Making better musicians for today and tomorrow

Historically, most orchestra musicians take a very passive role in how their orchestra functions; artistically, and administratively.  They play the music and administrators make the decisions, end of story.  But one orchestra has taken a large step toward moving musicians from passive to active participants.  The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra recently underwent a massive transformation that now provides a much larger role for musician participation.  You can find a great deal of detail about this new model in the October issue of Harmony, published by the Symphony Orchestra Institute.


Although I plan to focus future blogs on the changes at St. Paul, the important message their situation sends to the rest of the industry is that musicians need to take a much more active role in how their organization functions.  The old mentality of “you’re only a musician, so just do your job and play” is as archaic as believing the world is flat.


In order for musicians to actively participate, a few critical factors will need to transpire: 

  1. Musicians are going to have to try much harder to understand how their orchestra functions, even if it’s only on a minimal basis.  I know there are many players that merely want to show up, play their music, and go home. But that won’t work as standard operating procedure anymore.  Active participation will become a necessary component to the life of a future musician.
  2. Management must provide the musicians complete access to all of the organizational information.  They can’t expect musicians to be involved if they aren’t willing to share all there is to know. 
  3. The board and management must provide a genuine level of control to the musicians.  Mostly in the form of artistic personnel issues, artistic planning, and how that artistic vision is marketed to the public, but also in other form of governance.  I talked about this at length in an earlier blog; Empowerment Issues.


Will this be a difficult task for present day orchestras?  Certainly, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is a good example of how challenging this task is.  But that is why we should start to think about breaking the cycle of passive participation among musicians of tomorrow by instituting a music business component into the standard music conservatory curriculum.


I was fortunate to have participated in some of the best conservatory programs in the country.  But no where throughout my music performance curriculum did I learn about the business of the industry.  I remember a graduate level course in bibliography, but unfortunately it didn’t do me very much good.  I would have been much better off having a class in music business focusing on the how an orchestra operates.


There needs to be a concerted effort throughout the university music industry to include a music business component as a required course for upper-class and graduate level music performance students.  Having educated, knowledgeable musician’s for tomorrow’s orchestras will guarantee a much more productive climate for orchestra administrators.


So what do you think this curriculum should include?

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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