Being the Best that We Can Be

Every year I look down in late August when we start our season, and by the time I am able to look up and catch a breather, it’s almost the end of October.  And every year I say it’s not going to happen this year, that I will take more time to get out of the library, be with family and friends, do more non-work things, have some fun, and enjoy the change to fall.  And every year it goes the same way despite my best intentions — I lose two months.

Where the heck did September and October go????

I’m pretty sure all the other librarians feel that way too, as well as the players and conductors. It’s what we do:  the players are practicing a ton of music for classics, pops, youth and special concerts, and the conductors are jetting around the galaxy for guest appearances in other orchestras, so studying scores for a bunch of different programs at once too.  The librarians are trying to get a handle on the work flow for the season, and prepare the parts as much and as soon as we can so we don’t slip behind when the inevitable music crisis occurs.  I know one thing for sure — everyone I talk to in the business is trying to push through the opening onslaught.  Forget about ever having fall vacations!

I’m not dissing the job here — I am glad for it and the life it allows me to lead.  I’ve certainly experienced the other side of the situation and been out of work, so I know that drill.  It’s terrible.  And many people are dealing with that these days.   Colleagues in our industry are suffering the same fate as in others, and any one of us could be next.  It’s a scary time.

And it’s a time when we need to be careful, in more ways than one, and maybe in ways that seem counterintuitive.  Our orchestras have to bring in revenue over and above ticket sales which are only part of the big picture.  We have to depend upon individual and corporate donors, plus grants and long-term endowment funds.  I understand the temptation to book  more and more “shows” and non-orchestral artists to try and turn a quick $50K.  It makes a lot of sense to knock out those deficits by showcasing popular artists that are not necessarily mainstream classical and that have big followings.  I totally get that, and am certainly not opposed to the need — responsibility, even — to be creative with our programming and who we feature.  And I give credit to the people in artistic planning who are trying to find the right formula, the right balance, knowing that whatever decisions they make, somebody is going to be disappointed.

It’s a little like politicians who have to please their base and keep those core supporters happy enough — or they’ll lose that group over time.  But the politician can’t only please those people, especially if the base is really outside the mainstream.  So, then there is the numbers game about how far away one can move from that base, pulling people from the other side — or center — over.  And then assessing whether it is worth it.

I think Symphony Administrators are dealing with this type of scenario every day.  I put them up for doing so.  Hard work and lots of stress, for sure.  What they are trying to accomplish is more complicated, in a way, than what your average politician is doing.  Because what we do is already considered to be out of the mainstream — and that scares some people into thinking we need to become something else, be what we aren’t.

Which, in my opinion, is exactly the opposite of what we should do.

I’ve been watching how orchestras (the ones I’ve been in and others out there) deal with all this over the years, the economic ups and downs.  I’m personally living though this cycle in a serious way for the third time.  But I still don’t buy what many (even within the arts) would have us believe is the problem.

I don’t believe that classical music is the killer of our industry’s ticket sales and fund-raising.  I also don’t believe that all pops presentations or “shows” have a negative impact on the artistic output of the organization, which is the other end of the spectrum.  I don’t think we should become just pops orchestras, or booking agents, and I definitely don’t believe we should panic and hire sub-par artists or dumb down the quality of our “product” to turn a fast buck.  Cutting corners, as every architect knows, may save money in the short term but it’s a disaster later on for the stability of the building.

I believe that the killer is Bad Music, Badly Played Music, or Badly Marketed Music. Or All Three.

Great music, played well, and marketed with passion, creativity, and belief in what we do works.  It generates buzz and excitement, not to mention civic pride.  It’s okay to do a pops series with an artist that might not fit the usual mold if they perform at a very high level, in a way that can be melded with the orchestra and its fundamental reason for being.  But if it’s an artist whose music doesn’t work well with an orchestra, or, God forbid, someone who isn’t even very good, then we are hurting ourselves.

And I’m not so sure featuring artists without the orchestra helps us at all.  Isn’t the point that the audience hear the orchestra?

I believe our audiences know the difference between Bad Music Played Badly and Good Music Played Well.  They might not understand it, but they know it.  They can hear it and feel it, and they won’t want to be sitting in the hall any more than we want to be on stage if something isn’t good.

I don’t know the answers for all this, and I know orchestras sometimes have to throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.  But let’s at least make sure that the ingredients we use are top-notch.  Let’s Be the Best That We Can Be.

About the author

Karen Schnackenberg
Karen Schnackenberg

Karen Schnackenberg has been Chief Librarian of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra since 1990. Prior to that she was orchestra librarian and violinist with the New Orleans Symphony, Santa Fe Opera, Oklahoma Symphony, and Chamber Orchestra of Oklahoma City. She holds degrees in Music Education/Violin (Bachelors) and Violin Performance (Masters, emphasis in Baroque Performance Practice and Music Theory), with honors, from the University of Oklahoma. She also studied at the Aspen Music Festival and the Meadowmount School of Music. From 1987-1999 she was the classical music columnist for the International Musician, the industry’s trade paper for professional musicians. Karen is Vice President of the Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association (MOLA), a professional association of over 225 orchestras, bands, opera and ballet companies worldwide, and will begin her term as President at that organization’s first European conference in Zürich in April, 2006. Karen also currently serves on the Executive Board of the Dallas/Fort Worth local of the American Federation of Musicians and, in her spare time, is a free-lance violinist, an avid reader, an amateur photographer, and a hiker.

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