Musicians: The Fourth Leg of the Stool

In a recent discussion with members of the board and some musicians from one of America's orchestras, I was asked what I thought should be the role of musicians in shaping major policies and decisions of an orchestra.  In response, I referred to an article I had written for the April 2000 issue of Harmony, the publication of the Symphony Orchestra Institute (now morphed into - The Orchestra Musician Forum, a project of the Eastman School). My article was called "Are Three Legs Appropriate? Or Even Sufficient?"  It's far too long to reprint here, but is still available online by clicking here.

For those who don't wish to read the entire article, my answer to the question posed in its title is "no, three legs are not sufficient." The traditional "three-legged stool" structure refers to the leadership triumvirate of music director, board chair, and executive director. In the past 20 or 25 years, a fourth leg of the stool - orchestra musicians - has been ever-so-gradually lengthening. Some orchestras (Colorado Symphony, Louisiana Philharmonic) have gone close to the full route in involving musicians on their boards. Some have placed musicians in important roles on their boards and committees, in a few cases even as chairs of music-director search committees. Some have made slight nods in that direction. In some orchestras the musicians simply go on stage, play the notes, and go home with no other input or involvement -- and many musicians prefer it that way: Their training is in music, after all, not in accounting, marketing, development, or management.

But it has never made sense to me that musicians, the only constituent group inside the orchestra who have professional training and experience in the art that's at the core of orchestras' missions, would have nothing to do with helping to determine that mission and the strategies we would use to achieve it. (And yes, I know that many orchestra administrators also have significant musical training, and some of their board members do as well.) I liken musicians in symphony orchestras to the faculty of universities and colleges, or the doctors at hospitals. Universities have independent boards, and administrators who are distinct from the faculty. But no university or college would run with no or minimal input from the faculty. I never heard anyone seriously argue that an English or zoology professor has not been trained to understand management issues. Faculty committees have very strong influence on university policies, and any university president who loses the support of a meaningful portion of the faculty is probably going to be in the job market fairly soon. Decisions on how to allocate resources for that university -- on diversity policies, on just about every important issue the university will face -- will not be made without significant, meaningful input from a representative group of faculty.

Musicians cannot, in my view, be excluded from issues of governance or strategic planning, or from any major internal debate and discussion undertaken by orchestral organizations. That means a mutual acceptance and understanding of ground rules -- rules regarding confidentiality, mutual respect, and the understanding that meaningful input does not always equate with full acceptance of your views.

There has been enormous change in this area over the last quarter-century, but it's interesting to me that musicians' involvement in the running of their orchestras is still a matter of debate and discussion. While there has been great progress, my observations lead me to believe that there is still some distance to go.

August 22, 2008 10:59 AM | | Comments (1)



I couldn't agree more with your assessment. During my time at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the musicians went from zero involvement to engagement on multiple levels in the governance of the organization.

Since moving on from the MSO, however, I have been working for smaller, per-service orchestras. While many of the salaried Milwaukee musicians were eager to become involved in governance issues, the challenge for musicians at smaller orchestras is that most of them have outside jobs and performing with the orchestra is a treasured avocation. Couple that with some musicians' natural reluctance to get involved in management and committees, and it is often difficult to find ways to meaningfully engage them. It's something I continue to believe in but success is sporadic.

You're absolutely correct in stating that for per service orchestras where musicians play perhaps six or eight concerts a year, and are patching together a living by playing in a few orchestras, involvement in off-the-stage issues is much more difficult. It takes effort on the part of the Board and management to schedule opportunities for involvement around rehearsal and concert periods, and still presents difficulties. The rewards, for the musicians and for the institution, are worth the effort from all parties.


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This page contains a single entry by on the record published on August 22, 2008 10:59 AM.

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