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March 19, 2007

Musicians and Managers...an Evolving Relationship

Some recent conversations at various orchestras, and with students in a class I teach at Roosevelt University's Chicago College of Performing Arts, have made me realize how much the role of musicians in today's American orchestras has changed over the past three or four decades...

My involvement with orchestra actually began with the very first concert of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra in 1961, and gradually strengthened so that by 1967 I was a member of its Board of Directors. Thus I can claim over forty years of very direct connection with orchestras.

Forty years ago, the normal relationship between musicians and the orchestral organizations that employed them ranged from distant to antagonistic. "Us and them" was the norm - musicians had little or no involvement with any decision making or even any discussion about the mission or direction of orchestras. When orchestras engaged music directors, it would have been virtually unheard of for there to be musician representation on the search committee. It was so much the norm that it was rarely questioned by either musicians or managers.

This never made sense to me. Universities and colleges didn't make major decisions about their direction and philosophy without serious input from faculty committees, which were also either represented on the university's board in a meaningful way, or were connected to it through some other governance structure. Hospital administrators did not operate in a vacuum that excluded the professional doctors who were the heart and soul of the hospitals. But the norm in orchestras was to exclude the views of the professionals - the people who performed the art we were preserving and presenting, and whose lives depended on how the organization functioned.

Over the past two or three decades, I've watched that change - ever so slowly, painfully at times, in fits and starts, and with resistance often on both sides. For some musicians, it was much easier to take the attitude of "our job is to play the music - your job is to run the business." And, to be honest, for some musicians it was also easier to criticize decisions if they weren't a part of making them. And for managers it was simpler too - the musicians were, after all, part of the union. And besides, it would just complicate the whole decision-making process to add another major voice. But nonetheless, change has come - and for some who haven't been around as long as I have, it might not be clear just how dramatically that has happened.

Today, it is almost impossible to imagine an orchestra that would not include musicians on a music director search committee. Frequently, they comprise 50% of the committee. In addition, they are usually included on search committees for executive directors! What a sea change that is. More and more orchestras have musicians on the boards, or on board committees, or have evolved other structural models to assure that musicians are a part of the shaping of institutional decisions. In some orchestras, musicians constitute a significant part of the board and/or the decision making process (Colorado Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, to name just three). Orchestras throughout the U.S. are experimenting with different models, and while there are certainly bumps in the road occasionally, it is impossible for me to believe that in the end this greater institutional involvement of musicians is anything other than a very healthy development. Our orchestras are about music, and about the musicians who make the music. As I like to say, "No one ever bought a ticket to see me manage." It is only logical that the professionals who comprise our orchestras are an important part of helping to shape their futures.

In my next posting I'll talk a little bit about musicians' roles with the public, and with the community that their orchestra serves, and how all of that is evolving as well.

Posted by hfogel at March 19, 2007 3:51 PM

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Not to disagree with you at all, Henry, on the thankfully changing role of the musicians, however...

it's not just the musicians, but also the staff. When I attended my first meeting of managers of metropolitan orchestras (ancient term for middle-sized orchestras) in the mid-1960s, I heard a respected veteran manager describe how he had been expected to drive guest artists to post-concert parties to which he was not invited, and wait in his car until they came out to be driven to their hotels. And even in the mid-1980s, in my first year as manager of the Grand Rapids Symphony, I was not expected to attend Nominating Committee meetings - I had to impose myself. I think there's a lot more respect for each other between musicians, boards, and staffs than there used to be. And maybe a bit less for the "maestro" model music director.

You are absolutely right, Peter. The increasing professionalism of staffs, and the increasingly professional way in which they are seen and treated, is another significant change in the industry over the past few decades.

Henry Fogel

Posted by: Peter Smith at March 19, 2007 10:20 PM

I do agree with your comment of hearing and taking into account the opinion of musicians when deciding matters related with their performance. However, the most difficult part of it is to design the right way of doing it. Every orchestra has its own history and musicians. The challenge is to find the best procedure for making the musicians take part on decisions that may affect them but keeping on the hands of the management the final decision. Of course, people do not pay to see you manage, but they do not pay either to see a musician who also manages.

Posted by: Jose Sanchis at March 20, 2007 6:14 AM

My perception of musician involvement has been the same. I have seen an ever-increasing role for the musicians and they are frequently an untapped source of valuable information for orchestras of all levels. However, like our federal government, we have a long way to go before we achieve the checks and balances necessary for optimum performance. Years ago, the music director was all-powerful and was the final word. Today, the pendulum has swung to the executive director (now frequently called CEO) and there is once again an imbalance. Until the musicians, music director, CEO, and board can come up with a model for balance between these groups, there will always be problems.

Posted by: Greg at March 20, 2007 10:41 AM

The mix of management and musicians in the overall administration of an orchestra is, idealistically, an excellent mélange. However, when an entrenched musician, maestro or board member exerts his/her longer-term financial/artistic/administrative influence over that of a newly hired executive director or music director the results can be hazardous, let alone destructive to the orchestra as a whole. Decisions made in such "power plays" are not made for the betterment of the organization but for the consolidation of power for the entrenched power-player. Newly hired artistic or managerial talents do not thrive well under such circumstances, as their every move may be thwarted. Short term contracts are either played out or paid out to expiration and nothing constructive evolves to the benefit of the organization, as the process of hiring/firing continues on ad infinitum until such time as all parties bend to the will of the power-player. Although, by that time the orchestra may well be on the way to its demise.

"Power plays" are never healthy in any organization. In orchestras that is true whether they are engaged in by musicians, music directors, board chairs, or executive directors (and believe me, in different settings each of those has been known to utilize power plays). Healthy governance requires mutual respect, listening to each other, and trying to consider all views. That doesn't have to mean wishy-washy bland choices - but it does mean that everyone is respected and all views are heard and given consideration.

Henry Fogel

Posted by: Leon Van Dyke at March 20, 2007 11:04 AM

I'm sorry Mr. Fogel but I think you've blown this way out of proportion. The fact is that unless the way the legal structure governing the decision making body within an orchestra changes, the executive board is the only group which is allowed to make decisions. And that group is influenced heavily by the executive director and music director.

The fact you're trumpeting the point that managers are now soliciting input from musicians just shows how sad this business really is. If you have to tell someone (or worse yet, congratulate them) to do something that should be common sense in the first place, that is just sad.

Also, why don't you tell everyone what's different about the models in each of the organizations you've mentioned instead of simply stating it as though it were an undisputed fact? I bet you could find more than a majority of musicians in Colorado and St. Paul that will disagree with your declaration.

I ask you, in each of those cases is the board of directors not empowered with the ONLY binding authority to make institutional decisions? And in each of those cases do the musicians control a 50 percent or greater number of seats on board nomination committee or the board itself?

Please, get off of your high horse and realize that for decades good managers already know how to listen to their musicians and sincerely seek their input. The musicians know they don't control things but they do know when a good manger comes their way who seeks their wisdom. And if you're trying to say that's what you're promoting, it isn't. I've experienced first hand the damage your postulating on this topic can do to an organization.

Normally, I do not post or respond to anonymous comments on this blog, but you raise some points that deserve exposure and a response. Having been around the orchestra world for more than forty years, there is no doubt in my mind that the influence of musicians on institutional decisions has increased dramatically; more managers seek it, and more boards seek it. Since in my view that is a change for the good, I believe it is worthy of notice and applause. The legal structure of most American orchestras does give the ultimate responsibility for governance decisions to the Board, and you are right in noting that musicians do not make up the majority of those Boards. Since the responsibility for raising the money to fund the needs of the institution rests with the Boards, it seems appropriate to me that Boards have that ultimate responsibility. But not having a voting majority certainly does not mean that one doesn't have influence over decisions. In very few cases, actually, are decisions made by any kind of close vote - usually consensus is reached, and that consensus benefits from a wide range of inputs. And indeed I am postulating that a good manager seeks musician input into decisions - I'm sorry if you feel differently.

Henry Fogel

Posted by: one who can see through the smokescreen at March 21, 2007 11:46 AM

Unfortunately, there will always be that person or persons who will use Machiavellian means in secret to push their own egregious agendas. I have seen it countless times within many orchestras and there is very little that can be done. I want to be as optimistic as the next person but unless there is uniform reform in the way orchestras are governed with checks and balances that keep everyone accountable and brings information into the light of day, these power plays will continue to proliferate. I am uncertain how that can be accomplished but I am certain about the need.

Posted by: Greg at March 21, 2007 6:22 PM

I want to comment in response to our anonymous 'smokescreen' writer. I am a musician in the Colorado Symphony, and a member of its Board. I know for a fact that a majority of my colleagues in the CSO would agree with Mr. Fogel's statement. There are 9 musician trustees on the board (we comprise about 1/5 of the membership), and we have not been relegated to witness-only status. Of course each institution has its own dynamic, but our ED, Doug Adams, has been wonderful about extending a hand to the musicians to keep our presence and input a constant one. My colleagues and I continue to be actively involved in some of the most important decision-making processes. To say that this should have been going on all along is an 'original sin' argument that doesn't give the history of our field proper consideration: the fact is that the collaborative model we've been taking steady strides towards is the one that our futures depend on. Yes, perhaps the strides have come too slowly for some, mistakes do happen and we have a way to go, but I don't see a reason not too feel good about those changes when they do happen.
I have found my work on the board to be extremely rewarding for several reasons - not only because I think it is good for the institution, and because I have had a significant voice (and one that has been welcomed by our Board membership) in the big decisions, but also because I simply enjoy being around and working with people that believe in our mission and work selflessly to further our goals. And I applaud the management of the CEO and my fellow Board members for embracing the musicians every step of the way.

Posted by: Martin Sher at March 22, 2007 6:16 PM