October 16, 2010

As this is my first blog entry, I thought it helpful to set a context for my comments about the field of orchestras in the United States. I am a professional trumpeter player, educator, administrator, and board member for the League of American Orchestras. My passion for orchestral music and the professionals who keep the music playing runs quite deep. As a youngster, members of the San Diego Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic taught me the trumpet. I’ve been fortunate to perform as soloist with orchestras, to write music for orchestras, and to sit in the brass section of the New York< Brooklyn, Long Island Philharmonics, Lansing Symphony, and numerous per service orchestras in the New York area. Many of my friends and colleagues perform in orchestras, run orchestras and are on boards of orchestras across the country. I am honored to be the Dean of The Hartt School at the University of Hartford whose conservatory-style training prepares dance, theater, and music students for professional life in the arts including symphony orchestras. I am also no stranger to the great work of Polyphonic.org.

The year 2010 has already seen many thoughtful conversations occur about the future of American Orchestras. The effects of the global recession, the questions about value expressed in recent comments and actions by state and federal policy makers that negatively impact the non-profit arts sector, and the positive and creative innovations in presenting music and distributing music have been discussed. January saw The University of Michigan hosted a 3-day American Orchestras Summit.  June saw The League of American Orchestras held its annual Conference in Atlanta. This September, The Hartt School held a panel on “The Future of American Orchestras” with a cross-section of constituents including a conductor, professional orchestra manager, youth orchestra manager, orchestral musician, and aspiring young conservatory student focus on playing in an orchestra.  There are at least two common themes at these diverse conversations. They are

Increasing Community Relevance

Expanding role of the orchestral musicians


As we look at these items, I note that we are a very conservative field by and large. We cherish tradition and trust what we already know, no matter how effective they are or are not. Therefore, any change is initially looked at as a threat rather than as an opportunity. Many are tempted to suppress facts we think will make our field look bad (i.e. the NEA’s 2008 Audience Research) rather than embrace the opportunity to creatively and collaboratively learn from and respond to them. We prefer things (i.e. music, concert attire, schedules, etc) to stay the same. Most humans like consistency. Therefore, to many inside orchestras, these two discussion items read not just as ways to improve the field, but as threats of change that are only bad for me. As an African-American, I am keenly aware that 50 years ago, I would not have been allowed to audition for most major orchestras, would not expect to see an Asian female conductor, or had any Hispanic in an executive position within my orchestra. Today, I trust, embrace, and welcome all of that changing and see it as a sign of how great music overcomes fear of the unknown. I welcome the use of technology to share our music on YouTube, in movie theatres, iPhone apps, and on ringtones. (Read the NEA’s new “Audience 2.0 How Technology Influences Arts Participation”)  I welcome the growth in youth orchestras, the growth and professionalism of teaching artists within orchestras, and the incredible music written in my time. Although all change is not growth, only an open mind and attitude leads toward innovation and positive change. These quotes say it better.

He who rejects change is the architect of decay.  The only human institution, which rejects progress, is the cemetery.  ~Harold Wilson

Our only security is our ability to change.  ~John Lilly

We would rather be ruined than changed;
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
~W.H. Auden


There is a need for our field to bravely, calmly, and thoughtfully address some basic realities. One reality has existed back to the 1880’s when Henry Higginson was writing checks to cover the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s annual deficits. However, the support structure to “make up the deficits” has changed over time from Henry Higginson, to the Ford Foundation, to the Corporations, to the economic boom in the 80’s.

REALITY: Orchestras earn only between 20-35% of their revenue from selling tickets to concerts. The remaining 70% of needed money, which we musicians were not trained by our schools and teachers to help raise must be donated by someone. We were not educated in college or graduate school as to how our business run or what they need to run well. Therefore, most musicians essentially believe “we play, you pay.”

Play means musicians play their instruments in rehearsals and performances. Pay means the orchestra, which we assume is the board serving as Henry Higginson, pays us. How they are able to pay us is not our concern, so the attitude goes. In that simple saying, of course marketing, producing, selling tickets to the concert, managing the human and material resources, and providing arts education are not considered. Many orchestras have provided in–house professional development, access to training workshops, on arts education topics and other subjects. Nevertheless, it is frightening to think that we would be asked to do anything besides play. We, like any highly educated professional, prefer feeling amply prepared for a task. Also, this was not the deal we believed we were getting into.

When the orchestra field can address this complicated issue squarely, we can see improvement in the stability of our organizations and professional fulfillment for our musicians. I believe we will see this when a larger percentage of the individual’s skills and interests (writing, technology, education, public speaking, researching music, etc.) heretofore ignored by their orchestras could be found to have a unique benefit to their orchestra.


The recent musician’s strike at the Detriot Symphony Orchestra has an interesting parallel to the dispute between Cablevision and NewsCorp. This morning in the northeast, NewsCorp removed all Fox programming from Cablevision customers. This was apparently done to pressure Cablevision to pay more for access to Fox programming. Each side has its points and I trust a resolution will eventually be found.

In the meantime, broadcast of Major League Baseball’s playoffs may be affected and millions of customers are without their favorite programming. Similarly, thousands of Michigan residents and out of town visitors are without symphonic music in Detroit during this strike. While the parties in this disagreement find some common ground, the situation is good for no one. The brand of the orchestra is diminished and the public is being forced to think about how much their life is changed or is not changed by the absence of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. I wonder how that will play out. In 1981, we were without Baseball during the strike. What will the impact of the Detroit Symphony strike on the brand of American Orchestras?

This is a precarious time and a precarious way to test the value of orchestras to our community. With a 9.6% unemployment rate, the depth of sympathy for the issues at the symphony will be interesting to see.

As creative people, I have faith that we will get past this strike. I also have faith we will embrace more opportunities for positive change. Perhaps the slogan will evolve to represent the relationship in a more collaborative and mature way.

I look forward to that happening.

About the author

Aaron Flagg

Aaron A. Flagg was named dean of The Hartt School of the University of Hartford in March of 2009 by President Walter Harrison and Provost Lynn Pasquerella. As dean, he oversees a performing arts college for music, dance, and theatre with approximately 750 undergraduate and graduate students and 250 faculty and staff.

Originally from Baldwin Park, CA, Dr. Flagg is a professional trumpet player and received his undergraduate and master's degrees from The Juilliard School and his doctorate from the University of Michigan. His diverse experience includes concerto, recital, orchestral, and chamber music performances in classical, jazz, and new music.

Prior to his appointment at the University of Hartford, he was Executive Director of Music Conservatory of Westchester (2005-2009), a graduate faculty member and Director of Educational Outreach at The Juilliard School (2000-2005), and Director of the Jazz Studies program at the University of Connecticut (1999-2000).

As a trumpet player, Dr. Flagg has given concerto and other solo performances with orchestras, toured with chamber music groups, and performed numerous recitals. He has given master classes and recitals at Jackson State University and Fayetteville State University, and presented lectures at the Curtis Institute, Oberlin College, and Carnegie Hall.

His jazz performances include the Illinois Jacquet Big Band, the Music Outreach Jazz Ensemble, and the Aaron Flagg Quartet. He has toured with the Tania Leon's Son Sonora Ensemble; recorded with Roberta Flack and operatic soprano Barbara Conrad; and performed with the New York Philharmonic, Manhattan Virtuosi, Lansing Symphony, Brooklyn Philharmonic, Wynton Marsalis, Gladys Knight, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, among others.

Dr. Flagg is currently a board member of the League of American Orchestras in New York. He has served on numerous grant panels and was New York Metro Area chapter chair for the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts. He has been a consultant with arts presenting organizations and universities around the country, while also being a teaching artist for 15 years with organizations including the Lincoln Center Institute, Carnegie Hall Education, New York Philharmonic Education, Memphis Arts Council, Guggenheim Museum, and the New York City Opera. He was named a national spokesman for the Music Educators National Conference in Virginia in 1999 and received the Rising Star Award for Westchester's "Forty under Forty" in 2008.

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