Internal disconnects

Orchestras are different in lots of ways from most institutions in our society. But there are commonalities. One was brought home to me today when I read a blog post by a UC Berkeley prof on the tension between academics and university administrators:

…university administrators and ordinary academics have totally different ideas of what counts as “action” or “innovation.” We agree that someone who stands pat and never acts to create new things is lazy. But administrators and professors, while using the same words, like “new,” “exciting,” and “creative,” do not mean the same thing.

Administrators see innovation much as businesspeople do. It’s a matter of seizing opportunities, anticipating customer demand, differentiating one’s product, signaling a market niche, and landing big clients: entrepreneurship and marketing. Being active means writing strategic plans, crafting mission statements, thinking of centers to found, and making pitches to donors. In contrast, academics see our “ordinary” teaching and research as tremendously innovative. Our fields are constantly changing, and we read late into the night without ever feeling we’ve caught up… Most of us change our course lineup drastically from year to year to reflect the changing focuses of our research, and change the content of existing courses to reflect both new knowledge and new insights into what worked in our teaching last year and what didn’t.

So when administrators complain that professors are reluctant to sign on to their initiatives, they sometimes fail to realize that from where professors sit, they don’t seem like real initiatives: they don’t advance either the pursuit of new knowledge or its communication… Similarly, when professors complain that Deans (or their PR staffs) don’t promote our achievements in teaching and research, we fail to grasp that there are people who sincerely can’t perceive the newness and excitement of keeping up with a scholarly debate and contributing something new to it. What we perceive as radically different from what came before, they perceive as the same: “just professors and their books.”

The tension within orchestral institutions between staff and musicians stems at least in part from similar causes. What musicians view as “success” is not always what staff would call successful. What musicians (and conductors) think are interesting programs are not what staff to be to held responsible for selling to audiences and sponsors. What musicians might think are important initiatives for the institution’s success often have little resonance with those who are charged with finding the money to pay for them.

But what managements view as critically important activities can be things the musicians find both uninteresting and unpromising. One of the current memes in management circles is “community engagement.” What that can often look like to musicians is playing poorly-attended concerts of pops or light classics under the assistant conductor in bad halls- which is not what they became musicians to do.

This is not the same problem as the one usually pointed to by union activists, which is that musicians’ livelihoods are management’s costs. That’s an inevitable tension in most institutions. But it’s not always the same as what lies behind the differences in how musicians and managements/boards prioritize various activities.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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