Orchestra Administrators Needed: A Satisfying Career Choice

When small or mid-sized orchestras announce an opening for music director, they routinely receive between 250 and 350 applications. That's right--the orchestras in Boise (Idaho), Lafayette (Indiana), Columbia (South Carolina), and many others have experienced that in recent years. This is without an aggressive recruitment effort: these are applications that come in as a result of announcements on the League of American Orchestras website and the Conductors Guild website. 
When orchestras of the same size announce an opening for executive director, they are lucky to get a dozen applications! They often have no choice but to engage an executive search firm, because eight or ten applicants from the entire United States is not as broad or deep a pool as one would want to draw from.

Why is it that despite the proliferation over the past 20 or 30 years of arts administration programs at universities throughout the United States, there is still such a talent shortage in the field of orchestra management?  How is it that we have so many more conductors (and conductor hopefuls) than managers? I understand the gratification of conducting, and I understand the way that making music might inspire young, musically gifted students. But the marketplace should tell them something! Three hundred applicants for the job of music director of a small orchestra that gives six or eight concerts a year means that 299 of them won't get that position. And I know, from reference-checking calls I get, how many of the same conductors keep on trying.

While I know that the satisfaction of managing an orchestra cannot match the satisfaction of conducting one, I stopped saying a number of years ago that if I had it all to do over again I would have studied conducting. Thank you very much, but I believe I made the right choice! But if I did, why are so few others finding orchestra management an attractive career option?

One problem, which is not true for conductors, is that the number of administrative positions in American orchestras has increased exponentially over the past two or three decades, whereas the number of conductor positions has not. For any concert of any orchestra, you need one conductor (okay, not if you're doing Stockhausen's Gruppen, but let's not be silly here). A small orchestra needed one music director in 1960, and it needs one music director today.

But many orchestras that were volunteer run in the 1960s and 70s have simply grown too big and complex to be run entirely by volunteers. And many smaller orchestras that had one single executive director in those years have grown to the point where they have a senior staff of two or three. Staff sizes have grown, not as some will charge because managers like to hire staff--that absurd canard cannot survive serious examination--but because managing orchestras has grown more complicated as we have professionalized the field (and paid musicians at much better rates than we did 40 years ago). Thus the number of administrative positions required around the country has multiplied as rapidly as the talent pool has expanded. Perhaps even more rapidly.

Having spent a lifetime in orchestra administration, I can honestly say to any young person who has a passion for music, a reasonably well developed business sense, and most importantly an ability to inspire and lead people and bring them together, you should look at the field of orchestra administration. Examine the programs of the League of American Orchestras: the Orchestra Management Fellowship Program, the Essentials of Orchestra Management seminar given annually, and other professional development opportunities. Explore arts administration degrees, or get an entry-level job at an orchestra near you. It may not be as rewarding as conducting Mahler's Second Symphony, but you are much more likely to succeed in the administration field given the classic marketplace issues of supply and demand.

July 17, 2009 2:44 PM | | Comments (4)



Thanks for the post Henry.

I think I'm fairly typical for an arts administrator in that I have an intense love of the arts, and an ability to think and speak about them critically, but have neither the talent nor the drive to be a professional artist!

I think arts administrators have to be bilingual, understanding the languages of both artists and audiences, the latter including foundations, corporations, private donors and everyday butts-in-seats.

I do have to agree Tod's last comment though. For the most part, pay is low. And while most of us in nonprofit and arts management are motivated by factors other than money, organizations would undoubtedly reap the benefits if they did a better job at attracting and retaining non-artistic talent.

While I totally agree with the points about how satisfying an administrative career can be, this post nonetheless makes me extremely uncomfortable.

Why? Because of the way it boils down to this conclusion: well, we know you'd rather be a conductor leading the charge with Mahler 2, but you should consider administration as a Plan B.

I don't think the orchestra administration field wants people who see it as a second ("not as rewarding") option, any more than music education needs teachers who see teaching as the less satisfying fallback, having not succeeded in the supply-and-demand world of performing.

What we want are the people who discover that orchestra administration is the very thing they really want to do. We want the people who find that managing or programming or being the advocate for an orchestra is (for them) better than conducting Mahler 2! Not just because they can get a job that way, but because the match of person, aptitude, skills, intellect and work mean that it really is so.

Thanks, Henry - posts like this encourage me to keep doing what I'm doing in this field. I've been dreaming of leading an orchestra as E.D. since high school, and after attending the League's EOM seminar in 2008 I have been more driven towards that goal than ever. I read your blog religiously and I can't wait to put it all into practice some day (soon, hopefully!). Thanks again!

Another point that makes the number of MD applicants vs. the number of ED applicants a somewhat skewed comparison is that ED, even of a smallish organization, is a full-time job, whereas music director of an orchestra that plays 4-6 concert sets a season is not. Even the regional orchestras which have managed to maintain a substantial number of programs do not necessarily require the music director's constant attention, meaning that these individuals can, and often do, hold multiple positions.

Another factor that seems to keep the number of high-quality orchestra executives (and high-quality applicants for those jobs) low is the extremely low pay, compared to comparable private-sector situations. That small percentage of the best and brightest which gravitates toward orchestra management rises to high levels very quickly, and what's left is those who are willing to work very hard for not very much money.


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