Fly-In, Fly-Out Music Directors

More than half of the ROPA and ICSOM orchestras in this country employ a music director that does not reside in the community where the orchestra performs. Although that may strike you as staggering statistic, it has been the norm for over a decade. Part of the trouble is that the role of the music director is inconsistent across the country. Most music directors only focus on the artistic output of their orchestra, while others will additionally focus on building community and business relationships. The later individual is the most likely to live in the communities where they work. The former lives far outside the community and falls into the category of “fly in, fly out” music directors. So how important is it for a music director to live in the communities they work, and how does this relate to orchestra management?

All of this ties in together through several key points:

  1. An orchestra’s marketing department needs to have a “face” which represents the orchestra. This “face” is necessary to build a connection to the community and establish a strong audience base.
  2. The operations department requires logistical flexibility for orchestra services to help minimize expenditures. So you can see that a music director who is only in town for only days at a time would make scheduling needlessly inefficient.
  3. The development department needs an orchestra “face” they can present to potential donors and at fundraising events. People that are excited about classical music are more apt to donate. And who better to excite the community about classical music than a music director that has dedicated their lives to it?
  4. The artistic department needs to have an individual that will help establish a day-to-day artistic image in addition to sustaining a steady long-term artistic vision.
  5. The executive management needs to have consistent personal contact with the music director to help establish a steady flow of communication, thus confirming the direction of the organization.
  6. The board needs to have an individual that they can rely on to inspire and reassure them that their hard work and dedication is appreciated.
  7. Last but not least, the musicians need to see someone working with them side-by-side to make the orchestra an artistic success. Not a “privileged” music director that flies-in right before masterworks rehearsals, then flies-out immediately after the concert.

In order to weather the current financial storms, orchestra managers need to develop creative programs that will increase revenue through development initiatives and ticket sales. Without the central “face” of a music director, that task is exponentially more difficult. Additional problems arise when a music director is unable to create an artistic vision that is appropriate for their community. In order to understand what is appropriate, the music director needs to be a member of the community. Without a music director that is immersed in the community, artistic growth rambles along without direction and the orchestras have a difficult time connecting to their local audiences.

As a result, some orchestras are attempting to fill a portion of these roles with individual orchestra musicians. Although it’s a good idea, the problem is a lack of participation and enthusiasm among the musicians. From their view, the music director is paid to fulfill those public roles, so they don’t exactly line up to volunteer. And can you blame them? Who wants to do extra work without additional pay to cover for someone that already makes three to five times more than you do? And let’s not forget about the political issues surrounding a musician stepping into the limelight usually reserved for the music director.

The solution is simplistically complicated; the music director should be contractually obligated to reside in the community. Unfortunately, orchestra boards are apprehensive over initiating a residency ultimatum to their music directors. But without a collective industry effort, our orchestras will never develop a long-term artistic vision that inspires a community to participate. Thereby opening the doors for apathy to run rampant throughout the organization: if the music director isn’t here to care, why should I?

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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