About orchestra culture…

I got a comment on one of my posts from Henry Peyrebrune, a bassist in the Cleveland Orchestra, whom I know from the Mellon Foundation’s Orchestra Forum. I want to thank him for the comment, which was this:
Greg – we talk about performance all the time – it’s called rehearsal. While it’s primarily led by the conductor, there are always side discussions within sections and sections taking time during rehearsal breaks or after rehearsal to go over passages. And – individual players can focus on their own performance during their own practice, which is informed by years of intense scrutiny. And and – we always talk about the way the orchestra is playing during breaks and between rehearsal and concerts. I think it’s a big mistake to leave performance quality and artistic decisions as the sole province of the music director, but my experience is that musicians talk more about quality and the orchestra’s shortcomings than any other topic, and we all make artistic decisions every time we put the bow on the string or make the air in our instruments vibrate. 

I should first say that I respect these thoughts a lot, not least because I know and respect Henry, and because (as I think we all know) the Cleveland Orchestra plays with tremendous care and polish. It’s also an orchestra that has had an ethic (so to speak) about playing well. They don’t (unlike some orchestras) play their best only with a conductor they like, and only at important concerts. I once heard some of their musicians play a show for kids and their parents, in a school gym. I don’t think they’d have played any better if this had been a full orchestral concert, on tour in Vienna.

So bravo to them for that. 

But I think — again with respect — that Henry’s comments show what I might call an atomized state of artistic caring. He tells us that the orchestra works on artistic matters, as a community, in these ways:

    1. They have rehearsals
    2. At rehearsals, players have private talks or else talks in their sections about how they’re doing, and may take extra time to go over specific passages
    3. Individual players practice their parts [and when they’re in the Cleveland Orchestra, I’ll add, they’ll practice very carefully]
    4. They talk about performance quality during breaks, and between rehearsals and concerts
    5. They make artistic decisions every time they play even a single note
All of which of course is true! But notice the inward, very private focus. At rehearsals, the conductor is in charge, so for the most part any overt artistic decisions come from him or her. The players largely react within themselves, in silence.

Henry’s third and last points refer to things the players do alone. And the conversations he talks about in his second and fourth points are private, one on one, or among small groups. What’s missing is any orchestra-wide discussion of performance quality. The closest they might come, to judge from what Henry says, is when sections — led, very likely, by the section leader (the principal player in that section) — discuss problems that may have come up in their playing. 

But what happens when there’s a large problem? What happens when, in the opinion of other players in the orchestra, a section isn’t playing well enough? What happens when the players don’t like the music director’s way of making music, or take strong exception to what the music director wants to do in a particular piece? What happens when many people in the orchestra think that, just maybe, the orchestra doesn’t play (let’s say) Baroque music as well as it should? What happens when everyone knows that one of the principals is getting, sadly, older, and doesn’t play as well as he or she used to?

Well, you can say that many of these things are the music director’s problem. And that if the players don’t like the music director, then they’re stuck with him or her, unless they can make some private noise before the music director’s contract is renewed. 

But that only underlines how atomized the players are, how much of their artistic work is done in private, or at the command of someone else. And how few ways — if any — there are within most orchestras (and the Cleveland Orchestra, I’ll say again, is better than most) to deal communally with artistic problems. 

Orchestras, to summarize, do have artistic discussions, largely in private. But they don’t seem to be organized as self-directing artistic entities. (Except, of course, orchestras like the London Symphony or especially the Berlin Philharmonic, in which the musicians are legally the owners of the orchestra.)
This atomization is more than a theoretical problem. At one discussion I attended at a Mellon gathering, members of one of the participating orchestras complained about their music director. The music director, they said, would stop the orchestra during rehearsals, but start talking before there actually was silence, or in other words while some of the players, being maybe a little late to react (or maybe the music director didn’t give a strong enough signal to stop) were still playing.

As a result, the players groused, they couldn’t hear some of what the music director said. 

A small problem, you might say? Sure. But note that it had been going on for years, and that nothing was ever done about it. Nobody said anything to the music director. Or to the management, to be passed on to the music director. The players were atomized. They could complain about this to each other, or bring it up at a small and private minor meeting during one of the Mellon gatherings. None of their board and staff were present, and certainly not the music director. They weren’t about to bring this up at a meeting everyone was at. 

And never, not once, did any of the Mellon gatherings I was at address any problem like this. There was, at one point, a private discussion in which musicians from one participating orchestra told their executive director, in a very heartfelt way, that they didn’t like the music director. Who then was removed, as part of a truly notable revamping of many aspects of the orchestra, in which (among other things) the players agreed to take less money, in exchange for greater artistic and administrative control.

But things like that are rare, to say the least, among American orchestras. And note that, wonderful as the outcome was, the discussion I heard was done in private. Atomized, again, though in this case in a wonderfully healthy way.

How bad can this get? I’ve been reliably told that in one not small American orchestra, there’s a violinist who hasn’t played a note for years, in rehearsals or performances. He/she plays air violin, miming the gestures of playing, but not producing any sound. 

And this, I’m told, goes uncorrected, though surely every musician in the orchestra must know about it. You’d think a musician who quite literally didn’t play would be fired. You’d think the other musicians wouldn’t stand for it. And, let’s be fair, in many orchestras, or surely most of them, this situation really wouldn’t be tolerated. 

But that it can exist — if my information is correct — in one not small orchestra would seem to demonstrate that artistic matters aren’t (strange as this may seem) dealt with in any systematic way. 

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  1. says

    I’ve found it strange that a section violinist could get away with playing “air violin”, yet have job security, while a principal player might be mistreated and demoted without just cause. Double standard, I’d say. It helps to have cronies.

    Hi, Marjorie. Of course you’d know what happens in an orchestra! I’ve read your recent (and quite wonderful) blog post about Gerry Schwarz.

    I think it’s more than just having cronies, though. If a principal player plays air oboe, then there’s a hole where all the big oboe solos should be, and everyone notices. Including the critics and the audience. While a section violinist can be protected, because the world doesn’t notice. But of course these things are political! What that goes on in an orchestra isn’t?

  2. says

    Why do I get the sense you are (unfairly) picking on orchestras? The so-called atomization happens in any (larger) organization, so I don’t see why it WOULDN’T happen in an orchestra.

    Perhaps, more importantly, what solutions do you have to offer?


    Most organizations, including businesses very much run from the top down, have at least the semblance of meetings where issues can be discussed. And these days, it’s more and more common even for big corporations to find ways to empower their employees, so that everyone pulls together for the common good. So that everyone can make suggestions, and have them listened to.

    As for suggestions for improvement, I’d say that orchestras should start having open discussions of quality/playing issues. But I also think that would be hard, at first, to do. So they’d need to bring in facilitators to start the discussion going, and ensure that everyone feels safe. One very good facilitator is Liz Lehrman, who led the discussion I mentioned several posts ago at one of the Mellon Orchestra Forum gatherings.

    It’ll take a long time to make these changes take root. But that’s no reason not to start. I’ll have more to say about this in a future post, where I discuss something I did to make things better along these lines, teaming up with the executive director of an important orchestra.

  3. says

    I think you are buying into the public misconception of what a Music Director actually does. With an orchestra like the amazing Cleveland Orchestra, the main job of the conductor is not to identify what’s “good” and “bad”. The musician from the orchestra is entirely correct that every single player should take ownership of their own performance quality. It is unlikely that a musician of “Cleveland Orchestra” calibre does not have the expertise to know how to make something better. And most often, an orchestra like that will play together, and in tune, with the best, or worst of conductors.

    The job of the conductor is to unify a single concept to the whole orchestra for each work. That is in regards to tempi, overall orchestral balance, and to make sure things are heard clearly. They don’t hear conductors say “this is right”, or “this is wrong”. They hear conductors trying to persuade the orchestra to “please do this here” so that his single concept comes through.

    There is nothing democratic about presenting a unified performance with an orchestra. Not on 3 rehearsals, anyway! A string Quartet can fight about a democratic concept for years. And what often comes out is a performance of compromises, but without a persuasive performance. An orchestra needs a conductor with a vision with a maximum of three rehearsals.

    An orchestra with 100 members democratically and publicly trying to rehearse a symphony would be insane, and hugely inefficient!

  4. Bill Brice says

    Erik, I take your point that it could be instructive to look at similar issues as they arise in other, non-arts, large organizations. There are huge differences, of course, between a for-profit business organization and a performing arts organization; yet it surely is possible to identify parallel problems, such as: Individual participation and buy-in as opposed to hierarchical “management”, creative marketing, process control and its limits, procedures for hiring and performance evaluation, and more. It could well be clarifying to look at some of these issues independent of the artistic side.

    But, as to why Greg’s “picking on orchestras”, I’d say it’s because orchestra performance is the particular issue this series of posts is about — in the overall context of problems with the world of classical music in general. It’s undeniable, after all, that professional orchestras are in big trouble everywhere these days, and they won’t be fixed by doing things the way they’ve always been done.

  5. Henry Peyrebrune says

    Greg – thank you for your kind words about my comment. I guess if my comment is discussed at such length I’d better respond.

    You draw the conclusion that musicians are atomized – small separate units – because we’re not all discussing our playing in rehearsal or in some other forum. You forget that music itself is communication. When I’m playing in the orchestra, I’m listening to everyone else in the orchestra. Not just listening – breathing. I’m trying to feel the music the same way they feel it so I can anticipate how they’ll play. I’m listening to and watching my stand partner, glancing at my section leader, watching the concertmaster and other principal strings, breathing with the winds and brass and doing non-stop mental rhythmic dictation – as well as watching the conductor. There is an incredible amount of information being shared and processed simultaneously among 100 people. Discussing it in words is needed only occasionally to clarify what has already been happening in the music. We’re not reacting in silence – we react in music!

    The rest of your post deals with problems caused by leadership failures. As in any organization, different people have different responsibilities in an orchestra. If they fail to carry out those responsibilities, the orchestra suffers. I’ll just add that there is a musical reason why we as musicians don’t make the decisions about colleagues whose playing may have declined – ensemble playing requires a certain level of trust and respect. It’s much more difficult to play well when you’re worried your colleagues may vote you off the island. Showing respect is more than just a professional courtesy; it helps the music-making.

    That being said, we do have structures for discussion and communication with the music director, management and the board about artistic and other issues. We have, as do many orchestras, an artistic advisory committee as well as an orchestra committee. Both represent the views of the musicians to those with responsibility for particular areas of decision-making. Our feedback is sought on the performance of guest conductors. None of this can substitute for leadership that has abdicated its responsibilities, but most of the time our input is actually helpful to them.

    Thanks, Henry. It’s wonderful to have your further views on this. I think we disagree, but I give you extra points, because you’ve been there (in an orchestra) and I haven’t. The disagreement might be about whether there are further means of communication not currently practiced (or not practiced very often) in orchestras that could be helpful. I think they are, and I think — for whatever the comparison is worth — it’s now more and more common to see enterprises, even large corporations, instituting changes meant to allow more open, more participatory discussion of issues, so that everyone can be heard, and problems can surface and be dealt with before they become too serious.

    Of course, it also helps that you’re in an orchestra that does have the kind of unspoken communication you talk about, on a very high level. I suspect we’d both agree that there are many orchestras were this isn’t so. For obvious, painful examples, the Boston Symphony under Ozawa, and the Seattle Symphony under Gerry Schwarz. But I think orchestras far less sick than those two might also have problems in musical communication that could be addressed, and don’t have readily at hand the ways to address them. You’re right to point out that there’s no substitute for leadership, but in the current world (as I seem to be saying a lot in response to comments) enterprises of all kinds are developing new ways for their members to collaborate, and openly discuss things that weren’t openly discussed before.