Stepping On Some Toes Part 2

To continue where things left off in Part 1, we’ll resume examining the issues related to the comment Stephanie from the SLSO sent in last week as well as the general effectiveness of today’s orchestra administration work ethics…

Many readers took the time to write in with their general opinions. Many managers and musicians described particular issues with their orchestras and a few patrons had some very astute observations. As such, I was able to discern a few basic categories the responses could be grouped into.

Little Differences Mean Everything – or – What Do You Mean We Don’t That?
Many managers wrote in to take issue with my following comments,

“When was the last time you saw a professional orchestra help establish and maintain both youth and amateur orchestras under the auspices of their nonprofit charter? Or how about this, when was the last time you saw a professional orchestra help establish a community wind ensemble or brass band…?”

Several took the time to describe their particular relationships they have with local community ensembles or point out their youth orchestra programs. But in general, most of the responses mirrored some of the points Stephanie made in her comment. In essence, they said that their organization establishes partnerships all the time and they don’t always work out. The key word in most responses was the use of the word “partnership”, a popular buzz word in the orchestra management nomenclature.

Unfortunately, the term “partnership” covers a lot of territory and can imply many things. One interpretation it rarely comprises is “ownership”. In my original article I never used the term “partnership” for a very specific reason; because it doesn’t imply responsibility or ownership the same way the terms “establish” and “maintain” are capable of. And it’s that dissimilarity which is often the difference between failure and success.

Given the fact that most orchestras do have limited resources and time, their attempts at partnerships with other organizations are partnerships of convenience. Attention and resources are typically directed toward the partnership only after all of the primary marketing, fundraising, and other related work is completed. And there’s plenty of people in the orchestra management business who will tell you that there’s not very much left after everything else is said and done.

Unfortunately, that’s not the right way to approach the issues. If something isn’t worth including into the minimum required work load, then it’s probably not going to get done very well.

In order to demonstrate this point I’m going to rely on a non music business reference. I remember having a private music student whose mother used to always tell me that Little Johnny didn’t practice much this week because he had school work, sports, etc. Unfortunately for Little Johnny, I never let that impact my expectations based on what I knew he was capable of.

After awhile the mother called me up to say she was thinking about having Little Johnny stop taking lessons because he felt bad when he came in unprepared. I asked the mother if she could help him find a way to make his daily practice a part of expected daily routine and she instantly produced a list of reasons why that couldn’t happen.

I asked her why then she initially wanted Little Johnny to take lessons and she responded with “because it will make him smarter”. I replied with another question, “How do you presume he’ll benefit from those perceived rewards if he doesn’t do the necessary work involved?” After that, I explained to the mother that I would be happy to sit down with her to walk through why it is important to put in the required work and show her how she could possibly incorporate everything into Little Johnny’s schedule but the conversation ended shortly thereafter.

Sadly, there are a lot of Little Johnny mothers out there in the orchestra management business. They see partnerships as “good” things and think that simply creating one will bring them benefit. Then, once they discover that their new partnership is only bringing them trouble, they sit around and scratch their heads (or a few feet lower) wondering why the whole thing ended up being such a whopping disaster.

In another example, Stephanie’s comment mentioned a failed experiment of the SLSO via their partnering with a local music school. She mentioned that the SLSO lost donors because they didn’t want to give money to both the school and the SLSO since they thought they were supporting both with one donation. This occurred even though the development staff continuously pointed out that the two institutions maintained separate nonprofit status. In the end, Stephanie said the SLSO transferred ownership of the school to a local university.

Although there’s certainly more to that particular event, that’s certainly a good summary of the experience. It also goes to show the importance of the little differences between “partnering” and “establishing”. Why would any organization want to own another organization with distinctly different goals, keep separate nonprofit status, and then be surprised when donors assumed that “ownership” didn’t mean “partnership”? I certainly won’t unjustly trivialize that situation described by Stephanie by saying the answer was to simply do the opposite of what actually happened, but it is that basic concept which is at the heart of the matter. And yes, I agree with Stephanie when she says that the executive administrators in Utah may be experiencing some of those same difficulties as a result of their experiment to merge the Opera and the Symphony.

I Don’t Want To Impose, literally.
A tiny, yet distinct, portion of responses I received from managers took the time to describe some programs their organization has established which appear to have generated some very positive results.

Unfortunately, each of those managers was unwilling to offer permission to describe their situations because they didn’t want to seem like they were imposing their ideas on fellow managers. They pointed out that each organization is different and everyone should come to their own solutions based on what they see fit as the proper course of action.

Although I agree with the belief that each orchestra will need to find their own way in the cultural wilderness, that doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from the process another organization used to achieve a positive result. I would say that one of the problems in this business is there is far too many instances of one outfit examining what another accomplishes as opposed to the process they used to determine that course of action. As such they try to reproduce that specific program in detail with results that are usually less than stellar (by the way, that is a good example of unimaginative thinking).

Instead, organizations should spend much more time examining the process behind ideas implemented by other orchestras (even those that failed) to determine if there’s something to be gained.

I did receive a few messages from managers asking some of the same questions Stephanie posed at the end of her comment. Basically, they touched on the issue of my publishing a piece which examines the work practices of the orchestra management business without also presenting a laundry list of silver bullet ideas.

Even though I did address that point in Part 1 already, I did notice that of those managers who lodged those sort of complaints, they were from organizations which are dealing with a great deal of accumulated and annual debt issues. Perhaps, and not unexpectedly, managers dealing with those conditions are going to feel more defensive than those working in less financially strapped outfits.

Nevertheless, the real danger with that attitude is those financially strapped organizations tend to miss answers which are just out of reach because their gaze is focused on the 500lbs gorilla that is their debt. One of the comments from Part 1, posted by Bill Harris, pointed out some good advice which every manager would be better off taking to heart:

As one good manager once told me (paraphrased), “The really effective people are those who put in a good six hours a day working and then spend perhaps another couple of hours observing and listening to what’s going on, not those who work late into the evening.”

In order to find out how to beat the 500lbs gorilla, you just might have to let him rough you up a bit first.

In the end, managers looking for answers to their problems here at Adaptistration will find them strewn throughout its many pages. As I mentioned in Part 1, Adaptistration has turned into the single largest free consulting service in the business. Nevertheless, one of the most dangerous practices a manager can indulge in is to categorically rebuff critical examination of work practices on every level of the business. No one wins with that attitude (and perhaps a vacation or a vocational change in scenery is in order).

Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to write in already and if you’ve been wanting to but haven’t found the time, feel free to contribute to the discussion at any time.

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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1 thought on “Stepping On Some Toes Part 2

  1. As a music educator {band director}, I’ve become more and more frustrated with orchesta’s outreach/education programs. These seem to boil down to childrens concerts and the “dog and pony” shows of musicians doing demonstrations at schools {many times without consulting with, or even telling the local music teachers that this event is going to occur). There is .inevitably, little if any follow up, which leaves me wondering what the point is of these exercises. General music teachers usually teach about the orchestra, and band directors do instumental demonstrations as part of band recruiment. So the educational impact is minimal. Possibly they think of this as an audience development tool, but I fail to see how a one musical demonstration will turn these kids into future audiences for art music. Which brings me to the conclusion that orchestras et. al. need to partner with school instrumental educators if the want a future audience. I’ve found, through the years, that the non-musician fans of classical music almost inevitably started their musical education in school bands and orchestras. I wonder if anyone has bothered to find out the how and why people become art music listeners. I have a feeling that participation in school ensembles play no small part.

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