion of managements, conductors, or marketing influences, we can define for ourselves our own mission, and present to management, in the most constructive way possible, very specific suggestions regarding, but not limited to, repertoire (symphony, pops, and youth concerts), program planning, and even areas that have been heretofore seen as the express responsibility of the music director, such as rehearsal time management and stage decorum. Perhaps a forum in which to discuss long- neglected artistic concerns could be created as a part of the International Congress of Symphony Orchestra Musicians (ICSOM).
◆ Orchestra musicians could seriously explore the possibilities of performing some concerts without a conductor. Programs for these concerts would be devised by the musicians themselves. This would give musicians some experience in program planning and rehearsal time management and would help to reaffirm ensemble sensibilities that we are often persuaded to ignore in deference to a heavy baton. Investigating the rehearsal requirements and protocols of other conductorless orchestras could provide potential models. Even some of the rhythmically less complicated 20th-century pieces could conceivably work in this context. And as the orchestra grew to know more such works, through regular repetition, it would become easier. This will obviously require more work on the part of the players, but the benefits could be well worth the effort.
◆ Each orchestra’s artistic advisory committee could prepare a list of 20th-century works it feels should become part of the repertoire and request that the music director program them with Koussevitskian regularity. Artistic advisory committees could plan complete programs as well. I would think that managements would be thrilled at such initiative and would act on it immediately. Of course it may take some incentives to convince managements and music directors to acquiesce to such directives. One such incentive might be for players to offer to split the cost of an extra rehearsal (which would be dedicated entirely to the new piece) if the music director selects from the orchestra’s list. This doesn’t mean that conductors shouldn’t be encouraged to prepare and commit to lists of their own, for that’s always been their responsibility. I have a personal list, compiled over decades of listening and study. I’m sure others have theirs that include worthy pieces I’ve not yet had the pleasure of discovering. The American Symphony Orchestra League keeps performance records of all the repertoire programmed by its member orchestras. A study of these might indicate consensus on at least a few major new pieces.
◆ Repeats of the standards must be less frequent so when they do return we all appreciate them. We are harming the great works of the standard repertoire with too many routine renditions. We cannot get away with this anymore. We must equalize the playing field to be more inclusive of the great works of this rapidly concluding century. Each orchestra could select and remove from their repertoires lesser works by major classical composers.
◆ Youth concerts could become an opportunity to expose our potential future audience (among whom such pieces are less likely to encounter the prejudices we have helped to cultivate in our adult audiences) to the repertoire of the 21st century.
Most youth concert audiences are pretty obviously bored by the standard classical music we insist on playing for them. We have a better chance of catching and holding their attention with a predominance of music that has more in common with the alternative rock they listen to the other 364 days of the year. Copland, Stravinsky, Bartok, Honegger, Tippett, Lutoslawski, Martinu, Ginastera, Revueltas, Hindemith, Wuorinen, and Harbison are just a few of the composers who have written colorful, exciting, masterfully crafted orchestra works with a rhythmic drive compelling enough to keep kids “entertained” and musicians challenged without our having to resort to extramusical enhancements. Minimal talk and predominantly contemporary programming could provide a more memorable musical experience for American schoolchildren.
◆ The efforts of many orchestras to become more involved in music education in their cities is laudable. However, orchestras must back up their commitments to the minority communities they want to reach by putting their programming, not just their meager educational resources, where their good intentions are. Orchestras should be performing more symphonic works written by members of those communities. The BSO’s record in this regard has been less than exemplary: only three substantial works by African-American composers in the fourteen years I have been a member of the orchestra. I’m sure it’s not much better elsewhere in the majors. A glance at the past 15 years of programming by the American Composers Orchestra in New York will yield many worthwhile pieces. The Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago has an extensive library which is another possible source to expand the repertoire. Personally, I can call up a few works that major orchestras could proudly play.
◆ Instead of inviting celebrity jazz artists to perform the same Mozart concerti we perform with the finest classically trained interpreters, why not put these unique performers’ talents to work in a way that would be more artistically viable and actually help to expand the repertoire of the symphony orchestra? There are many worthwhile American piano concerti that these gifted musicians could perform with us. Harbison, LaMontaine, Dello Joio, Liebermann, Beaser, Copland, Harrison, and Corigliano (to name but a few), wrote well-crafted, energetic, and accessible works in the medium that would be more appropriate for such audience-building efforts.
◆ Musicians could try to change their own attitudes about the manner in which they approach contemporary music by embracing a stronger sense of professionalism, integrity, ensemble pride, and by displaying greater enthusiasm for new works. Musicians as instrumental instructors could become more knowledgeable of contemporary music and encourage their students to more fully explore new repertoire. They could select and teach one recent major orchestral work every year, along with the standard excerpts. Musicians called upon to adjudicate performance competitions could influence the selection of concerti by requesting the inclusion of major 20th-century virtuoso vehicles, of which there are dozens. A violinist (presently concertmaster of a major orchestra) lamented to me years ago that he would love to have been able to take the Berg Concerto to a major competition. Other outstanding concerti for violin have been written by Andrew Imbrie, William Schuman (Vincent Persichetti considered this one of the American masterpieces), and Serge Nigg (one of the little known gems of the genre) to name just a few of my own personal favorites.
◆ The audition lists for major symphony auditions could be changed to accommodate excerpts from important 20th-century works, works which would already have become part of the auditioning orchestra’s repertoire. A look back at the past 20 years of audition lists will show, in a microcosm, just how stagnant the repertoire has become. I disagree with the argument that one must learn the standards first then go on from there, because what actually happens in the profession is that we get stuck in first gear, never to build an interpretive tradition for the vast majority of great contemporary works.
What I have suggested above certainly does not cover every avenue available. For example, adding an interview component to the audition process is an idea that I’ve advocated with my colleagues for years. I was glad to read, also in Dr. Freeman’s article, that Leonard Slatkin has spoken of implementing such a change when he becomes music director for the National Symphony.
Conservatories could work to fully integrate 20th-century theory and harmony and performance practice into the undergraduate curriculum. Most 20th-century courses consist mostly of overviews of styles, names, and jargon. The bulk of the study is reserved for post-grads and composition majors or offered as an elective. Present undergraduate requirements in music theory and harmony entirely exclude 20th-century practices.
With fewer and fewer orchestras operating and competition becoming more fierce, conservatory faculty also need to become more selective at audition time and more critical at second-year promotional time to ensure that undertalented, undermotivated players are not misled. This will save those students wasted years and thousands of dollars. It will also serve to refine the pool of candidates for the diminishing job market.
The most important task, by far, for boards of trustees is to build and maintain endowments so investment income compensates 100 percent of revenue shortfall. This will require considerably larger endowments than the present formulas suggest. The demands and threats of the coming years will make it imperative that orchestras become financially self-sufficient in order to remain artistically vital.
Build the Future by Knowing the Past
I understand the attraction of the quick fix. But what is needed to ensure the healthiest artistic future for the most miraculous creations of the human imagination requires greater thought and harder work. Simply wrapping the same package with a different color bow won’t help build our audience or our repertoire in any substantive way. Programs devised around entertainment or group-oriented goals may attract different audiences for those particular concerts but are not likely to turn those crowds into regular patrons without the promise of additional programs with similar content.
This is where the ice gets dangerously thin. A wealth of great music available to us has gone unmined. Former music directors of the BSO have essentially handed us a blueprint for the future. We have 10 to 15 years, as I see it, to ascertain and vigorously promote (in the manner of Koussevitsky) the repertoire for the 21st-century symphony orchestra. If the conductors won’t make the necessary effort then we musicians must endeavor to help. We may have to devise incentives for leadership to choose this direction over that of popularization. But if we don’t make the effort to expand the repertoire in a manner consonant with the highest ideals of the symphonic tradition, we will be tacit accomplices to the decline we so vociferously lament, and can expect only more celebrity glitz and cash-concert gimmickry.
James Orleans is a bassist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He holds a B.M. from the Boston Conservatory and studied composition at Indiana University.
1 Freeman, Robert. On the Future of America’s Orchestras. Harmony 3 (October 1996): 18.
2 These statistics originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times and were cited by Andrew Pincus in a 1989 article which appeared in the Berkshire Eagle.
3 von Rhein, John. 1997. It’s not over, Beethoven. Chicago Tribune, January 19: Section 7, p. 13.
4 Riding, Alan. 1997. Maestro on a Mission: To Sell 20th-Century Music. The New York Times, January 22: p. 33.
5 Judy, Paul. Symphony Orchestra Organizations: Employees, Constituencies, and Communities. Harmony 3 (October 1996): 45.
Toward a Vision of Mutual Responsiveness: Remythologizing the Symphony Orchestra
In the essay that follows, two philosophy professors from the University of Dayton take us on a fascinating journey through the myths which surround conductors.
However, our authors are more than professors. Marilyn Fischer is also a violinist with the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. Isaiah Jackson serves as Music Director of the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra and as Principal Guest Conductor of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. These authors know whereof they speak.
Autocrat or Charismatic Leader?
Casting their discussion in the language of myth—which they suggest expresses “profound realities that shape our perceptions of lived experience”—Fischer and Jackson first explore the role of the conductor as an autocrat. They explain how the conductor’s role has evolved over time and suggest that the modern conductor is, in fact, a product of the industrial revolution.
They conclude that the myth of the autocratic conductor is incomplete and proceed to explore the myth of the charismatic conductor, positing that “glorious music” cannot result from the exercise of autocratic power alone.
Our philosopher-authors then turn their attention to the future. They advise that viewing musicians as professionals rather than “labor” is the beginning of creating a new vision; a vision of mutual responsiveness. They outline many specific ideas for restructuring the orchestral workplace to support this new vision and conclude that an understanding of the myths and metaphors used to describe symphony orchestra organizations is a necessary beginning for positive change.
The sense of dislocation in orchestras is deep, multi-faceted, and well known. Our audiences, to use Norman Lebrecht’s term, are shriveling. How can we attract younger audiences to a form they perceive as rigid and outdated? How can we package and market concerts to appeal to younger sensibilities? Can we adapt valuable insights of business efficiency and organizational management without losing artistic purpose? The Symphony Orchestra Institute has already contributed admirably to these discussions.
Discontent issues from the stage. Conductors, even benign ones, are perceived as tyrannical; musicians, even well-meaning ones, appear passive at best, passive-aggressive and hostile at worst. Although many still view the orchestra as a group of musicians under the autocratic control of the conductor, this vision is increasingly at variance with a prevailing and appropriate sense of democracy. In the thrall of this view, our music making is often tedious rather than joyous.
Let us, then, examine the notion of the orchestra under the control of its autocrat. Perhaps we might thereby derive a concept of large-scale collective music making that serves both the democratic spirit and also our deepest artistic purposes.
It is appropriate to cast this inquiry in the language of myth. In doing so, we speak not of the Tooth Fairy and other imaginary entities; nor do we speak of patent falsehoods. We invoke, rather, the realm of primordial images that shape our conscious thought. Whether myths are literally true is beside the point. These images express the profound realities that shape our perceptions of lived experience; we enact these perceptions in ritual and embed them in institutional structures. A crucial step in organizational change, then, is to discover the myths embedded in our organizations and to discard the ones that are no longer serviceable.
The Myth of the Autocratic Conductor
In their article for Harmony, “Why They’re Not Smiling: Stress and Discontent in the Orchestral Workplace,” Seymour and Robert Levine state succinctly one of the most potent myths in Western music: the conductor as omniscient and omnipotent patriarch. He exercises complete control over the workplace; the musicians are his powerless children (18-20).1
Their formulation of the myth squares with historical tradition. The symphony orchestra as we know it is a 19th century European institution that developed during a time when most cultural institutions were hierarchical by definition: the military, the church, governments, families, workplaces. Pierre Vozlinsky’s description is colorful: “The orchestra used to be a cross between a group of domestic servants and a military platoon” (Wheatland Foundation 19).
Another way of expressing this hierarchical control is through the double metaphor of the conductor as performer; the orchestra as instrument. One writer described Wagner this way, “He treats the orchestra like the instrument on which he pours forth his soul-inspiring strains” (Galkin, 568). Bruno Walter also employed the metaphor, writing, “It is in actual fact that single person who is making music, playing on the orchestra as on a living instrument, and transforming its multiformity into unity” (Bamberger 156).
In the myth of the autocratic conductor, the true performer is the conductor; the musicians are the instrument. As soloists realize their artistic vision through controlling their instruments, so conductors realize their artistic vision through autocratic control of the musicians. The conductor’s task is to give directions; the musicians’, to obey. Admittedly, the goal is the glorious one of creating wonderfully meaningful sounds and musicians must be highly skilled in order to follow complex instructions. Nonetheless, the relation between conductor and musicians is hierarchical, a matter of authority and control.
Inside all this glorious music making, the source of orchestral musicians’ frustration is clear. They are highly trained professionals, living at a time when our culture calls for flatter hierarchies in business and grassroots participation in politics. No wonder the musicians resent functioning as someone else’s instrument! Signs of the felt insult are manifold. Adult musicians respond to direction with petty childishness. The youthful vitality of new members dulls into routine: we come, we play the notes, we leave. Audiences sense the bizarre irony of stony faces mechanically sawing and blowing and banging out the musical treasures of western civilization.
There is rot in the rank and file; there is rot at the top as well. Historical thinkers make this point in a variety of contexts. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft implored the architects of the French Revolution to extend to women the political rights sought for men, noting that, “[Women] may be convenient slaves, but slavery will have its constant effect, degrading the master and the abject dependent” (88). Frederick Douglass shares this conviction, stating: “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck” (397). That the fault lies in the hierarchical structure of power is clear in Jane Addams’s critique of well-intentioned philanthropy, where she describes the attitude of benefactor as one of “kindly contempt” toward beneficiaries (153).
Today’s music director functions from a legacy of tyranny. Decades of perceived powerlessness on the part of the musicians lend the orchestral workplace the feel of shark-infested waters. Continuing in the tradition that predates Toscanini, the music director’s skin thickens against the musicians’ passive aggression. Music gets played; warmth and sensitivity diminish; resentment builds on both sides. Mutual contempt is made tolerable by the fact that the music director is rarely around.
Alternatively, the music director can choose to inhabit the role of friendly guest conductor. The orchestra becomes a self-policing entity: the best that the conductor can do is appeal to an orchestra’s own norms of good ensemble, intonation, and behavior—and let the troops out early! Amidst the smiles, there are mutterings about the lack of musical leadership. The music director must try to reconcile explicit instructions with a gracious laissez-faire.
What music directors can actually accomplish depends largely on where they are in their tenure. At the beginning, during the coveted honeymoon, they can do no wrong. At the end, and the end is always protracted, their influence declines from the moment departure is announced.
What can be accomplished in the middle of a tenure depends, under the existing system, on who can maintain power for how long. Ultimate authority over music directors, the power to hire or fire, is vested in the board of directors. As long as the music director holds the confidence of the board, the contract is secure; worker dissatisfaction is a given.
Thus, the chain of cause and effect between orchestral musicians and conductors creates a vicious circle, a chronic condition. How many orchestras have come to resemble war zones with their friendly camps, enemy camps, temporary truces? Rarely is there a frank and openly collegial atmosphere; more often, one encounters the web of anxiety born of years spent living together in hostility.
If the problem is that power hierarchies corrupt, then it is sensible to look for ways of diminishing autocracy. At the end of their article, the Levines ask, “Is it possible to actually do away with the myth and with musicians’ lack of control over their workplaces, while maintaining the ability of professional orchestras to produce musical services efficiently?” (23). Perhaps to go forward, we should first look back. Understanding how the myth arose out of a particular culture at a particular time is a first step toward detaching ourselves from it.
Leadership in the 18th century was shared by three musicians: the concertmaster, the principal cellist, and the keyboard player. The role of the continuo declined toward the end of the century, and the concertmaster became more prominent. The Stehgeiger was a transitional figure, the concertmaster who led the ensemble from the first desk, brandishing his bow when necessary.
The large, heavy batons of the early 19th century are remnants of this dual function and the Stehgeiger still conducts Vienna’s waltz orchestras.
In one sense, the modern conductor can be seen as a product of the industrial revolution. With larger halls came larger orchestras; with larger forces came the need for a supervisor, a person whose sole function was to administer the passage of time. Though theater and concert hall alike employed specialist conductors in the 19th century, it was the composer-conductor
who embodied most successfully the myth that has come down to our own time. Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner: when these men mounted the podium, a mighty creativity was unleashed. They spoke through music and gesture alike. Small wonder that their contemporaries marvelled at their power; small wonder that so few moderns can match that power.
The Myth of the Charismatic Conductor
But here we notice a peculiar thing: the myth of the autocratic conductor is incomplete. How does such glorious music result from an autocratic exercise of power? To late 19th-century European musicians and audiences, it was apparent that the myth of the autocratic conductor had a counterpart: the myth of the charismatic conductor. The conductor’s charisma justified his autocracy, as the following quotations powerfully illustrate.
Berlioz is eloquent in describing the passionate transmission of his charisma: “Performers should feel that [the conductor] feels, comprehends, and is moved: then his emotion communicates itself to those whom he directs, his inward fire warms them, his electric glow animates them, his force of impulse excites them, he throws around him the vital irradiations of musical art” (Galkin 285).
Wagner’s charismatic power must have been prodigious. Anton Seidl wrote of his conducting teacher, “His eyes glittered, glowed, pierced; his fingers worked nervously, and electric currents seemed to pass through the air to each individual musician; an invisible force entered the hearts of all; every man thrilled with him, for he could not escape the glance of the great man. Wagner held everybody bound to him as by a magical chain; the musicians had to perform wonders, for they could not do otherwise” (Galkin 575).
In the 19th century, conductors sent out vital irradiations, electric fire and currents, creating magical chains uniting conductors and performers. From this mystical, electric unity, the power of music was conveyed to the audience. Now we understand why conductors needed autocratic authority: it enabled them to send unobstructed currents; the more obedient the musicians, the clearer the transmission. Besides, the currents were so powerful, the musicians could hardly resist.
In contemporary discussions, the myth of the charismatic conductor is muted; the language of electric fire and vital irradiations hopelessly out of date. Traces remain, however. In his book on the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Carl Vigeland writes, “For a string player to be excited by a tutti assignment, the conductor must be utterly convincing in his interpretation of the music. He must make his orders to the players inspirational” (72). And traces stubbornly remain in musicians’ complaints: “That conductor doesn’t inspire me, I don’t play as well when I don’t connect emotionally with the conductor.” For every transcendent experience, conductors and orchestral musicians give 20 forgettable performances.
Now we certainly want conductors to inspire. Today’s conductors, however, function within a web of contractual restraints that would have been unimaginable to the maestros of the Golden Age. And it would be inhumane to make being bound by magical chains part of an orchestral musician’s job description.
In short, the myth of the charismatic conductor, though deeply embedded in the subconscious, has become too embarrassing to state, while the myth of the autocratic conductor has ossified into concert rituals and organizational structures. We should tread softly, though. Before demythologizing the autocratic conductor, let us consider mythic charisma. We do not expect myths to be literally true, but we do need for them to be vital and potent, to fuel our imaginations, our caring.
We would do better, not to de-mythologize the orchestra, but to re-mythologize the orchestra. Rather than destroying myths, let us articulate new governing myths: myths that capture the magic of what we do; myths that generate empathy and understanding; myths that suggest new rituals and organizational structures through which to work.
Toward a Vision of Mutual Responsiveness
Bruno Walter writes, “The principle of individualization melts in the fire of such mystico-musical union, and nothing can be more real or experienced more securely than this mysterious act of unification between us, the work, and its creator” (Galkin 774). Something like this truly does happen on stage when fine orchestral playing is achieved. However, precisely what is happening can be described in a number of ways. Rather than thinking of this mystico-musical union as a state created by the conductor’s vital irradiations, can we think of it as one created through an exquisite mutual responsiveness, a state shared and reciprocated by all the musicians on stage?
Responsiveness for orchestral musicians entails exercising complex skills while maintaining peak concentration. They must instantaneously and continuously respond to visual cues from the conductor, integrating these with instructions previously given. Just as importantly, if not more so, they must respond to visual and auditory cues from one another. The flute hears the oboe’s phrase and responds in kind or in contrast, as the phrase suggests. Members of the viola section listen critically to each other, blending their sounds. The tuba player has eyes glued on the principal bass to execute a simultaneous attack. All of this information must be instantaneously and continuously expressed in intricate, accurate finger manipulations and breath control so as to convey the emotional content of the piece.2
While the conductor provides a unified artistic conception of the work being played, the conductor’s actual gestures vary according to the response of the musicians. Determining the specific gestures that will elicit this artistic conception is to some extent improvisational, a matter of ongoing negotiation with the specific musicians of a particular orchestra. The conductor hears the musicians’ response to a particular set of gestures and then refines the next set of gestures in response to the musicians.
A rehearsal or concert can thus be understood as a complex series of adjustments based on mutual responsiveness among those on stage. Jochum was talking about receptivity between musician and conductor, but we can generalize his statement to refer to receptivity among all on stage: “And the player must respond with alertness to the most subtle differentiations and have a highly developed receptiveness. The qualities of our foremost orchestras are primarily due to this receptiveness, and not only to beautiful sound or technical accomplishments” (Bamberger 263).
This responsiveness is really going on; it must, for great symphonic music cannot be generated by mere temporal simultaneity, as if each individual were plugged in only to the conductor. Of course musicians are responsive to the conductor. But they also make a multitude of autonomous decisions. A conductor would need years of rehearsal time to dictate every nuance; at best, he or she can unify an interpretation, pace it, shape it, balance it.
Here we see clearly the dangers of focusing exclusively on the myth of the autocratic conductor. To frame the matter as an issue of control, leads to the conclusion that the answer will also be a question of control, with the conductor’s authority distributed among the musicians.3 Doing this, however, elevates autonomy beyond reason; it maintains our separateness, and ultimately, it still ignores the source of our unity. Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson writes with perspicacity, “Western culture associates independence and autonomy with strength, but there is a sense in which an awareness of being part of a larger whole, of being defined by context, a self in adaptation, can offer a different strength, leading to flexibility and constant learning” (1994, 62).
The intense satisfaction of string quartet playing may derive in part from the absence of an autocratic conductor.4 An equally potent and more positive source of satisfaction is the members’ immediate experience of interdependency, a state in which the intimacy of mutual responsiveness bridges individual separation. When it is going right there is a dynamic merging of selves, in which questions of equal control become irrelevant. Admittedly, merging 85 selves to perform Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony presents logistical problems never faced by a string quartet. What remains the same, however, is the strength and oneness available through mutual dedication to the muse, to the power and urgency of musical expression.
Professionalism for Orchestral Musicians
Under the autocratic, charismatic conductor myth, orchestral musicians are conceptualized as labor. Their task is to follow orders, and not contribute their intelligence or creativity beyond what those orders entail. But when all on stage are mutually responsible for sustaining “mystico-musical union,” conceptualizing musicians as labor is utterly inadequate. What does it mean to be a professional under the myth of mutual responsiveness?
Here the history of the professions is helpful. In medieval times, there were three recognized professions: medicine, law, and the clergy, which included university teaching. In embarking upon a profession, one “professed” by entering a literal or metaphoric monastic calling, a way of life far beyond the scope of a mere job or career. Professionals were distinguished from merchants in their dedication to the two ideals of service and excellence. Their calling was to serve the common good as defined within the medieval world view: to heal bodies in this life and to prepare souls for the next.
As lights dim in the concert hall, it is easy for musicians to forget our reason for being: to serve the audience by exploring with them the meaning of our humanity. Music, through ordered tones and rhythms, presents images of triumph, despair, joy, sadness, frivolity, transcendence, and fate. As thinking and feeling beings we need to confront the meaning of our existence; one way of doing that is through creating and experiencing artistic images. The orchestra serves its audience by sharing with them a musical vision of the full range of all that it means to be human.
Moreover, in an age when great performances are available on recordings, it is not sufficient just to recreate the masterworks; we must also share with our audiences the profound joy that music gives us. Our love for the music must shine through the sounds, inviting the audience to participate in a lived sharing of the experience.
A musician’s commitment to excellence is of a piece with the commitment to service. If an artist’s calling is to present in artistic form the full range of human meanings and emotions, then a commitment to excellence is integral to fulfilling this task. A fine musician can articulate musically the difference between melancholy sadness, angry sadness, tragic sadness, and melodramatic sadness; a poor musician cannot. A commitment to continuous musical growth, by musicians as individuals, and by the orchestra as an aggregate, is entailed in the meaning of “professional.”
Recognizing the mutual responsiveness myth is an important beginning, but it is only a beginning. It would be impotent simply to request orchestral musicians to think of themselves as professionals rather than labor or to encourage them to engage the audience on occasion. To be potent, to sustain commitment, myths must be enacted, ritualized, and embodied in ceremonies and in organizational structures. The mutual responsiveness myth gives us a fertile central conception. Through it we can imagine a more nurturing musical environment, one in which musicians strive for excellence and thereby serve the aesthetic needs of the audience. The orchestral workplace needs to be restructured in light of the myth’s ideal: continually to increase conductors’ and musicians’ abilities to respond musically to one other, enabling them thereby to serve the audience most fully.
Suggestions for Restructuring the Orchestral Workplace
Specific suggestions abound on how to organize the orchestral workplace around the mutual responsiveness myth; they merely need to be identified as such. Many of them can be found in previous issues of Harmony.5
The central conception is that excellence and service are the ideals toward which we strive. Continuous musical growth is a primary responsibility of the musicians and it is the institution’s responsibility to ensure that structures for enabling this growth are available. For example, musicians could have opportunities for private lessons, coaching, and master classes. Musicians could be enabled to explore new areas of musical growth such as early music, jazz, world music, and composition through attending conferences, workshops, and other forums of continuing education.6 That chamber music is the best way to enhance listening and responsiveness skills is well-known; all members of the orchestra should be able to participate in chamber ensembles frequently as part of their job responsibilities.7
Current rigid rehearsal patterns need to be altered to enhance musical growth. Various sections of the orchestra need time to work on blending their sounds, achieving accurate intonation, and sharing approaches to technical problems. Sufficient rehearsal time for new works needs to be available; this may include discussions with composers.8
Current concert rituals enact the myth of the autocratic conductor. Could orchestra members with prominent solo roles for a particular concert enter the stage with the conductor? Alternatively, could all musicians, including the conductor, enter the stage together, to show mutual responsibility for the performance? Bows, too, imply an inequitable division of labor. How often have we witnessed an enthusiastic ovation, a responsive conductor, and a deadpan orchestra, with the musicians rearranging music and muttering asides? Rather than having the conductor stage-manage the bows, all the musicians could face forward, collectively receiving the audience’s appreciation, much as actors and dancers do.9 A string section could together take a “solo bow” for achieving a particularly fine blended sound that evening.
Current marketing methods also reflect the myth of the autocratic, charismatic conductor. Promotions for the new season often feature portraits of the maestro, portraits of the guest artists, and one long shot of the orchestra. To reflect the orchestra’s mutuality, ads for upcoming concerts could feature musicians as prominently as the conductor. Wouldn’t it be remarkable if the coming of a new second bassoon player was celebrated with press releases and advertising fanfare? The myth of mutual responsiveness can feed our imaginations in so many ways.
Just as we often find happiness not by looking for it, but by doing something else, so by focusing on mutual responsiveness, the orchestra is likely to achieve more of the diffusion of power and control sought by critics of the autocratic conductor myth. We should not fixate on equality defined as equal input or equal control. So little of life is lived like that. We constantly experience inequalities of strength, health, knowledge, energy, intellectual and physical capacity. As adults our relationships are fluid, alternating between authority and subordination. Instead of aiming at equal control, we should envision a workplace in which all can learn, all can contribute to others’ learning, and all can flourish. That vision by itself eliminates persisting one-way hierarchical relations.
We say nothing about how job descriptions for executive director, the board chair, or the music director should be rewritten. We say nothing about provisions in union contracts, except to note how much of the language therein developed in response to and as further calcification of the ossified autocratic conductor myth.10 Much needs to be undone; much needs to be done. First, however, we need a vision of what we want, an understanding of the myths and metaphors which can feed us.
Marilyn Fischer is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton, and a violinist with the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. She holds a B.A. from Wheaton College, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston University. She and Dr. Jackson team-teach a course in the “Philosophy of Music” at the University of Dayton.
Isaiah Jackson is Music Director of the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. At the University of Dayton he is Artist-in-Residence and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. He holds a B.A. degree cum laude from Harvard College; an M.A. from Stanford University; M.S. and D.M.A. degrees from The Juilliard School.
Myths and Magic: A Word from a Conductor
Several essays which have appeared in the pages of Harmony have pointed fingers at conductors as sources of orchestral discontent. In this essay, a conductor points back.
Taavo Virkhaus’ essay arrived in our mailbox as we were working with Marilyn Fischer and Isaiah Jackson on the essay which you have just read. We considered it a happy coincidence. Virkhaus is Music Director and Conductor of the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra in Alabama.
Debunking Some Myths
The essay begins with the suggestion that music making is a business which is actually based on myths and illusions. But Virkhaus believes that shining the light of reality on some of the myths can lead to a more constructive future. He reviews the process of selecting conductors and argues that it is good for orchestras to have guest conductors.
Acknowledging that the process is not easy, Virkhaus next details why he considers it important that conductors evaluate their own performances and shares his own experience of returning for several summers as “just a violinist” for the Shenandoah Valley Music Festival.
He defends conductors as, among other things, providers of efficiency and argues that professional musicians are “not children who want the easiest taskmaster in front of them.” With the contention that good music is worth fighting for, Virkhaus concludes that making music in the future should be a cooperative effort between musicians and conductors.
In an essay published in the April 1996 issue of Harmony, Seymour and Robert Levine observed: “Myth-making is a primal attempt to grasp painfully complex realities by symbolizing and simplifying them. Yet, in simplifying the real world, myths distort and even lie.”1
In the music-making business we have our share of myths, but we must also realize that we are in a business which, in many ways, is based on myths and illusions. So to try to bring the bright light of reality to our business can be somewhat counterproductive and definitely disillusioning. We are dealing, after all, with images impressed on a human brain by sound waves which by themselves do not create music. It takes a human brain to put it all together and that by itself is something of an illusion. Music, unlike the visual arts, must be received in the time it is produced. In the end, it is like a huge canvas that one is supposed to comprehend while driving past at a steady speed but only observing from a side window. Often you need to drive past the canvas many times before you start to understand the picture.
On another level, we often call something a myth if we do not agree with its premise. I would call the idea that conductors in Europe advance according to a farm system a myth.2 While it is true that conducting students in Germany are mostly pianists who start their careers as “co-repetitors” (coaches) in the opera houses, their careers advance more on patronage than through a farm system. Their chances of getting to conduct rely almost entirely on waiting for a conductor to cancel, so they can show how well they can conduct a performance without a rehearsal. They definitely learn all the operas inside out, but get precious little “baton time” with the orchestra.
In the United States, the “super managers” get blamed for promoting the “jet age conductor” so that they can make more money. But to say that these managers dictate to American orchestra search committees whom to hire is a disservice. However, the system of picking music directors in America may seem haphazard to young conductors who see 295 out of 300 applicants discarded without anyone observing their conducting. Compare this with musicians auditioning for major orchestras. For all of the 300 or so candidates, at least someone will hear each one play.
With the advent of videotape and CDs, aspiring conductors at least have a chance to show what they look like, but a tape of a concert does not really show the conductor’s most important assets: interactions with the musicians (and the audience) and how he or she persuades the orchestra to make music. Some search committees send scouts to observe candidates with their own orchestras, but for the most part, lists of candidates are shortened by studying résumés. So to say that conductors pretend that they got the jobs by their “divine right to conduct”3 sounds almost cruel.
If our orchestras would like to have full-time conductors, they could make that a condition of employment. There are some orchestras (not the majors) which stipulate that the conductor must live in the community. This is not necessarily a good idea. It is good for an orchestra to have guest conductors and it is nice to know that your music director is in demand. The late Ralph Black of the American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL) always said that orchestras should get the best music directors they can afford—no matter where they live or how many other orchestras they conduct. The majors understand this. To get a Carlo Maria Giulini or Carlos Kleiber for even seven weeks of residency makes a big difference in the music making.
This observation brings me to my next point. Conducting, on its highest level, really is magic and any analysis of why or how a master conductor gets his or her results is largely irrelevant. I have experienced that magic playing in orchestras under Monteux, Stokowski, and Munch and have observed it with Guido Cantelli, Carlos Kleiber, Giulini, and von Karajan.4 But there are a mere handful of magicians and there is much more music to be conducted in the world. So the merely mortal conductors have to do their best, sometimes in impossible circumstances.5
You will see in what I next describe that all conductors—both the magicians and the merely mortal—bear, rightly or wrongly, the responsibility for a host of factors which affect their orchestras. But there are steps we conductors can take to assess ourselves and our relationships with our musicians.
An important aspect of a musician’s artistic growth is a proper evaluation of his or her own performance. But conductors rarely enjoy this luxury. To quote Gustav Meier, a well known conducting teacher: “Conductors can be the most isolated people in the world. Instrumentalists play chamber music and singers go back to their coaches all the time. With conductors, once you lift the baton, it’s finished. All you get is compliments, good reviews, congratulations, and then you’re fired. There’s not much in between.”6
Fired? Yes, fired. It doesn’t matter how nicely the announcement reads that the music director has “resigned” or “did not choose to extend the contract,” the conductor has less job security than almost anyone else in the orchestra.7 After the contract expires and is not renewed by the board, there is little the conductor can do without publicly harming his or her reputation and musical future. To fight the decision is futile and mostly counterproductive, and we have yet to hear of a case of a conductor suing for age discrimination. The reasons for firing a conductor are more often than not “nonmusical.” So one puts the best face on the situation and moves on. In many ways it is not necessarily unfair. The music director has the responsibility for all musical aspects of the ensemble, even those that are difficult to control. And he or she will bear the brunt of a bad year in ticket sales, a growing deficit, mistakes in management, and all the right and wrong social decisions made over the years. But as is the case for many CEOs in the business world, responsibility and good salaries bring job insecurity. Unlike the CEOs, however, the conductor usually lacks a golden parachute.
So it behooves a conductor to try to get an honest evaluation of his or her musical success. This, however, can be difficult. Listening to one’s own recordings (not the commercially “fixed” ones, but live performance tapes) can help. But recordings only help to determine whether you achieved what you were imagining as you led the performance. How efficiently you got the results and whether you charmed or bullied the orchestra to play that way will escape your notice.
It would be great if conductors could pick up their often long-discarded instruments and play in another orchestra. But maintaining one’s “image” makes this generally impossible. However, I had the good fortune to do just that some years ago after studying with Richard Lert at an ASOL summer conductors’ institute and playing at the same time in the conductors’ training orchestra. For the next several summers, I returned as just a violinist with the orchestra, which also played concerts for the Shenandoah Valley Music Festival. It was a great education for me to observe the young conductors and all their disturbing mannerisms. And all the time I thought: do I do that in my own rehearsals?
I would also note that a musician’s social life in a summer festival atmosphere is vastly superior to that of a conductor. It was a revelation to rediscover how much musicians distrust conductors, both musically and socially. It is a rare conductor who can have an unencumbered and honest social relationship with a musician. Something is always left unsaid and many innocent remarks can become major issues.
Conductors Provide Efficiency
But like it or not, orchestras need conductors. If nothing else, conductors provide efficiency. The argument that the symphony orchestra is doomed as a business because growth in productivity is impossible since “a Haydn symphony written to be performed by 30 musicians and lasting one-half an hour will require 15 person-hours of human labor . . . no less than it did at the end of the 18th century”8 ignores completely rehearsal time. And that is where American orchestras have the edge in efficiency and productivity. Koussevitsky sometimes had a week of rehearsals just to prepare to accompany a soloist. Today, we prepare a soloist in an hour and a half, maximum.9 Pops concerts are often prepared in one rehearsal and some services have no rehearsals at all. This is not always a good situation, but our orchestras sight-read marvelously and are very efficient.
We also know that efficiency extends to good conductors. One of the reasons why there is no musical discourse between musicians and the conductor during rehearsals is precisely because of that efficiency and all parties accept this as fact. Many conductors, rather than feeling threatened, would welcome discussions about musical interpretations at a rehearsal, but there is no time available. Many orchestras also play more concerts than they physically and mentally should, but play we must, and that is the cost of efficiency.
Toward a More Constructive Future
Some claim that there are no bad orchestras, only bad conductors. Conductors are also described as the “natural enemy” of orchestral musicians. I agree with the first premise, however flippant it may sound: it places the responsibility in its proper place. The second statement—based on Marxist principles of class struggle and historical inevitability—belongs to the ash heap of history. Making music must be a cooperative effort. All parties need one another. A conductor without an orchestra is completely useless, but an orchestra needs a conductor and the musicians know it. So it is a matter of working out the relationship between the two forces.
One place where the forces diverge is over matters of pay. It is my perception that musicians think conductors make too much money. But market factors are at work here. Most musicians will acknowledge that there are some conductors— even if the number is small—with whom they enjoy making music. And the very fact that these “magicians” are a rarity affects the compensation levels which they can command. As I see it, one solution is for musicians to have greater input in the selection of music directors. Musicians are not children who want the easiest taskmaster in front of them, even if some board members perceive them in that light. Professional musicians want to play well, they want to be inspired, and they prefer not to waste their time at inefficient or incompetently led rehearsals.
So where do we go from here? Fortunately there are many success stories in the symphonic music world and all is not lost. Good music is worth fighting for and if we lose that fight symphonic music will not disappear. It will “move” somewhere else—to another continent (the Pacific Rim for instance) or to another time—and our time will be called the “musical Dark Ages” in the history of culture.
Taavo Virkhaus is Music Director and Conductor of the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra in Alabama. He holds a B.M. from the University of Miami and M.M.A. and D.M.A. degrees from Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester.
1 Levine, Seymour and Robert Levine. Why They’re Not Smiling. Harmony 2 (April 1996): 15-25.
2 Freeman, Robert. On the Future of America’s Orchestras. Harmony 3 (October 1996): 12.
3 Levine, op. cit.
4 Arthur Nikisch would definitely “count” as a magician, according to my late father who studied with him in Leipzig from 1907 to 1909.
5 One of the most difficult is the “substitute” system used in some European orchestras, when the people who play the rehearsals may not be the ones who play the performance. For a humorous but very realistic view of this, I recommend the movie Meeting Venus (Warner Brothers. 1992. Available on videocassette).
6 Stearns, David Patrick. 1996. What Happens When a Conductor Hits a Mid- Life Crisis? BBC Music Magazine. July: 28.
7 For an update the reader is encouraged to read “So where have all the maestros gone?” by Norman Lebrecht which appeared in BBC Music Magazine. in July 1996.
8 Baumol, William J. Symphony Orchestra Economics: The Fundamental Challenge. Harmony 2 (April 1996): 53.
9 The late legend Sergiu Celibadache was unemployable as a guest conductor in the United States since he demanded too many rehearsals. He eventually conducted the Curtis Institute Orchestra because he could have almost unlimited rehearsal time.
We cannot blame you if you did not recognize the music on our cover, a string overture by the 17th-century French composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully. Although he was enormously popular in his lifetime, today Lully is one of music history’s forgotten composers. But every time conductors raise their batons and string players lift their bows, we all pay tribute to Lully’s role as an influential orchestra builder and as the first great composer-conductor.
Italian by birth, Jean-Baptiste Lully was brought to Paris in 1646 to serve a cousin of King Louis XIV. Talented and ambitious, Lully was immediately accepted as a violinist in the king’s orchestra and he quickly became its conductor. He eventually merged two Symphony Orchestra Volunteers: Vital Resources by G. Michael Gehret Rebuilding the Repertoire for the 21st Century by James Orleans Toward a Vision of Mutual Responsiveness:
Remythologizing the Symphony Orchestra by Marilyn Fischer and Isaiah Jackson
ensembles to form a single group that was considered the best orchestra of its time—a model for the modern orchestra. Today, Lully is recognized as the earliest of the composer-conductors—a tradition that reached its peak in the 19th century with Berlioz, Mendelssohn, and Wagner and which has continued into our own time with Mahler, Bernstein, and Boulez.
Lully was a demanding and sometimes temperamental leader—qualities that have often since been associated with the “cult” of the conductor. He insisted on fidelity to the notes on the page and he rehearsed until he achieved an impressive tightness of ensemble and rhythmic accuracy. A forceful disciplinarian—he insisted that his players all dress alike—Lully was the first orchestra director to impose uniform bowing on his string players, a practice unheard of at the time. This “first stroke of the bow” quickly became famous throughout Europe and was soon adopted elsewhere. (By the end of the 18th century, the practice was so standard that Mozart wrote home from Paris, clearly irritated by the fuss, “They all begin together, just as they do in other places.”)
Lully was also probably the first important conductor to use a baton—not the baton as we know it, but a long cane with which he struck the floor to give the beat—a practice that proved his undoing. In 1687, during the excitement of conducting, Lully accidentally stabbed his toe with the sharp point of the baton. He subsequently developed gangrene and died as a result of the infection. Fortunately, for the fate of conducting as a career, an improved baton gained favor in the 19th century, largely due to Ludwig Spohr, who tired of using his violin bow to beat time, switched first to a roll of paper, then finally settled on the short, non-hazardous stick conductors use today.
Phillip Huscher is the program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The Boundaryless Organization: Breaking the Chains of Organizational Structure
As explained in the first sentence of the preface: “This book grew out of [the authors’] experience with one of the largest and most ambitious organizational change efforts ever attempted, the GE Work-Out process.”
The phrase “boundaryless organization” was an integrative theme coined by Jack Welch, then and still chief executive of General Electric, when this giant corporation’s transformation was initiated in 1988. Almost all students of organizational design and function have heard about this endeavor. What is striking is that the underlying ideas have application to symphony orchestra organizations!
In the opening chapter the authors set the framework for their ideas by noting that for much of the 20th century the mindset for organizational success was based on economics of scale; subdivision of work; clear distinctions between manager and worker; well defined levels of authority; specialization and finely defined functional and task disciplines; and, control as a primary management function.
The authors point out that, due to technology and globalization, old ways of doing business have become a liability and new factors of success have emerged, including: quick customer response; rapid product development; flexible strategies; large organizations acting like small ones; people acquiring multiple skills shifting among jobs and working in ad hoc teams; more emphasis on mobile rather than fixed resources to get work accomplished; and attractive incentives for innovation and creativity.
The book then goes on to illuminate the four types of boundaries—vertical, horizontal, external, and geographic—which inhibit organizational effectiveness and which modern organizations are finding ways to “loosen” and “make more permeable.” The book is about how to achieve more process and do with less structure.
From The Boundaryless Organization
About vertical boundaries:
“Like buildings with multiple floors, organizations are commonly thought of . . . as vertical structures. Managers are at the top and workers are at the bottom. Orders flow down the chain of command, and production takes place below. At the top is the head, and at the bottom the hands. In between are multiple layers that translate orders, provide materials, measure output, make corrections, and report to the top on the final results.” (p. 34)
“[What] should concern companies today is not how to eliminate hierarchies but how to have healthy hierarchies, structures that meet the success requirements of organizations for the twenty-first century. . . .” (p. 40)
“In a hierarchy with more permeable vertical boundaries, data and ideas are shared widely throughout the organization. Owing to this shared information, all employees have a common sense of purpose and an understanding of organizational goals. They are therefore more accepting of organizational directives. Understanding the why, they are more likely to accept the what. . . . Each employee or team of employees can set goals consistent with the overall organizational goals.” (p. 44)
“Moving decision-making authority down the organization requires trust that employees at lower levels will make accurate, well-informed decisions. This trust is directly linked to the loosening of boundaries surrounding competence and information. Employees are more trustworthy when they have accurate information and are competent to make decisions.” (p. 47)
About horizontal boundaries:
“We have compared vertical boundaries to the floors and ceilings of an organization’s house and horizontal boundaries to the room walls. As such, horizontal boundaries are the dividing lines between divisions, departments, groups, units, and functions. . . . [They] define functional specialties . . . distinguish people within a function . . . each group having its own rules and regulations, ways of tracking work time, access to buildings or files, and so on. In short, horizontal boundaries are the lines of demarcation that organizations use to divide up the territory within the firm.” (p. 111)
“ . . . horizontal boundaries fulfill people’s natural desire to relate to others who are like them in some way. Whenever people form functional groups, a bonding occurs among members that solidifies the group and its unique identity. . . . Bonding in smaller groups within the organization makes it easier for people to get to know and accept those with whom they work most closely. However, such groupings also tend to validate people’s tendencies to stereotype the world outside their groups, dividing the universe into camps of ‘we’ and ‘they.’ We easily support those in ‘our’ group and easily find fault with those in other groups. . . .” (p. 114)
“ . . . management must first view the organization not as a set of functional boxes, but as a set of shared resources and competencies that collectively define the organization’s range of activities. Only then can management address the more fundamental question: How does the organization create processes to ensure that all its shared resources and competencies—arrayed across the horizontal spectrum—create value for customers?” (p. 126)
About “making it happen” and bringing about change:
“While helping others grapple with the new realities of the boundaryless world, senior executives must also confront their own needs for transformation. This is probably the most difficult challenge of all. . . . Today, instead of driving decisions, leaders need to drive discussions and create buy-in. . . . Instead of controlling, leaders need to be empowering, coaching, counseling, encouraging, and supporting their people — freeing them to use their talents to the greater good of the corporation. . . . It is always easy to tell others to change. It is much tougher to say the same thing to that familiar face in the mirror.” (pp. 331-332)
The discussion of vertical and horizontal organizational boundaries and how to alter them will be of keen interest to leaders in all functions within symphony orchestra organizations. But even the discussion of external and geographic boundaries has some application to the world of symphony orchestras. Every so often, the symphony reader will have to substitute “symphony organization” or “institution” for “company,” “corporation,” or “firm,” but the meaning will fully carry over.
This book is full of tasty insights and ideas; their flavor can be sensed in some key quotations. We commend this book to you.
The Boundaryless Organization:
Breaking the Chains of Organizational Structure
Ron Ashkenas, Dave Ulrich, Todd Jick, and Steve Kerr
Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers, 1995.
364 pp. $28.50.
Reviewed by Paul R. Judy, founder and chairman of the Symphony Orchestra Institute.
The Boundaryless Organization: Breaking the Chains of Organizational Silence
Extending the Bibliography
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Guidelines for Contributors
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