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.
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