A Good Perspective

I recently finished reading Walking in Two Worlds: A Librarian’s Perspective by Karen Schnackenberg, chief librarian for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The article was published in the Symphony Orchestra Institute’s October, 2003 edition of “Harmony”. If they ever decide to legalize cloning I would suggest they start with Karen, as the orchestra world can certainly use about 50 more people just like her. I’ll hit a few of the highlights here, but you should read the article in its entirety to completely appreciate its value.

“One basic principle I see reinforced every day as a librarian is that there is no substitute for passion and a belief in what we do. This passion for the art needs to be exhibited consistently from the top music director, executive director, and board executive committee down to the players, managers, support staff, artistic staff, and all board members.”

I’m glad to see that principle expressed in such a concise, articulate manner. Everyone’s actions have a ripple effect throughout his or her respective organization. When a member of the executive management only shows up to 5% of the orchestra’s performances, the musicians notice (not to mention the staff that does regularly attend concerts). So without really intending to do so, this executive manager has branded themselves as someone that doesn’t really care for the art or the musicians that create it. In turn, this fuels a dangerous sentiment of animosity between players and administration that serves no good purpose. Even the smallest decision or gesture of favoritism on part of an administrator toward an individual musician can have a negative consequence among the other musicians. Eventually the outcome is hard feelings between players, resulting in a degradation of artistic achievement. This small gesture of favoritism toward a preferred colleague ends up costing the entire orchestra time, funds, and artistic excellence.

Karen goes on to suggest that candidates for administrative positions should posses something special beyond their technical expertise. She expresses these ideas in the following questions:

  • “Why do you want to work for the symphony?”

  • “What passion do you bring to this position that makes you different from the next person?”

  • “Do you have a deep commitment to this art form and its importance to this community and the world?”

  • “Will you go to concerts and visibly support our mission?”

All excellent questions, which I feel are becoming old-fashioned in the face of the newly emerging “cultural administration class” being churned out by existing Arts Administration programs. Ask any member of the orchestra why they wanted to become a musician. I bet you’ll be hard pressed to find a single one among them that went into it for the money. As a matter of fact, try presenting it as an idea and see what type of responses you get. This is also at the heart of the idea in one of my earlier blogs; The trouble with Arts Administration degrees. Without this underlying commitment and passion for the art of orchestral music, it’s likely that an administrator will end up as part of the problem as opposed to part of the solution.

I have to admit that I was very disappointed by one aspect of the article. Toward the end, Karen suggests a ” program of volunteer exchanges among departments and employees, musicians, and board members throughout the organization.” She believes that this will help eliminate unnecessary differences between individuals, minimize inefficiency, and build a real sense of team spirit. What I’m disappointed with, is that this only a suggestion and not already standard practice throughout orchestras. I have a steadfast belief that managers should have direct experience with every facet of their given department. The higher the manager, the more direct experience they need. I like to see the executive director pulling a stint in the box office, the orchestra manager learning how to send out a hundred press releases, and everyone in an office pitching in to solve a problem of immediate need, even if it’s just stuffing a bunch of envelopes simply because is needs to get done right then and there.

All in all, this article is a great read, regardless if you’re an administrator, musician, or “knowledgeable nonprofessional classical music activist”. It’s a noteworthy look into what an orchestra is and how it functions (or should function).

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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