Not long ago, as a student at the Eastman School of Music, I thought I had a good idea of what it would be like to play in a professional orchestra. Like many of my fellow students, I spent hours in the practice room, motivated by a passion for music. By comparison, however, I spent little time considering the non-artistic aspects of music. I assumed that after winning a job I would simply show up and play and the orchestra’s management would take care of everything else. After four years as a member of a professional orchestra, I now understand that success as an orchestral musician depends on a lot more than playing my instrument. In fact, the ability of musicians to understand their role in the organization and unite behind a collective vision may be one of the primary factors for determining an orchestra’s success.
In order to develop a collective vision, it is important to understand the relationship between management and musicians. Recently, throughout the orchestra world, there has been a popular management trend that stresses compromise, cooperation, and “shared decision making.” At the root of this philosophy is the idea that conflict should be avoided in order to help develop a unified vision.
Nevertheless, after serving for two years on my orchestra’s education and artistic advisory committees, my observation is that the more this idea takes hold, the more fractured the orchestra becomes. It causes me to wonder why such seemingly positive ideas actually create the opposite effect. One answer may be that the whole concept of shared decision making is viewed by many musicians as an attempt by management to placate musicians.
Even with increased input from musicians, managers and board members still make all of the decisions; but when it comes time for accountability, the blame is “shared” by everyone. Perhaps the main reason this concept fails is because organizational growth does not occur as a result of compromise, but almost always as a result of conflict. I’ve observed that positive conflict serves as a constructive tool which forces us to stop avoiding problems and start confronting them.
Through good faith communication, positive conflict has the potential to move an organization forward. In this process it is essential that both musicians and management come together with well defined points of view and that both sides are equal in strength and integrity. Our job is to hammer out a deal that is fair for everyone. Working in good faith means that despite different viewpoints, everyone has the welfare of the orchestra as the common goal.
By understanding their distinct role in the orchestra, musicians bolster their hand during all interactions with management and the board, and the entire organization benefits. Musicians have a responsibility to serve as the orchestra’s primary artistic compass. As such, the healthy conflict between artistic concerns (represented by musicians) and fiscal responsibility (represented by management and the board) contributes to an environment where the organization can reach its greatest potential.
If musicians are to effectively move their orchestra forward artistically, they must first unite behind a collective vision. This is not something that can be done alone by a committee. Instead,it must involve the entire orchestra and it must include a sincere dialogue that respects all opinions while allowing the views of the majority to come to the forefront.
Musicians might find a good starting point by looking at other orchestras in similar size cities and seeing how their own orchestra stacks up in terms of budget size, pay, season length, core size, etc. If musicians from one orchestra notice significant differences between their ensemble and another, it might be helpful to find out why these differences exist. The results will allow musicians to learn more about orchestra management elsewhere so they can hold their own management accountable.
How can orchestras develop a collective vision? Obviously, each orchestra is going to have different circumstances that will lead them in different directions. However, I’ve begun to think that some questions worth asking include:
What kind of orchestra does our community want?
- 1. Are we big enough to properly serve our audience and become an integral part of the community?
- 2. Are we an organization that corporations and donors are proud and excited to invest in?
- 3. What is a reasonable audience base for a city our size; and if our audience is smaller than we feel it should be, what can we do to change this?
- 4. Are we, as musicians, being fairly compensated? If not, how do we work toward fair compensation?
In the end, every orchestra’s success seems to boil down to two questions: “Are we providing the community with the most exciting, artistically satisfying product possible?” and “Are we selling it to them in an effective, creative way?”
Four years after winning a job in a professional orchestra, I have a deeper understanding of my role as a musician. I also have a greater appreciation for the work of the musicians who came before me. It was their hard work that built the orchestra I inherited. After serving on two committees, I realize that while an individual can have a positive impact, there is no replacement for unified leadership from musicians as a whole. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect a compelling organizational vision to emerge overnight. However, it is important that we as musicians begin the conversation internally, not merely among committee members but among the entire membership. While compromise may seem safe and comfortable, we must understand that respectful, positive conflict will enable us to develop our own well-defined vision, capable of promoting organizational growth.