Concert Hall Projects Update: Nashville – Part 2

Next in the series of concert hall project follow-up articles is the examination of how the working relationship between the musicians and managers of the Nashville Symphony have evolved and contributed to their recent success…

Playing Along With The Musicians
Ten years after filing for bankruptcy, there were only 56 full time musicians in the Nashville Symphony and they earned a base salary of $21,441; that was the same year the organization launched its $23.5 million endowment campaign. Since that time, the number of full time players has grown to 82 and the base salary has increased to a minimum salary of $40,000 for the current 2005-2006 concert season.

Throughout the course of examining Nashville’s concert hall project I’ve been pleased to discover just how well the management has worked toward including the musicians in the design and implementation stages of the project. Their collective positions have impacted just about every direct and indirect aspect of the plan, in both artistic and non artistic issues.

As an example of how much collaboration has occurred between managers, staff members, musicians, and board members the new building who participated in the concert hall efforts will all be etched into giant glass panels which will be on display by the building’s coat room.

During my visit last Spring I had the opportunity to talk to several of the players about the new hall and about the organization and their managers. While on a tour of the construction site, I had the opportunity to talk to Nashville Symphony violinist, Kristi Seehafer. She was along for this tour because she was unable to attend a tour for the musicians at an earlier date.

Up to this point, most of the orchestra musicians I had been in contact with served on a representative committee but this was an opportunity to talk to one of the rank and file members who wasn’t informed ahead of time that I would be contacting them with questions. Kristi was good enough to tolerate the questions and provide some very insightful answers. I asked her how individual musicians were able to get their ideas to the project managers.

“We discussed out ideas and gave them to the players who were on the building committee,” said Kristi. “They presented those ideas to the management and worked things out through them. We also had inclusive meetings between management and all of the musicians where people could present ideas and concerns directly. We also had musicians on the building committee who attended every meeting who in turn reported back to us, so we always knew what was going on.”

I asked her if she could think of a situation where concerns from the musicians resulted in changes to the hall design. Kristi said,

“When they brought back the first set of plans there was more space [dedicated to] the men’s locker room than the women’s. Since there are more women than men in the orchestra we expressed our concern to the musician representatives on the building committee who took those concerns to management. As a result, the women’s locker room acquired more space.”

Kristi’s observations were very similar to what I had been told from other representative musicians about the value of their input during the design stages of the project. Apparently, the Nashville Symphony managers have gone to great lengths to make sure their hall is not only going to satisfy the public but it will be a place where the musicians feel like they’re an important part of the organization.

Even though the relationship between managers and musicians was going along well regarding the building project, I was curious to know if that collegial attitude dominated other aspects of the typical musician/management relationship. If not, a newer, bigger hall could easily lead to newer, bigger problems.

Keep in mind, there are a number of players in the orchestra who lived through the time period which encompassed their bankruptcy. If it’s one thing the typical musician is known for in this business, it’s having a long memory. On average, musicians have average tenures with any given orchestra which double or triple the length of time when compared to their respective managers and board members.

The veterans of the organization who have heard the talk and tend to know the difference when someone is blowing sunshine and sincerity in their direction; it was that point of view which warrants attention.

I sat down with a quintet of Nashville Symphony musicians, veterans and recent members, at a local cigar pub following their concert from April 30th and talked with them about their new hall and other aspects of the organization.

All of the players had a very positive outlook on the entire concert hall process. Some of them are a little concerned about some specific issues such as the size of the stage. In particular Bill Wiggins, principal timpanist and Nashville native, is cautiously optimistic that there will be enough room on stage to accommodate the full orchestra plus the volume of newer and unique percussion instruments required by many modern-day compositions.

However, Bill said he was very pleased with the lengths the management has gone to in order to demonstrate exactly how large the stage will be, which included building a full sized, usable reproduction. Bill is in his 36th year with the symphony and has lived in Nashville the majority of his life so I was particularly interested in why he thought there was enough interest throughout Nashville, a town not typically associated with classical music, in the orchestra to demand a dedicated concert hall. Bill said he always knew the interest was there but it was the combination of several issues over that past decade which finally allowed the organization to tap into that potential support.

“We have audiences for orchestral music, opera, ballet, choral music, chamber music, solo performers, musical theater, straight theater and several schools training talented students in all of these artistic disciplines,” said Bill. “Our fondest hope is that the new hall will help to dispel some of the bias in the classical music world toward Nashville.”

These players believe the management and board have been doing everything possible to garner support for the organization and the new hall. I then asked them whether or not they felt the attitude and relationship with the executive managers was just as positive.

Gilbert Long, principal tubist, felt that he didn’t always see eye-to-eye with their Alan Valentine, president and CEO, but he had absolutely no doubt that managers respect the musicians.

“Even though I don’t always agree with Alan I don’t think we’ve ever had issues escalate out of control because both sides have a great deal of sincere respect for each other. That mutual respect has been earned through actions and behavior and leads me to believe that so long as it’s always there we shouldn’t run into any debilitating problems.”

Gilbert has been with the orchestra since 1978 and throughout his tenure, he’s served on a number of musician committees, as such, he’s seen his fair share of some of the toughest times any orchestra can endure. His viewpoints and those of other veteran players who have been with the organization since the bankruptcy period carry a great deal of historically charged political value.

In addition to the smoke-filled-back-room discussion, I also talked to a number of other musicians over the weekend. All of them had very positive feelings about the direction the organization is heading and, perhaps not surprisingly, they were all very aware that their organization is in a very different place than many other orchestras throughout the country.

One distinct sign that Nashville is walking a different path is how much the working relationship between the local musicians’ union leaders and the orchestra’s management and board have improved over the past decade. Laura Ross, Nashville Symphony violinist and executive board member of Nashville Local 257 of the American Federation of Musicians has been with the organization since they went bankrupt and sees a distinct improvement in internal relations.

“For years after the bankruptcy we continued to have a contentious relationship at times with management for many reasons, partially in how we were treated, and partially in how we were run,” said Laura. “Honestly, when Alan came, things turned around dramatically. He was the one who urged, at the beginning of his tenure, that a sudden bequest be divided in a way that the musicians also receive some of the money and that was the first time we ever got a bonus.

He has hired a group of very capable staff members who, while they do make mistakes, are willing to admit them and learn from them. The information provided to the musicians has improved quite a bit in the past few years due to the ideas brought to our organization by new staff members. Because of the competence of the staff, the orchestra committee’s relationship as well as the union’s relationship, with the staff is really good. We are always willing to look at new ways to address issues and we still have our disagreements but it’s not the way it was even 10 years ago. Communication is open and the staff seems quite willing to hear our ideas, which was not always the case in the past.

The treatment of the orchestra has changed as well – parties and receptions in the past for board members and donors usually only included one or two orchestra musicians. Now, at least once a year there is a reception the entire orchestra is invited to so we can see audience members, donors and board members we have gotten to know through the years.”

Laura went on to say that not only had the relationship between musicians and managers improved but the relationship between the board and the officers of Local 257 has seen similar advancements.

“Our relationship at the bargaining table changed as well, the tone is much more positive,” Laura said. “At the end of our recent negotiations Martha Ingram [Nashville Symphony board chair] told Harold Bradley [President of Local 257] that she thought he was in large part responsible for the improved relations we have with the NSA. I think he’s probably part of it, but it’s also the willingness and openness of the staff to communicate what is going on.”

In general, the majority of the musicians I made contact with felt that the organization was finally starting to realize its true potential. With the exception of a few individuals, most felt like things have been going as planned and that the musicians, as a whole, have been able to make a positive influence on the direction of the concert hall project.

One area of concern which cropped up in many of players interviewed was the realization that the orchestra was entering a period dominated by several large decisions coinciding at one time. Everyone seems to be aware that the organization in moving into a very expensive new home while also looking for a new music director. Add to that mix the associated growing pains of projected growth to a higher artistic level and there are a number of probable variables which deserve attention.

Consequentially, how well the musicians work among themselves, as well as with their managers, will have a significant impact on the whether or not the organization will reach the potential they are just beginning to realize. Tomorrow’s article will begin the virtual tour of the new concert hall.

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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