Reader Response: Reassessing The Music Director

Last weeks’ series on music directors generated a great deal of email from readers, most of which were musicians, and they have generously granted permission to include excerpts from their correspondence in today’s Reader Response.  But first, I wrote to JoAnn Falletta to ask a few questions about her role as music director for both the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony.  Ms. Falletta graciously responded with these thoughts about her position in both orchestras:

I feel very strongly that my presence in two communities with two
different orchestras is beneficial to both organizations. I learn a
tremendous amount from each group of musicians, and can share that
musical knowledge, experience and maturity with both orchestras. I have
also "borrowed" development, fundraising and marketing ideas from one
organization to share with the other. Since we are in non-competing
markets, the orchestras have been able to capitalize on "two teams of
experts" by sharing ideas and materials. We have collaborated
artistically by presenting large-scale musical projects (such as fully
staged presentations of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with music of
Prokofiev and Midsummer Night’s Dream with music of Mendelssohn) that
neither orchestra would have been able to afford if presenting alone.

probably would not conduct more concerts if I stayed in one area
exclusively, since I believe the presence of excellent guest conductors
is important for each orchestra’s development. We try hard to find
guests who bring a different musical personality and experience, so
that the orchestra’s artistic growth is enhanced. I do miss the
opportunity to actually attend a large number of concerts I am not
conducting- it is a real treat for me to sit back as a member of the
audience and enjoy each orchestra from that perspective.

I think that the ability to share experience with both orchestras is
extremely important. However, since this practice has such a positive
impact then why don’t orchestras hire principal and section players
with decades of experience to perform regularly with both ensembles
while paying them the full salary for each organization? 

I would have to commend Ms. Falletta for being able to facilitate a
higher level of programming by creating some joint programming, but
this isn’t exactly something that is made possible by the unique
position of the music director.  Some time ago, several orchestra
artistic administrators came up with the idea to create some high
quality pops programming by combining their resources.  Since then the
Indianapolis, Milwaukee, National, and Seattle Symphony Orchestras have
developed the Symphonic Pops Consortium, which continues this joint programming today.

Although I doubt the musicians would argue that they don’t enjoy
performing with guest conductors, I wonder how much more a music
director could accomplish in their community if they actively
participated in a greater number of outreach activities.  Musicians
already spend a great deal of time going into local schools and
performing for students, and I don’t think there’s an orchestra in
America that doesn’t find that program invaluable to their future
success.  Given the amount of non performance time a music director
has, why aren’t they performing in local schools to conduct orchestra
programs for a day in a similar fashion as the players?  How about
taking a small component of the orchestra that isn’t required during a
week’s concert and working on a special chamber project? 

In the end, it would be hard to find a musician that doesn’t enjoy
working with a variety of conductors, but many have intense feelings
regarding the large difference between their compensation as compared
to the amount of work performed and that of their music directors.
Several of them wrote in with those feelings and observations.

Rebecca, a musician from California, wrote in with an observation that led to an interesting question:

It’s not surprising to me that it’s that out of whack, but I never
really thought of the reasoning behind it.  I was curious, however,
regarding the MD’s role in fund-raising.  Anyway, it might be an
interesting study to find out how involved with the community/fund
raising each of the MDs are that you have on your list.  I would love
to know which ones actually EARN their money.

Then there was this insightful message from an orchestra musician
regarding the role music directors play in fundraising as compared to
musicians and how they perceive management’s influence on that process:

During my time with an ICSOM ensemble, I was invited, along with a
few other musicians, to a bit of a get-together with donors and board
members.  It was a bit awkward.  We’re cute to them, not really real
people.  They see themselves as being above us.  They treated the
musicians as though we were just pawns. Now, the music director, they
have power.  I think those people respond more to power than they would
to an individual musician. It just seems that management isn’t willing
to give up the amount of control they would lose by presenting
musicians as being on the same artistic level as the music director.
They seem content to create a virtual firewall between the musicians
and donors.

Another musician wrote in to comment on the comparisons made to a leading pro football athlete:

I would imagine that most people going to concerts (including those
who played clarinet in their high school band) have no idea how closely
being a musician and being an athlete are.  It’s good you brought up
Tom Brady as an analogy. Perfect example for both the amount of time he
spends with his team and also how he must stay fit and practice to
remain sharp in his career.  Most people that pay any small attention
to sports know about the limited career of athletes.  Most people going
to a concert never think about it for musicians.

A ROPA musician wrote in to express their frustration over the large pay discrepancy between music directors and musicians:

I play in two of the ROPA orchestras listed, one of which the music
director gets paid 20 times what I make!! I’ve gone to some of the best
music schools in the U.S., spent summers at the best festivals, work
the freelance scene every week, and have never risen anywhere close to
the poverty line in terms of income. I don’t doubt that our esteemed
maestros work hard enough for their pay, but their outrageously high
salaries make me think the priority in these organizations is certainly
not on the orchestral musician or artistic output. Even the
administrators make more money than us!

Several musicians wrote in to say I forgot to mention the technical
aspects of conducting.  But one email in particular from an orchestral
musician who is also a conductor was very articulate:

It is in the realm of basic performance musicianship that most young
conductors today fall short of their instrumental counterparts. This is
particularly true in regards to rhythm. That a conductor, who is
responsible for setting, maintaining and adjusting the tempo of an
orchestra should be less competent in this respect than the players
they conduct is unacceptable. Yet it takes place every day in many

When an instrumental musician auditions for a spot in a symphony
orchestra, each fundamental aspect of his or her playing is analyzed in
great detail. This is particularly true in regards to rhythm.

A conductor goes through no such scrutiny. In fact, the players of
the orchestra searching for a conductor may not even be asked their
opinion of a prospective conductor’s qualifications.

The way conducting is currently taught at most universities and
conservatories is far more based on theoretical musicianship than
performance musicianship. While the former is incredibly important, it
is completely useless without the latter.

I would suggest that instructors of conducting actively recruit half
of their pupil from the pool of the most talented instrumental music
majors. The other half can come those that apply specifically for the
program. I believe that the excellent players will prove to be far more
successful in the long run than the typical conducting candidates.

The lack of qualified conductors today is more dire than most
outsiders realize. Orchestras should most certainly begin planning for
a future without a music director conductor. The idea that someone,
anyone, must fill that position regardless of qualification is one that
must die soon. Management must also give musicians, who have some
qualifications in the area of evaluating conductors, more say in the

I do have to point out that although the reader is correct to say
"the players of the orchestra searching for a conductor may not even be
asked their opinion of a prospective conductor’s qualifications.", that
doesn’t mean the musicians don’t notice a conductor that has poor
conducting technique and consider that – if
they are allowed to have a considered opinion.  But I agree that
musicianship as compared to performance technique is focused on too
heavily in collegiate and conservatory conducting programs.  This is a
shame because in the end, those musical qualities, while important are,
at best, subjective.

Finally, there was this email from a Dan, a patron in Oregon:

Although I was surprised by how much more music directors earn, how
is this any different than any other type of business?  There’s always
one person at the top running things and the organization hinges on
that one person.  I’ve always assumed it works the same way in an

These responses show a distinct line of thinking on behalf of
players.  And based on those responses it would be a worthwhile
endeavor if the musicians and music directors from each orchestra could
sit down and discuss this issue with open but respectful dialog.
People rarely like talking about how much money they make, but this is
one case where the only progress that can be made toward achieving an
equitable form of compensation for all of the artists in the orchestra
is by tackling old taboos head on.  In the end everyone will end up
with a better artistic product and a healthier organization.

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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