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We’re In This Together

1 Polly Kahn
Editor's Abstract

For the past 14 years, Polly Kahn has served as Vice President for Learning & Leadership Development at the League of American Orchestras, where she oversaw the League’s artistic, learning, and leadership development programs and services, including the Orchestra Leadership Academy, Emerging Leaders Program, National Conference, Getty Education and Community Investment Grants, Music Alive new music program, constituent services, programs for emerging orchestra executives, online learning, and self-assessment tools for orchestras. Prior to her time with the League, Polly was Director of Education at the New York Philharmonic, and worked in education positions at the 92nd Street Y and Lincoln Center.

As Polly prepared to step down from her position at the League, she wrote a wonderful piece for Symphony magazine, which I featured on Polyphonic a few months ago. She described many of the ongoing symphonic community engagement programs around the country, and spoke with such an optimistic voice.

I asked Polly to write something for Polyphonic, reflecting on her many years working in our industry in so many areas. The article she wrote is deeply personal, raises some difficult questions, but beautifully describes the passion that brought us all to our professions.

-Ann Drinan, January 12, 2019

Last June I stepped down from my full-time work in service to orchestras. As most of my friends and family know, until that point, I would wake up most mornings worrying (obsessively!) about orchestras. What more could I do to help bring about greater understanding and harmony among all those who care – the musicians, staff, boards, volunteers, audience, and donors/investors? How could we grow in a world of scarcity and changing demand? Ultimately, what does growth really mean?

These days, I admit to worrying a bit less obsessively, though I continue to try and be helpful through my consulting business, PK Orchestra Solutions/PK Art Solutions. But now I start every day from a point of pure joy – practicing my cello after a 32-year hiatus. Believe me, it’s a work in progress (as my wise teacher Eliot Bailen can affirm). But here I am back playing Bach every day, playing chamber music, playing in a couple of community orchestras, and it’s given me pause to think about the various roles we all play in making and supporting music. More than ever, I am thinking about the artificial, misperceived divide (in my view) between those who make music and those who “consume” it. (“Consume” – what a terrible word, how about inhale, absorb, cherish, adore?)

Am I a different person as a player (though an avocational one) than I was as an administrator? The amateur/semi-professional musicians with whom I am now acquainted, though we may not play all that well, are the same people who are knowledgeable about music, and who go to concerts all the time. (By the way, I’m doing an informal poll. None of them have subscriptions. They pick and choose, go to tons of performances – orchestral, chamber music, opera, jazz, choral, etc. So do I. We align with the behaviors described in current research. Check out the 2008 and 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Surveys of Public Participation in the Arts.)

This duality prompts me to invite you to think with me around three topics:

  1. We are in this together: We can’t set aside our common humanity and shared love of music as we navigate challenge.
  2. Facing the tough truths: What does growth for orchestras really mean?
  3. Being a player versus being an audience member – how different they are. Why?

We Are In This Together

During my time as Director of Education at the New York Philharmonic (in the ‘90s), the orchestra found itself in a tough labor negotiation moment – a strike may have been on the horizon.

I enjoyed a great relationship with the orchestra education committee, a group of about seven musicians with whom I worked closely as we dramatically changed the New York Philharmonic’s involvement with the community. Lenny’s spirit hovered over us and inspired and challenged us every day. The committee members were my colleagues, my advisors, and several were personal friends of long standing.

One afternoon the committee came to my office to tell me that our conversations would be suspended until the labor dispute was resolved. I was stunned. This was long ago and the first time I’d faced something like this. But I guess I understood it (in my head), in an institutional context.

But here’s what hurt. During the next few weeks, people made no eye contact, didn’t speak to/or acknowledge me or fellow staff members. Of course we all continued to do our work.

Soon enough the negotiation reached conclusion, and the contract was signed. The committee reappeared to continue as we had done before.

It wasn’t that easy. Did the work go on? Of course. But human relations don’t just spring back that easily. Something changed for me then – wariness, a hurt, a self-protection that asked if outside forces might (always?) trump humanity and seemingly logical behavior. Had we all gone from being colleagues, each with their own skill set, to adversaries, for goodness’ sake? I certainly never felt that way, but I did feel that somehow a role had been assigned to me, and that I was powerless, at that moment, to push against or resist it.

I think of this as we look at how badly people (not only in orchestras!) can treat one another when times are tough. But what’s different for me is that we don’t just have jobs. We all have a calling to do this work. Find an administrator who doesn’t care about music. Many of us, and/or our significant others, are musicians, AFM / ICSOM / ROPA members. We all serve orchestras differently, but I would argue, no less passionately. And, in these intimate organizations, with everyone giving their all, a maintenance of decency and respect – by all, to all, and for all – is as necessary a component for health as are the audiences we want to savor our concerts, and the support necessary.

There can’t be a Berlin Wall for us.  Divisiveness seems to me to be a terrible strategy. The short and long-term cost of internal friction and its external expression does us, I would argue, far more damage in the court of public opinion than any seeming victory in a labor dispute. Believe me, I understand that livelihoods are impacted. But ultimately we are (completely) dependent on the good will of supporters. Risking those relationships is to risk everything. Boards (who are also our donors and audience members) matter tremendously here, but so do musicians and staff. We all own this.

Facing the Tough Truths

As we look back on so many moments over the past few years, and cringe together at the pain labor disputes have inflicted on everyone who cares, I see these disputes as metaphors for threat to identity and change.

Conservatory education has traditionally been such an odd beast, educated as you are from such an early age to aspire to mastery of such a difficult and specific skill. It’s natural that so much sense of identity and achievement derives from success around that specific skill.

But now we live in an environment where the world is telling us that that mastery, while still admired and valued, may not be as treasured as it once was. At least not to the scale we’ve created in many orchestras: 3-4 concerts a week in our largest orchestras, 5-6 core concerts a season in our smallest orchestras. This just may be more than our communities will sustain.

So we’re being given a hard choice – but not a Sophie’s Choice. Do we realign what we currently do primarily (play concerts) to the realities of the resource that’s possible? (Current trends in philanthropy, way beyond orchestras, demonstrate that, in families of wealth, the generation now inheriting that resource invests in social causes, not the arts and culture once supported by their parents and grandparents. Ditto for foundations, who also demand diversity strategies at which we fail, and data-driven accountability to support our claims, that we often can’t provide.)

So, must you augment your awesome skills with new capacities that allow you to also answer changing community needs? Does that imply a stretch, arguably way beyond what conservatories asked of you? (By the way, even for the conservatories currently at the forefront of new thinking, and training for entrepreneurship, what about training for intrapreneurship? How can musicians become ever more effective change-makers, contributing even more from inside our orchestras? But that’s a whole other article.)

Back to the topic! The analogy for me around this core skill adjustment is the migration to on-line education in universities. I’m doing some teaching at the Roosevelt University College of Performing Arts, as an adjunct professor in Henry Fogel’s new Masters program in Performing Arts Administration. We are doing a combination of in-person and on-line teaching. The material is essentially the same, but the delivery, the interaction, and the expectations we have of students, is really different.

It was an adjustment for the faculty, uncomfortable at the beginning, We didn’t all love it. The training we were required to take around delivery of on-line content was hard for some of us, and outside our skill sets and comfort zones. But our students live all over the country and have full-time jobs. There’s simply no choice, assuming we are committed to delivering the program.

So, maybe an answer to my question: What Does Growth Really Mean? I would argue that growth suggests a maturity and perhaps painful realism that implies: in today’s context, getting bigger means getting wiser, in fact getting tighter and smarter, even smaller, giving up some of what we most love (core repertoire) as an acknowledged trade-off while we learn to do other work really well, bringing augmented skills as performers, teachers and powerful communicators to new contexts.

It hurts to consider that what we most value isn’t as widely shared as we would want. But maybe there are other ways in. No matter what, we’ve got to grow together in terms of understanding. We’re not exempt from the larger context of our times.

Being a Player Versus Being an Audience Member (and sadly, I really do mean “versus”)

It’s so exhilarating to play! In my newly-activated status as an (amateur) cello-player, I’m addicted. I want to practice, and I want to make music. The physicality of playing, the emotional and intellectual challenge and satisfaction, the power of the non-verbal exchange among players – even the endless repeats in a Mendelssohn trio – are glorious.

But, I rarely experience music similarly as an audience member. I go to fewer orchestra concerts than I once did. When I hear a performance, I respect what you do, but I don’t often enough feel that I’m sharing anything with you – and it’s that intimacy that I’m actually looking for. It’s as though you are doing your extraordinary work for the ensemble, and for Brahms. But, as an audience member, I’m extraneous. It alienates me. It makes me antsy.

It’s why I want to go more often to a “one-off” experience – the glorious Met Orchestra programs at Carnegie Hall, for example. Why? Because, in addition, of course, to such beautiful playing, is the fact that this program is “special;” it’s only getting played once, the musicians palpably care about the concert, and, as an audience member, I feel invited in. I’m excited to be there.

Why is your commitment to making music, your investment in the concert itself, so often hidden from me as your ardent fan? Maybe it’s why there’s so much coughing at concerts. People are uptight! They’re afraid to do the wrong thing. Some can hardly breathe. Surely, that’s no way to enjoy music.

Check out the Oliver Wyman 2008 study “Solving a Classical Mystery.” Why do so many people come once and never or rarely return? This alienation may be part of the answer. We live in a customer-oriented environment. How many choices do we make around relationships, products, activities where we feel well treated, or not?  Orchestras don’t always line up here as well as we must.

Summing Up

My second job in the music world was on the staff of the Casals Festival, toward the end of Casals’ life. Anyone remember his oratorio “El Pesebre” and its 1974 Columbia Masterworks release?

At a late night recording session, Casals was perched precariously on a high stool, conducting the orchestra and, with every gesture of his baton (in addition to The Grunt), fiercely kicking his feet against the legs of the stool. Tom Frost’s voice kept coming down from the control booth, asking Maestro to refrain from kicking. No change. Nada.

So, young arts administrator that I was (maybe 23 years old?), I was assigned to sit on the floor, holding onto Casals’ feet, restraining his kicking, and keeping him from toppling over.

Modest job? Big responsibility? Was he happy? You wouldn’t exactly say so! A few whacks of the baton came my way. But the recording got done. Casals was able to make the music he needed to make, and I was honored, no let’s say, awed, to be able to play an exceedingly humble role in helping to make it happen.


Thanks for indulging these musings. Let me know what you think. Please remember, those who play and those who support you, care deeply. We all have a role to play, but it’s not about any of us individually. It’s about the music, and we’re so in this together.

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  1. Comment by David Myers
    July 30, 2019 at 3:32 PM

    Insightful, masterfully said, and at the core of what we need to hear and think about over and over until it begins sinking in sufficiently to do something about it. Your paragraph on “not being invited in” hits home. Too often, entrepreneurship and engagement become tactics taught to artists to persuade audiences to buy what they’re selling. But engagement and entrepreneurship are really about creating value, and we create value through inclusion, ownership, and feeling valued ourselves in the enterprise. Brilliant, as always, Polly!