Reader Response: Musician Tenure

Following the article from 6/13/05 about musician tenure and artistic review issues, I received a flurry of email on the subject.  Most of it was from musicians, ranging from those just entering the business to seasoned veterans.

After going through all of the messages there was a central theme beginning to emerge which nearly every responder touched on; preventing the need for artistic review related arbitration in the first place.

A few of them expanded on that concept in their email with what I thought were some very profound viewpoints.  This one is from a professional violinist in a South Western orchestra who doesn’t feel that managers use existing artistic review procedures properly.  Instead, they unnecessarily place the burden on the other orchestra musicians,

“I feel strongly that many of the misconceptions musicians have of their artistic duties comes from laziness on the part of management.  I am troubled that a musician should ever be expected to lay down in their defense of a colleague because their playing is not up to par most administrators don’t want to deal with the process of firing someone so they blame it on prohibitive rules.  This leads to tension among musicians who feel as though they need to deal with a problem that they have no right or power to address besides bitching about it.”

The same violinist goes on to make what I feel is a very poignant observation about the lack of organized professional artistic development among professional orchestras,

“This is where the player’s support system breaks down.  I doubt anywhere on a professional sports team or in the military a colleague is ever allowed to fall that far back without support from their [artistic peers].  I think it is just one more example of how most music directors don’t know how to handle all facets of their job; which leads to [organizational] dysfunction.”

This musician has a very relevant point.  There have been many times I’ve discussed the concept of professional development with other orchestra managers (which in this context, music directors are included).  The majority of them recoil at the idea of the organization spending money for artistic development issues.  The typical response from those managers is something along the lines of “Any artistic issues are the responsibility of the musicians, management isn’t accountable for any of that.”

This inevitably concludes with an indication that they don’t want to spend any organizational money on artistic related professional development issues.  They do, however, have no difficulty spending large portions of money allocated toward professional development issues on topics related to musicians participating in educational programs and, although to a lesser extent, musician/management relations.

Unfortunately, these interpersonal artistic support skills aren’t developed in a typical musician’s educational experience.  Without them, many musicians manifest some sort of debilitation interpersonal predicament later in their careers once they win an orchestra position.  How some managers conclude that these issues aren’t worthy of professional development funds is beyond my comprehension.

Ideally, each orchestra should allow their musicians to develop a list of organizational needs along these lines and work with managers to develop a professional training regiment.  Of course, that’s the real trick; some managers will want to control the process but the wise administrators out there will allow the musicians to develop a process based on their own which will address their unique needs and those same wise administrators will add their viewpoints when the musicians ask for it.

In the end, such a system will serve to unlock the full artistic potential for any ensemble and aid in relieving some of the issues which cause so many musicians a great deal of workplace based stress and anxiety.  Furthermore, it will reduce the need for costly artistic review procedures, saving the organization money and time.

Another orchestra musician, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra principal violist Robert Levine (who knows more than a little about musician stress in the workplace), disagreed with my assertion regarding arbitration and artistic review (which is also referred to as “peer review” in many orchestras),

“The whole point of a peer review system is to avoid having it go to arbitration.  A good peer review system should consist of review of a panel exclusively consisting of orchestra members whose majority ruling ends the process one way or the other.”

Robert certainly has a point.  Within a well designed system, the artistic review process will resolve all artistic related issues in a manner which satisfies all parties involved.  Unfortunately, any system is only as good as the people participating and if there are individuals involved in the process (either managers or musicians) who are behaving inappropriately, it is reassuring to know there are contractually guaranteed protections preventing egregious abuse of the artistic review process.

Finally, another musician wrote in with what I thought was a very well thought out response to the issue of the highly suspicious merit based pay structure being developed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony,

“How can a system that could potentially yield higher returns for every player in the orchestra saves them money.  It seems like a blatant admission that some players are going to get screwed and the [management and music director] favorites rewarded.”

Good point, unless the TMS plans to set the highest levels of merit based pay cumulatively totaling less than current pay expenditures or they plan to limit the number of higher pay merit based positions, they certainly won’t save any money if their musicians are performing to the peak of their ability.  And isn’t that what all orchestras want anyway?

What do you think?

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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