An Unfinished Story, postscript

Much has changed around us.

We haven’t changed much.

Embedded in these last six entries are indictments of our ways of doing what we do, the practices we have come to call normal.

They are killing us. Killing the field, and ultimately killing the art.

Yes, it’s true that things happened to us, but we also happened to things. In other words, we were comfortable with the way we were, we were terribly slow to adapt, and it has caught up to us.

We still tend to think of management and artists as being adversaries. Our contracts have almost no flexibility in them to adapt to the ever-changing market place. We’re stuck in a bad business model, and we perpetuate it without thinking.

It is killing us.

We still think of audience members as customers and of donors as friends.

It is killing us to categorize like this.

We don’t grasp the implications of technology, or we won’t put it to good use because somebody might lose money in the deal.

It’s killing us to think like that.

We don’t seem to understand that one of the most important aspects of a public concert is the community it creates at that moment. Our art happens within the communal experience. If not, we can download a personalized version of the sound-product for less than a dollar. It isn’t that the art isn’t important, but that the context of the art has become equally important. They are now one thing.

I had dinner recently with some friends and found myself in a discussion of a course one was taking at a local college. He was talking about how we have changed in our view of ourselves in the course of history, and I asked, “Give us the short-hand version of the movement from Pre- to Postmodernism.”

He answered, “First, ‘us’, followed by a more fluid situation in which it is sometimes ‘me’ and sometimes ‘we’, ending with ‘me’.”

I thought he had also unintentionally described the environment of the evolution of the listening experience: first in community, then in a mix between live settings and mass media, and finally the mp3 experience, divorcing ourselves from each other, even as we share the same recorded performance.

All generalizations are lies, and his was, of course, no different. But often the well-phrased lie reveals an underlying truth.

The fact is, the model no longer fits the way we live.

We have to experiment, and to look at the little pools of ideas often happening at the edges of our field. We have to be humble and care less about the address of the idea than the merit of the idea. Much of the entrepreneurial work is happening in places most of us haven’t even heard of. We need to look in unusual places.

There are a lot of bad ideas out there, but there are many good ones too. We need to know about them, test or reject them, and there is no time to lose.

To be clear, I’m an optimist. We’re doing a lot of things right. God knows – if we weren’t, we would already be gone.

Honestly, the modern orchestra is one of the wonders of the world, but it has been hampered at every turn by a history of resisting change.

For those of us who were sleep walking before the crisis came, we’ve been slapped in the face, and now we have to wake up.

In short, we need to change. Really change. It is time to write the story of our future in a way very unlike the story of our past.

I started An Unfinished Story with the phrase, “Once upon a time there were concerts….”

Let’s hope that part was a fiction.

Like all stories, mine left many parts out, condensed and simplified, and adopted a point of view. It was a case study of demise designed to make a point.

The interesting thing, at least to me, is that we finally seem to be ready to accelerate the rate of change. I think that, as a field, we’re scared to death. Ironically, that may just save us. I have never seen such an atmosphere of curiosity about alternative approaches to our traditional model than we are experiencing right now.

We may just be ready to live by the verse, “Physician, heal thyself.”

A few weeks ago, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I attended a symposium that was quite timely. It brought together many leaders in the field who openly discussed the history and the possible future paths of the American Orchestra. It would have been instructive for anyone, anywhere.

There were some highs and some lows, as you might expect. We heard some great ideas for new models, and I was genuinely heartened by them. But candidly, I also heard some of the worst ideas I’ve ever come across.

That isn’t a bad thing.

If we really intend to survive and to thrive, we’ll have to be both open and brutal as we consider alternatives. We need courage to go past a bad consensus-decision built around a poorly thought-out idea, and argue our way (yes, politely…) into a good one.

We need imaginations equal to the task, tempered by truly disciplined thought.

We need open debate in the field instead of smug, worn out approaches, endless cynicism about management/labor relations, and disrespect for the many components that make up a modern symphony organization. At times I heard those criticisms in Ann Arbor, and they were, for me, the most disheartening moments. It was as if we were listening to well-rehearsed, old lines for a play that had already closed.

We need to throw away that script.

That won’t be easy, because, even if the script is flawed, it is the only one we know.

As I type this I hear John Lennon singing in my mind’s ear, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”

It is easy to get disheartened because of the sheer inertia in this field. Can anything really change? But then, read Gandhi and ask yourself what is possible. And follow that up with the sobering realization of the level of leadership we’ll need to pull this off.

At the summit, my favorite moment came from Henry Fogel. During one panel discussion he was asked what the next BIG IDEA was, and he said he wouldn’t answer. He went on to explain that there wasn’t just one, but a host of things we would have to do to get out of this mess.

I agree.

Oh, and one more thing: We’ll need to quit assigning blame.

Absolutely everyone has acted just as one might expect. So, it looks to me like we might have to start acting in ways no one expects.

The good news is, as bad as things are right at this moment, the story is still unfinished….

So, to paraphrase Stravinsky’s soldier in L’histoire du soldat, “Now, what are we going to do? What are we going to do now?”

I finished An Unfinished Story with allusions to a field of change growing from the ashes of the old way; not one phoenix, but many.

In any era of experimentation, there will be losers as well as winners. I would expect us to see a number of new approaches over the next few years. Many will not work, and that is, frankly, as it should be. Some may succeed, and we might find that we look a lot different than we do at the moment.

Those new approaches are, actually, already taking place in places as diverse as St. Paul and Memphis.

Regardless, in a postmodern age, I’m fairly certain that we can no longer expect to thrive on a pre-modern model.

And so it seems the right time to ask, “Who’s got a phoenix-in-waiting?” It’s your moment.

phoenix rising.jpg

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  1. says

    From here (the Netherlands) I have already twittered around that this series of blog entries points to the very heart of the matter, calling it ‘a challenging rise & fall saga (with emergengy exit)’.
    Given the fact that Dutch orchestra are heavily subsidized, people in the business are fearing most that the recent economical crisis plus the changing political climate might seriously hampers the reach and even very existence of orchestras. But indeed, the worst threat comes from within: all that is taken for granted for so long, while the world around us, ever inhabited by new generations, is radically changing in its perception and interaction, also with making and enjoying music.
    One good thing here is that orchestras recently have been confronted with a thoroughly provoking Report by the National Council for Culture (Advisory Board to the Government), called (in translation) Innovate, vitalise!, a compass for a lively symphonic tradition in The Netherlands ( I don’t know how your Dutch is, but it might be worth while trying a request for an English translation, directly at the Council:, or perhaps with the help of the Dutch cultural attachee in NYC, the helpful mr. Dorsman (
    I happened to be involved in this recommendation, so let me give away the bottom line: orchestras, reinvent yourselves totally as musical bodies of a community against the ‘background’ of today and tomorrow; you’ve got two years now to try to save your lives! (By then the government will again fix the financial conditions.)
    As a former general manager of a Dutch symphony orchestra and of the international Early Music Festival Utrecht I have in these roles deeply sensed both the power (and meaning) of tradition, but no less the necessity of innovation. Our commission as mandated professionals is less to please the common sense and the unquestioned, than to organically as firmly relating the past to the future, mobilizing the open minded and creative present.
    Thanks for your appropriate and encouraging contribution over there!

  2. says

    You will not recall any of this, but in 1975, we headed from Ft. Lauderdale to Cookville (I was from Stranahan HS). One day you came across the dorm hall (Quentin) to my room opposite yours and we talked for a bit about the future of the symphony. You spoke of the relationship to “community” and the fact that without that synergy we would just as well do without the orchestra and listen to recordings. You also spoke of the future of symphonic literature. You were 18. I could tell it was your passion. You are still the same person you were 35 years ago, John. Only better.

  3. says

    This may be too late for your current followers but having just discovered your excellent blog, I want to contribute.
    I have a Phoenix for you… one inspired appropriately enough by The Soldier’s Tale! Because the instrumentation is a cross section of the orchestra, the 1st time I played the work, I realized that if we added a flute, we could do Peter and the Wolf with 8 players. After I joined a major orchestra, got a computer and music notation software, I tried it out WITH The Soldier’s Tale and we were asked to do more and more! The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Till Eulenspiegel, Comedian’s Suite, Russlan, Pictures, to name a few.
    I discovered that many people PREFER more intimate ensembles. And since I’m a bass player, who lacks much good chamber and solo music, I’ve brought together symphonic, piano, even swing and classic jazz repertoire into chamber music for informal concerts in smaller venues!
    Carpe diem.

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