TAFTO Contribution – Bill Eddins

Conductor and pianist William (Bill) Eddins has been a really popular guy this past year. Most notably, he was appointed as the music director for the Edmonton Symphony and as such has been the focus of dozens of newspaper articles worldwide and oh yes, he’s also the principal guest conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland (not to mention the co-author of teh blog, Sticks and Drones)…

As a passionate believer in taking the lead when it comes to
bringing music to the people, Bill is well equipped for the task.  He
possesses first rate musical credentials, enough performance experience
to fill a few lifetimes, a razor sharp wit, and (much like the late
Douglas Adams) a well honed personal philosophy about Life, the
Universe and Everything.

“Louise, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Humphrey Bogart

(The Scene: Late night…… wispy fog…… clock tolling the hours
in the distance…… cat knocking over a trash can……. entrance to
a dark alley………… Humphrey Bogart look-alike in rain coat and
Fedora hat……..)

“Psssst!!……. Hey buddy!…..  Yeah, you der……..
c’mer…… over here……….  yeah, dat’s right, over here………
say, buddy, I’se got an offer youse can’t refuse…….. yeah, dat’s
right……..Say, do ya wanna go to an orchestra concert?……..”

OK, it hasn’t gotten quite this bad, but that day might not be too
far off.  Every week that I’m on the road someone, at some point, will
get to the moment in the conversation where they discover that I’m a
musician.  Usually they are very intrigued.  Then they learn I play the
piano, which frequently generates stories of how their parents tried
desperately to get them to learn the instrument but they didn’t have
the time/patience/whatever.  This last part is always accompanied by a
certain wistfulness in the eye that betrays that they wish they had
kept at it.  But then comes the fateful moment that they discover that
I play gasp! Classical music.  Not only that, I’m that rarest of the specie Homo Musica Musicallis a CONDUCTOR!

Instantly the barrier comes up.  They look at me like I’m some Old
Testament prophet baying at the moon. I guess the fact that I’m a black
guy from Buffalo dressed in jeans, dark sunglasses, a t-shirt, and
sporting a silver cuff in my left ear had thrown them off.  Gee I
wonder why?  I look in the mirror and I could just swear I look like a
typical conductor.  Well, the next several minutes is spent with me
trying to assuage them that: 1) No, I don’t sleep in a coffin during
the day; 2)  Yes, I love garlic; and 3) what I do is not the cultural
equivalent of selling your soul to Bill Gates (I use Macs anyway).  If
I manage to calm them down enough then I can move on to #4 “Say, would
you like to come to one of my concerts?”  Critical to this idea is
getting the mark’s email address so that you can hound them mercilessly
over the next couple of days.

Hound them, you say?  Of course.  You see, the response to the
“would you like” question is always that they’ve wanted to attend an
orchestra concert forever, but they’ve felt intimidated by the idea,
the setting, the music, the etc.  So if you don’t hound them, answer
every question, calm every fear, threaten their soul with eternal
damnation, etc., they’re probably going to get cold feet.  Now this is
our own fault the ridiculous self-important aura that permeates how we
in the Classical music business are perceived by “civilians” has been
excellently described by other TAFTO contributors,
so I shan’t go into it here.  Suffice it to say we still have a lot of
work to do before the average Joe will be willing to take a flyer on an
orchestra concert without having his sanity questioned by friends and

But how do we (and by “we” I mean either musicians or music
advocates) get a friend to come to a concert?  Familiarity helps.  Let
me quote from a recent email I received from my friend Margaret L. who
lives in Australia and had a run-in with Messiaen’s Catalogue d’ iseaux:

“The Music Festival day was incredibly stimulating and actually
very demanding on the ear, the brain and all the senses.  The
performance space is in the wine barrel storage shed which gives a
wonderful acoustic and the performances are very intimate (about 260
people are fitted in very tightly) and very immediate.  (We) had to
work harder than perhaps we would have wished on the Messiaen Catalogue
d iseaux.  This was helped by

  1. The pianist, Michael Kieren Harvey is Australia’s leading
    Messiaen interpreter and in fact premiered the whole work at a recent
    Tasmanian arts festival
  2. Is an old friend, having stayed with us a couple of times during the Barossa Music Festival, so we are forgiving
  3. Talked us through the work first and played the signature
    motifs of the various creatures, colours and geographical bits
    identified by M in the score before playing the whole piece.  At least
    one felt that one was given some signposts. “

The important points: interesting setting; very intimate;
familiarity with performer; and the performer thought enough of his
audience to help them through this amazing piece. Now all this isn’t
easily done with an orchestra (sticking a symphony orchestra into a
wine barrel storage shed is a recipe for disaster on about 17 different
levels), but several orchestras have programs designed with these ideas
in mind. Case in point, the Minnesota Orchestra’s Casual Classics
series which I started in 1995….. or was it ’94? If you’re going to
bring someone to an orchestra for the first time this is a great way to
introduce them to the idea.  And as much as I am a fan of his music I
might not recommend starting off a newbie with Messiaen, though one
never knows, do one?  I remember back in the college days getting an
aging hard rocker hooked on classical music by sitting him down,
turning off all the lights, and cranking the Rite of Spring.  Three
years later that guy had a bigger classical collection than I will ever

Next: find out what type of music people like.  You would be
surprised what orchestras are involved in these days.  My own orchestra
(Edmonton) actually has a Country Music Series, and I’ll be hanged if
it isn’t the most popular thing since sliced bread.  Please don’t be
afraid of a good Pops show.  My friend Doc Severinsen was in town
(Minneapolis) recently and there are few people who can put on a show
like he can.

Please, try to find interesting performers.  Due to the near
monopoly of the Big New York Talent Agencies many of the truly
interesting artists can, unfortunately, be few and far between.  These
Agencies have a vested interest in making money, as opposed to making music,
and their monopoly means that artists that don’t fit neatly into the
Paradigm can end up on the sidelines.  Despite that, interesting folk
such as Robert Bonfiglio (harmonica), Manuel Barrueco (guitar), and
Margaret Tan (toy piano) do occasionally creep through.  These are
wonderful musicians who are not the “usual” and a performance of theirs can be quite surprising for the orchestral neophyte.

Don’t forget to hand the newbie a copy of Sam Bergman’s TAFTO contribution.  They’ll be laughing so hard they might forget to be nervous about attending the concert.

Fergodsakes please, please, please take the newbie to a
concert with American music.  Or if you like, American music.  Just as
long as it’s from this hemisphere.  People relate to music that reminds
them of their own society.  As much as I personally love Mozart most
newbies I know are bored to death by the guy.  He reminds them of
elevator music.  But there isn’t anyone who’s lived in the USA for at
least five years who isn’t familiar with Bernstein, Copland, Gershwin,
etc.  They just might not know it yet.

Now some advice for the newbie: don’t be shy about having a good
stiff drink before the concert.  God knows half the people on stage had
one so you might as well follow in their footsteps.  We are professionals after all.  Goodness, in Germany they actually have bars backstage
for the musicians!!   Talk about gilding the lily.  Oh, and if you’re
being taken to a concert that features Mahler you’d better make it a

Also HAVE FUN!!!  I can’t help but believe that Mozart, Beethoven,
Mahler, whomever, would be down right sick to their stomach with the
hero-worshipping over-glorifying idolizing holier-than-anybody
veneration that’s thrown at them these days.  They wrote music to be enjoyed.
Please do not approach them as if they are the 2nd coming of Christ.
As it is many of the best composers were Jewish, so that’s not going to
fly at all.

Now, if by some odd chance you liked the concert then please
applaud, whistle, holler, jump up and down, but definitely do not spare
one second worrying about the “stick-in-the-mud” next to you who
believes in (the next phrase said in a exaggerated British accent)
“proper concert hall etiquette.”  Said person needs to get over their
bad self.

If you didn’t like the concert then by all means boo lustily.  Just as long as it isn’t at one of my concerts.  If I hear any of that I’ll sick the guy in the Fedora on you.

“Pssst…… Mac……. c’mer…….. I’ve also got some tickets to a modern music festival…… cheap!!”

Peace   wfe

Before publishing Bill’s contribution I read it out loud to my wife;
I can’t count the number of times I had to stop reading because we were
both laughing so hard.  After we made it through her only response was
“Finally, a guy who gets it.  Thank God there’s someone out there like this; now I know classical music will survive.”

I concur.

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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