Working Together: Orchestra Musicians, Boards and Management

The Wall Street Journal for Friday, June 7, 2013 carries an article in the “D” Section, “After Orchestras Strike: A Tale of Two Cities” by Terry Teachout.

The article compares the ways in which two orchestras – The Minnesota Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony – are dealing with their financial problems.   In Minnesota there is a heated confrontation between the musicians and management – an 8-month-long strike that was still going on when the article was published.  The strike in Detroit resulted in all parties – musicians, management, board – to rethink their relationships and to work together to create a new business model with “innovative programs designed to nurture new audiences at home and abroad.”   The article concludes with  a question: “Is that what it will take to save the Minnesota Orchestra as well?”

For the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra that question was answered in the affirmative decades ago.  While there will always be healthy disagreements, the key to avoiding destructive confrontations in Rochester has involved more than simply showing “respect,” as Mr. Teachout suggests in his article.  It has also required understanding – a willingness to listen to opposing views and to respond with ideas that demonstrate a deep understanding of the problems.

To do so requires a major rethinking of the old “us versus them” paradigm.  It means that it is essential for all parties have a “big picture” understanding of their business.  It is no longer viable for musicians to say, “we play the music; you raise and manage the money.”  It’s no longer workable for orchestra boards to say, “we don’t have the money, trust us,” while at the same time avoiding ongoing participation by musicians in all aspects of the business – artistic operations, finance, fund raising, marketing, promotion, and education.

In Rochester, there have long been musicians participating in virtually all aspects of the orchestra’s operations, from Board and committee meetings to finance and programming.  The consequent transparency has resulted in a broader spectrum of understanding that has enabled difficult problems to be addressed without the destructiveness of public confrontations and name-calling, avoiding a lose/lose scenario.

For musicians, boards and managements, the challenge is to become educated on all aspects of their orchestra’s operations – a challenge that requires a significant commitment of  time.  In Rochester this education process has evolved over several strike-less decades.  It has not been necessary for every single musician to understand every monthly financial report, although that would be great.  But it is necessary that musicians have a formal structure that enables their colleague representatives to obtain information about ongoing operations and to insure that the information is clearly communicated to everyone.  It is also necessary that all parties have regular opportunities to ask questions, instead of placing all communication solely on contract negotiations.

The formal structure may involve nothing more than a bulletin board in an easily accessible location with regularly posted summaries of meetings and ongoing operations.  Or the structure might involve periodic seminar/workshops attended by all parties, as has been done in Rochester over the years.

Another idea is to set aside one or more paid orchestra services each season for contractually required professional development workshops presented by facilitators who have a broad understanding of orchestra operations.  Perhaps such seminars could be developed and presented by major conservatories in collaboration with major business schools.  The goal is to increase understanding and thereby sustain this institution which is so important to so many – the symphony orchestra.

William L. Cahn
Principal Percussionist, Rochester Philharmonic (1968 to 1995)
Rochester Philharmonic Board of Directors (1995 to 2004)
Rochester Philharmonic Honorary Board of Directors (2005 to present)
Assoc. Professor of Percussion, Eastman School of Music (2006 to present)

About the author

Bill Cahn
Bill Cahn

Bill Cahn has been a member of the NEXUS percussion group since its formation in 1971, performing in concerts, films, recordings, and broadcasts all over the world. He was also the Principal Percussionist in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra from 1968 to 1995, and he has appeared as soloist with symphony orchestras and at music festivals worldwide.

Bill has produced eight CDs, written books and articles about music and percussion, and he has written and conducted Pops and educational programs for symphony orchestras. His book Creative Music Making, on the subject of freeform improvisation, was published in March 2005 by Taylor & Francis/ Routledge Books. His chamber and orchestral compositions featuring percussion are widely performed.

Bill’s workshops include the subjects of improvisation, percussion performance, careers in music, and the business of music. He was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society’s Hall Of Fame in November, 1999.


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  • Thank you for the clarification.
    Although the Wall Street Journal was the source, the situation in
    Minneapolis may more accurately be called a “work stoppage,” or a
    “lockout.” In either case, the fundamental problems of mistrust and
    poor communications remain. The terms, “strike,” and “lockout” both
    carry an implication that “it’s their (musicians, or board/management)
    fault,” as if all of the blame/responsibility for the work stoppage
    belongs to the other side. It’s an “us” versus “them” mindset, and
    that’s the basic issue.

    There are questions to be asked:
    * Did the work stoppage come as a surprise? (It shouldn’t have.)
    * Prior to the work stoppage was there any indication over the
    preceding year(s) that a crisis was approaching? (There should have
    * Did all parties understand and have access to the orchestra’s
    financial information? (They should have.)
    * Did all of the parties trust each other? (They should.)
    * What collaborative efforts (musicians, management, board), if
    any, occured to address the problems? (There should have been plenty.)
    * Were problems addressed only through contract negotiations? (They
    should not have been.)
    * Was there any formal process in place for regular and ongoing
    collaboration (musicians, management, board) in all aspects of
    orchestra operations? (There should have been.)

    The responses to these questions will indicate the extent to which
    there is a “working together” mindset. It appears that the “us/them”
    mindset hasn’t worked in Minnesota, which is the point of Mr.
    Teachout’s closing question in the Wall Street Journal article.

    Bill Cahn

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