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Why US orchestras need to change their language

As a new concert season starts, two famous orchestras – Atlanta and Indianapolis – have locked out their musicians and three more are heading down the same dead end. Confrontation is the only game plan, consultation is extinct.

As and when agreement is reached, the two sides will resume their entrenched positions through a period of phony peace, before  they go back to traditional loggerheads.

It doesn’t have to be like this. In my dealings with US orchestras, I am always disturbed by the them-and-us mentality. To the musicians, the enemy is management. To the administration, the  musicians are glove-puppets in the hands of an all-powerful union with obstructive rules that date back two lifetimes.

The language of US orchestral life reminds me of the British car industry in the 1970s, when the only industrial certainty was an eventual strike. The entrenched attitudes of class warfare all but destroyed the car industry and bankrupted large areas of the country. In the folloiwng decade Margaret Thatcher changed the dialectic, for better or worse, and the country we live in today is very different from the one she ruled.

In most sectors of the economy, especially in the arts, the first-person plural pronoun is the one most commonly used nowadays. There is a sense of collective interest on the part of employers and employees. The old picket-line barriers and slogans lie derelict, irrelevant to the 21st century economic crisis.

When the dust has settled in the present disputes, US orchestras must start to realise that they need to change the conversation. They cannot carry on like this, in a state of perpetual mistrust, segregation and simmering animosity without wrecking what’s left of their industry.

Or can they?



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  1. Any arts system run by managers who may be excellently trained, and superb fundraisers, and work hard, but do not speak the language of their main stakeholders (the artists) is bound to self-destruct over time. This is true not only in orchestras, unfortunately….

    • Most of those in management that I’ve known, worked with and for, and seen have had backgrounds in music (or the other arts, depending) and pretty extensive training in them, too. I think this is another poor assumption that is commonly made.

      • Civil Civilian says:

        Yes, a great many administrators were once aspiring to be professional musicians themselves (or actors, if we’re talking about theater, dancers if we’re talking about dance, etc…). Many have MM’s or MFA’s. They retain an insatiable love of the art and continue to practice, just on their own time and not professionally.

        This does tend to be less true of fundraisers, at least around here.

  2. It’s easy to find this kind of problem allover. Some must understand that today, as some hundred years ago, the arts world is based on the same principle of any other one, that is, the economy world. And others must understand that one must deal with artists and arts foundations in a different vain. Managers must deal with musicians in a more tactful way, and I believe that artists in general must understand that, unfortunately, they must answer to councils, managers, and so on. They aren’t out of the game.

  3. Great article, Norman. (Need to run spell-check on it, though.)

  4. Petros LInardos says:

    Norman, do you have a way to grant anonymity to orchestral musicians who are willing to share their views in this blog?

  5. This current fiscal crisis in local governments all over the country is creating all kinds of funding problems in the arts. Unfortunately, most Americans seem to be okay with de-funding the arts when they hit a snag. It’s being reflected in schools, too. Kill the arts, but save the damned football programs.

    It’s enough to drive a sane man nuts.

  6. Language is thinking uttered or ‘outered’ and thoughts are ingrained in culture, usually either reflecting ideas that are discussed in daily life or coming from ones that are reinforced in what we choose to digest through reading. In most cases, people will not choose to digest new ideas or ones that oppose their current culture. Language won’t change until cultures are changed but that poses too high a risk for most people.

    So here are three risky ideas to consider: 1. Players unions need to go, one by one and the ‘wall’ between management and players needs to be dismantled. How? You ask? 2. Managers making more than players (in the case of full time orchestras) need be sacked en masse and their replacements need to be recruited from the players. 3. Music directors signing contracts with more than one orchestra should not be paid more than highest paid musician in the orchestra. The exception would a resident music director who fulfills duties working regularly for the orchestra at home off the podium 4. Guest artists budgets should not exceed 10% of the orchestra annual payroll. I realize it’s altogether a different matter with part time orchestras, but these are ideas that can be scaled to each situation.

    How many times have we read here on this blog the mention of being now in “post-capitalist” times? I’d say it’s time to really turn capitalism in classical music on its head. After all are we here about honoring a tradition or just another way to get rich and create the most comfortable lives for ourselves?

    I clearly recall one of my mentors saying to the orchestra trustees in response to the question “why aren’t we making money on concerts?” that “if we want to make money, we’re in the wrong business, and we should go out and sell shoes.”

  7. William Safford says:

    The distrust is well earned.

    You write of “collective interest.” But it is collective interest that is under attack by reactionary forces in this country.

    In the name of individual liberty, reactionaries want to dismantle collective interests such as Social Security. In the name of individual liberty, reactionaries want to create bulwarks for monied interests against the 99%, to perpetuate the power and wealth of the 1%. They want to bring the U.S. back to the 19th century and the “Gilded Age” abuses of labor.

    Look at the political events in Wisconsin in the last couple years to see a microcosm of what is being perpetrated in the U.S. by the 1% against the 99%. The 99% are left, as Elizabeth Warren wrote, “to feed off the scraps.”

    Right now we are in an increasingly anti-labor atmosphere in this country. Unions have been broken over the years, whether by direct attack (e.g. President Reagan and the air traffic controllers) or by more surreptitious means (e.g. moving factories overseas to exploit cheap labor at the cost of jobs in the U.S.). Union membership numbers continue to drop.

    Vast amounts of money are being spent surreptitiously by certain billionaires to elect reactionary political candidates to office, in part to defang what is left of unions and their collective power, in order to minimize the trickling down to the workers and thereby maximize company profits and shareholder value.

    Several of these same billionaires have their names emblazoned on our concert halls.

    At one time, Henry Ford paid his employees a high enough wage that his workers could afford to buy his cars.

    Now, Wal-Mart pays its workers such a low wage that its workers cannot afford to shop anywhere else.

    Food for thought.

    This mistrust has been well earned over the years in orchestras. I have spoken with people who were fired, or who sat near people who were fired, by imperious music directors or orchestra managers. Unions arose very specifically to address such abuses.

    In the specific realm of orchestral musicians, this attack on collectivism is being recapitulated in Indianapolis, Atlanta, and soon elsewhere. Look at the laughable attempt in Louisville to break the union and hire a scab orchestra.

    One of the ways we have seen the paradigm shift is when orchestras have taken charge of their own affairs. Orpheus comes immediately to mind, as does the new chamber orchestra The Knights.

    Perhaps this is the “changing of the conversation” of which you speak.

  8. I would submit that the main stakeholders are audience members. Orchestras are run as public trusts for the benefit of the music-loving public, and not for the benefit of musicians, the Board Of Trustees or executive management.

  9. Paul D. Sullivan, Arlington/Boston US says:

    It seems to me that in all this discussion about the fractious relationship between orchestras and management that the audience is given short shrift. After all, where does the vast majority of their income come from? Are we not stakeholders also? Outside of endlessly asking for our donations or purchasing subscriptions and tickets we are ignored by management AND musicians.

    • William Safford says:

      I’ve been pondering your perspicacious point.

      The audience is the most important stakeholder of all. After all, the music is ultimately created and performed for the audience (certain 20th century music polemics notwithstanding). That’s the reason why the whole edifice of a symphony orchestra exists.

      However, the audience’s role is mostly passive. Its primary role is to listen to the music, pay for tickets, and (if they so choose) donate money.

      In that role, the audience is not ignored at all, when things are working properly. Alas, they’re not working properly, of course, in a number of orchestras right now.

      But, even when things are working well, is that enough in the 21st century?

      What more could be done to make the audience a more active participant?

  10. I’m afraid Andrea’s comment seems to be a perfect illustration of the point made in the article: them against us, ‘managers’ against ‘stakeholders’ (artists). When will we learn to co-operate? Don’t we forget too easily that the huge problems orchestras (and arts in general) encounter today are caused in the first place by the financial crisis? As long as the money was there, I didn’t hear any complaints about managers not speaking the language of artists? We are all in this together, let’s find a way out, together…

    • William Safford says:

      Cooperation is a two way street. There has to be a will on both sides to compromise (as President Obama has discovered in his first term in office — but I digress).

      This is notably absent in many of the current imbroglios.

      BTW, I disagree with your opinion that the current problems are caused in the first place by the financial crisis. I strongly suspect, rather, that the financial crisis is being used as an excuse to weaken unions and reduce salaries. (N.B. I do recognize that the financial crisis does have an effect.)

  11. bratschegirl says:

    One major difference between orchestras and the car industry is that nobody has ever seriously advanced the argument that those who work on car assembly lines shouldn’t be paid anything at all for what they do. Sadly, there are members of the boards of even the highest-level orchestras here in the US who genuinely don’t understand why playing an instrument in an orchestra should be a profession at all, let alone a well-paid one. And sadly, until that changes, we musicians can’t afford to stop looking at management and board as “them.”

  12. William Safford says:

    BTW, here comes another orchestra management and board that is trying to cover its failure to do its job by attempting to put the onus on the musicians: Jacksonville.

    They’re trying to ram wage cuts and reductions in benefits down the throats of the musicians.


    “Principal Clarinetist Peter Wright, president of the Musicians Union, said the union offered five different proposals to the Symphony Association Board but all were turned down.

    “If the musicians accept the offer on the table it would in essence cut their base salary by about 20%. For some that would mean they would be making $32,000 a year.”


    “While the association has almost $7.5 million in investments, $6 million of that cannot be used to pay debts. And most of the money in the Jacksonville Symphony Foundation, which has ranged from $4.8 million to $6.8 million over the last five years, was given with specific uses designated by the donors and so also can’t be used to pay debts, Connor said.”

    The latter hearkens back to my observation the other day: there always seems to be money for special projects such as buildings, but much less so for the musicians who actually create the music….

    • Ted Spickler says:

      “…failure to do its job…” is a common theme in the us vs them debate. Unfortunately waving a magic wand to bring in non-existent audience members to buy tickets is not going to work. This country has slowly moved away from orchestral music to popular stuff which is easy to sell and garners huge support from a massive fan base while concert halls go begging for an audience. Its easy to just blame management and tell them to do their job and sell tickets but what do you do when the customers have disappeared? Both management and artists need to cooperate in reversing this sad trend. Listeners take a long time to develop. I learned to love classical music by hearing it at home every day I was growing up. When this does not happen you almost permanently loose a potential paying customer. Not even occasional school programs help. I am amazed that schools of music still have committed students in them studying the violin! Unfortunately they are the players hoping to be paid to offer their considerable talent and artistry but paid by whom? Dumbing down concerts may help a little but not for the long term. i fear for our orchestras, I fear for the future.

      • William Safford says:

        It is the musicians’ job to perform the music. It is the jobs of the others to enable the musicians to perform music. It’s important to keep this basic fact in mind as orchestra after orchestra locks out their musicians.

        Of course there is much more to the greater discussion, from dwindling audiences to reduced federal and state grants to the lamentable state of music education in our schools. But when push comes to shove, and musicians have been locked out, somebody hasn’t done his job well enough, and the problem isn’t the musicians themselves.

        It is management’s and board members’ jobs to bring in donations and grants, which for most U.S. orchestras is the lion’s share of income. It is management’s job and the jobs of the staff (often themselves lamentably underpaid) to bring in ticket sales, which for most U.S. orchestras is just a fraction of an orchestra’s income, even though those tickets represent the raison d’être for the entire enterprise: audience members to hear the live music.

        There is overlap, of course. Musicians can do community outreach. The quality of musicians’ performances can encourage audience members to attend concerts and donors to donate more money. Etc.

        I do not mean to suggest that all managers and board members are lazy slugs and all orchestra musicians have halos over their heads. That said, why is it that the people successfully doing their jobs are the ones not getting their paychecks and not getting health care?

        The salaries that are paid to musicians in the top orchestras reflect not only the work they put in during the services, but the years of preparation leading up to the job, and the countless hours of maintenance work away from the orchestra to be able to maintain the highest standards.

        There is an attempt to commoditize orchestra musicians right now. The reality is that if one wants to create a pretty good orchestra, that can be done with relative ease; there is an oversupply of classically trained musicians in this country. But if one wants to create and maintain an orchestra of the highest caliber, that’s going to cost money and take a lot of effort.

        So, when the musicians have been locked out, who really is at fault? After all, haven’t the musicians been doing their jobs? The vast majority of the time, yes.

        Then why are they locked out? Why aren’t others?

        What management and donors really are saying when they lock out an orchestra, to quote from the Wizard of Oz: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

        • I was browsing the San Francisco Symphony website, as a friend wanted to attend a concert and was seeking a recommendation, and I see that the administration of this excellent orchestra numbers 94!
          I imagine that this is a trend amongst most american orchestras, but wonder just what all these people are doing if, as I am led to believe, dwindling donations and audiences are impacting on the ability to pay the musicians properly.

      • Indeed. EDUCATION is the key and that takes time. Making great music part of the essential, of our priorities and part of our very culture, is the key.
        One may add: sincere belief in music and it’s message, and respect for the listener, will curb the popular inclination to dilute music’s message with gimmicks, and to talk down to the public, young and old. Art and the public both aspire to something far higher.

  13. Stephen Carpenter says:

    so many things- The arts are our heritage and the record of our best intentions. They are as old as our self-conscious humanity. In America, we have the additional onus of preserving not only our European traditions but those traditions of other cultures. Exposure to those happened long ago and continue to this day. We Americans didn’t ask for this but it’s part of what we are. inescapable.

    The arts have always been subsidized (not a good word) by the societies, cultures, and governance because this subsidy has been recognized as necessary to create the fingerprint if you will, of that society, culture. The government acts as an administrator.

    Monetization is a very recent concept in this. It’s track record has not been stellar by any accounting other than a bankers. The conversation about the “Gilded Age” is deeply telling. The arts could be secreted away from the masses. Here is the crux of the problem for me. Without an orchestra of approximately 100 trained professional musicians, we lose a significant chunk of our musical heritage and many of its highest expressions. Most of the orchestral and operatic music of the 19th century is effectively silenced. And this was the period where performances had moved out of the chambers of the rulers and into the public square.

    Monetization allowed those with the wherewithal to dictate the “price” of the art and the “price” became the measurement of “great art”. For the first time perhaps, art became about acquistion in the marketplace. right or wrong, that had not been the primary measurement before. Now, in America, it seems that there is a concerted effort to acquire all of the Art Heritage in order to lock it away from the public. Museums are out-bid at every turn and major pieces disappear into private vaults. Music demands a different playbook. Destroy the Orchestra in order to silence the music. Same playbook- administrate the orchestra into decline, forcing a cut in personnel, wages, season. Eventually with reduced resources and abilities, the rest of the funding dries up. Popular sentiment against “that long-hair music” helps grease the slide. Look at the list of orchestras no longer an orchestra from the last 2 years. It seems that the goal has been to insure that a place where art cannot flourish is within reach.

    I don’t think in the case of an orchestra which is a community of performers that it is possible to not adopt a fortress mentality. I can’t imagine the principal contra-bassoonist negotiating his/er orchestra position with the financial executives. They would most probably be measuring the number of notes and establishing a “price” per note. Unfortunately for the music to be music, the orchestral effect intended by every composer is collective.

    There is a failure of understanding at the heart of this issue and unfortunately perhaps tragically, it is wrapped in unteachable ignorance. (I fight to produce a chamber concert in my area each year and appreciate that this issue is scalable.)

  14. Orchestras, orchestra musicians and conductors have ignored audiences and the need to cultuvate audiences for decades. This is especially true of symphony organisations in large market communities. Most managements base financial assumptions on the misguided principle of an ever-expanding support universe. Audiences have diminished in interest and size, support base narrowed and the general economy in the US continues in recession. Orchestras and their stakeholders have to face facts; there will be no pardons for past behavior nor immunity from the economy.

    Time to suck it up and take the hit.

  15. This city’s symphony orchestra, and the organizatin that sponsors chamber music concerts, were both founded by European immigrants with a strong musical background. The audiences for those concerts were made up of people whose famiies made music at home with families and friends. Those people are now more and more rare. Children no longer hear classical music at home -their parents are more likely to listen to rock – long after they should have outgrown adolescent pasttimes. There is just no way to replace this kind of background – look at the public schools , as well as the concert halls. I find it appalling, and as if often the case with lowering standards, it starts at home and is replicated in school.

  16. Capt. Spaulding says:

    Here we go again…
    Chicago Symphony is on strike and according to the CSO’s website, naturally it’s the players fault and they are going to spell out just how cushy the players have it. The players are doing their jobs, excellently I might add, and management is not.

    • I was browsing the San Francisco Symphony website, as a friend wanted to attend a concert and was seeking a recommendation, and I see that the administration of this excellent orchestra numbers 94!
      I imagine that this is a trend amongst most american orchestras, but wonder just what all these people are doing if, as I am led to believe, dwindling donations and audiences are impacting on the ability to pay the musicians properly.
      Ps. Sorry for copying my earlier comment, but it fits perfectly.

      • Just checked CSO website. 123 administrative staff members, and 99 orchestra members, including librarians. The orchestra I play with in Zürich has 104 orchestra members including librarians, and 34 members of administration………

        • David, about 2/3 of staff in US orchs are involved with fund-raising and donor care.

          • Point taken, but if they aren’t raising those donations to such a high level anymore, then surely they should be brought to account, and not the musicians.

          • I can’t reply to Greenlees, and this is not in reference to those who have remained musicians — whatever they do….

            It’s often the “musicians” who used to be orchestral players that are now responsible for the problems in this beautiful country: the USA! Not only is this increasing manifold, it’s ESCALATING!

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