I have had the very real privilege of participating as Search Committee Chair for the Eugene Symphony’s last three Music Director Searches, which resulted in the appointments of Marin Alsop, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and Giancarlo Guerrero. Each Search presented different challenges for the organization. Each required a Search process that fit the times. And even though it seemed unlikely at the beginning, each Search ended with a strong consensus around one candidate. The Music Directors we selected all went on to build a different aspect of our orchestra. And, most importantly, with each Music Director our orchestra has given our audience artistic experiences that have been beyond our best expectations.
One of the reasons these Searches were successful is that they were guided by principles that the Search Committee adopted at the beginning of each Search. This article summarizes the principles and practices that worked well in three key areas:
- 1. the composition of the Search Committee,
- 2. the development of a consensus, and
- 3. getting to know the candidates as artists.
A Balanced Search Committee
In order for the Search process to be respected by the entire organization, the members of the Board and the musicians of the orchestra must believe that the process will have integrity, that their voices will be heard, and that the Search will not result in a new Music Director who is unacceptable to their constituent group. In order to be convinced of this, the musicians and the Board members must be confident that their group will have real power and influence in the process. While the job of the Search Committee is to recommend the next Music Director to the Board, and the ultimate decision to accept or reject that recommendation is the Board’s, a Search that is controlled by the Board, or for that matter by the Executive Director, invites the musicians, and even the audience, to feel disenfranchised.
For this reason, it is important that the number of musician members of the Search Committee equal the total of the Board and community members of the Committee.This balance means that the work of the Committee will require agreements involving members of all the groups. No one group will have the power to control the process. This knowledge alone gives the process credibility.
Also, the musicians and the Board should each have the right to select their own delegates to the Search Committee, without either group having approval rights over the other’s selections. Again, this gives each group confidence that they will have voices in the process who truly understand, and who will truly advocate for, the group’s perspectives.
In order to preserve this balance, the Chair of the Committee should either be completely independent of the Orchestra and the Board, or if the Chair is a Board or musician member, s/he must be perceived by all as someone who will manage the process fairly and impartially. This frees the Chair from being identified with positions on issues unrelated to the Search that could potentially be divisive and distracting.
To prevent any person from having too much power in the Search, the orchestra’s Executive Director should serve as an ex-officio/non-voting member of the Committee.The Executive Director will staff the Search Committee and be responsible for all professional contacts during the Search. His/her opinions and views about Search issues will be important for the Committee to consider, but they should not be controlling. The organization’s constituents, not its professional staff, should choose their next artistic leader.
Consensus decision-making is a critical point. The Search Committee should operate by consensus for much of its work. Votes should be taken only when necessary, and significant decisions should never be made by close votes. An overwhelming majority must support major decisions. It is especially important for the Committee to agree at the beginning that the vote in favor of the candidate to be recommended to the Board as the next Music Director must be supported by an overwhelming majority of Committee members. Unanimous approval is not an appropriate requirement because this gives control to any person who chooses to veto the decision. Overwhelming support demonstrates that the candidate has created a consensus.
A close vote is a difficult burden for a Music Director to overcome once s/he takes the job, especially if the vote splits along Board/musician lines. The Search Committee should confront this reality at the beginning of the process by agreeing that if the final vote is close, the Search will continue – no matter how hard or financially difficult this seems. Continuing the Search may require bringing in new candidates, or it may be resolved by giving the existing finalists new opportunities to build a consensus. This commitment makes the creation of a consensus, not just a simple majority, the goal.
The Search process should be designed so that it gives candidates a fair opportunity to create a consensus. You can do this in a number of ways. Always remember that you are looking for the “right” candidate. Don’t waste time and create controversy and divisiveness by arguing about who is the “best” candidate. “Right” is a question of chemistry. The right candidate will be a catalyst in your environment. Discussing who is the “best” candidate often becomes an argument about technique or artistic preferences, which may have little actual relevance to who may be right for your specific situation.
Do not let your process become adversarial. As you review applications, make cuts by dividing candidates into three groups:
A – We will look at these applications more now.
B – These applications are on hold for possible further review later.
C – We are finished with these candidates.
Sorting candidates into groups helps the Committee members make difficult judgments in a way that reduces conflict within the Committee.
These techniques place the focus on the opportunities a new leader might bring to an organization, instead of the politics of the selection process. This enables the Committee to look creatively at candidates – to see them for what they might become, not just for what they have been.
Identify the Qualities You Want in a Music Director, but Make Sure That Musicianship Is Always Your First Priority
Spend time early in the Search process talking about the qualities you are looking for in a Music Director. Don’t use anyone else’s model list, other than your own from your last Search. If your organization has a special need, identify it early on, and then look for it – make it a part of your job announcement.
But remember, the only priorities you should assign to these qualities is the following:
Musicianship is number one; everything else is number two.
Why? The artistic leadership of your organization is in the hands of your Music Director. Every other responsibility must take second place. This doesn’t mean that qualities such as assistance with fundraising or attention to administrative matters are unimportant; it does mean they are less important. This principle should be among the first of the guiding principles that the Committee adopts.
One technique that works well for implementing this principle is to agree that the initial review of candidate applications will be conducted by a sub-group of musician Committee members who will be responsible for reducing the pool to those applicants who have the musical credentials needed to lead your orchestra. This way the Committee knows that it will only be reviewing applicants whose musical credentials are acceptable to the musician delegates. But be sure that you view this as just the beginning, and not the end, of the priority that musicianship should receive during the Search.
Get to Know Your Candidates as Artists
Each of your finalists will have a unique, personal approach to making art. You get to know this in only one way: you must experience them as artists.
Each finalist must have the opportunity to lead your orchestra as an artist, making his/her own artistic choices, not just conducting an audition program chosen by someone else. Be sure the finalist’s conducting opportunity gives the candidate a chance to prepare and perform at least one major work of his/her choice that the candidate believes says something important about him/her as an artist. Ask your finalists to create and present to the Committee their hypothetical first season with your orchestra.
Pay special attention to candidates whom other artists are excited about on purely artistic grounds. And be sure that you listen only to musicians about this. Listen for the “buzz” – this is a candidate musicians go out of their way to work with; a candidate that gets opportunities to do many interesting things in addition to guest conducting, such as festivals, special projects, and premieres.
But even when you hear the “buzz,” remember that there are no experts about your orchestra but you. Don’t let anyone on the outside tell you who your next Music Director must be. They are telling you who is “best,” not who is “right” for you. The buzz tells you which candidates others are excited about. You should be interested in bringing those candidates into your process, and maybe later, excited about them for your orchestra.
Finally, design and run your Music Director Search so that it rejuvenates your organization, and it will do just that if you stay focused on the opportunity that a new artistic leader can give you to create and experience art in new ways. See the Search process as the time when everyone – Board, musicians, and community – works together toward a common artistic goal: the selection of a leader who will be the catalyst for a new collaboration that enriches our lives and our city with music.
Roger Saydack is a Founding Shareholder of Arnold Gallagher Saydack Percell Roberts & Potter, PC. He is a faculty member at the American Symphony Orchestra League, Director Emeritus of the Oregon Festival of American Music, and Past President of the Oregon Bach Festival.He has served as Chair ofthree Music Director Search Committees for the Eugene Symphony Orchestra.