When Best Practices Aren’t

"Best Practices" is a popular buzzword combo throughout the business these days. Answers.com defines Best Practice as a "term which refers to those practices that have produced outstanding results in another situation and that could be adapted for our situation". Unfortunately, I see too many examples in this business of organizations rushing to implement a Best Practice in hopes of immediately solving a problem, as though the implementation is more important than the quality of what is delivered. For example, the trend of conductors talking from the stage…

In and of itself, talking from the stage can be a great thing. I’ve witnessed a number of conductors and performers talk to the audience from the stage and have done it myself on several occasions. But for some reason, it seems as though the business is looking at the practice as some sort of quantifiable component of successful outreach.

Michael Tilson Thomas talks from the stage and PBS makes a DVD about it. That’s a good thing so now it’s suddenly a Best Practice. Now we see conductors talking from the stage in just about every orchestra across the country, it’s so common this season that you can’t swing a dead cat without getting it stuck in a conductor’s open mouth.

I realized this issue is out of control yesterday as I listened to Jesse Rosen, ASOL Vice-President and Chief Program Office, on Soundcheck with John Schaefer talking about how good the business is right now at breaking down barriers between the orchestra and the audience,

"You see manifestations of this all over, I was in Philadelphia at a concert about a month ago, regular subscription evening, and the concertmaster tunes the orchestra and the next thing that happens is Christoph Eschenbach walks out on stage, holding in his right hand his baton and a microphone as though they were melded together and to me this was saying that this is a music director for today; someone who not only conducts but also communicates."

Jesse went on to say that Maestro Eschenbach talked about the Jennifer Higdon piece they were going to perform. So what? What did he say that was so interesting? Why was the fact that he walked out on stage with a microphone during a subscription concert an example of how orchestras are breaking down barriers as though this were some sort of Best Practice?

I didn’t attend that concert so I can’t say if what was said on stage was interesting or not but I can point to another example in Detroit where their cultural reporter noticed something just isn’t right with this issue.

The 1/14/06 edition of the Detroit Free Press published an article by Free Press music critic Mark Stryker which reported that the Detroit Symphony’s new series, "Classics Unmasked" which featured a microphone wielding conductor was, in his opinion, a "bumpy work in progress". He described the conductor as a charming host but his commentary was superficial.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with talking from the stage but instead of looking at talking from the stage as a Best Practice in and of itself, how about focusing more on not boring the pants off the audience while you’re talking.

Last July, I published an article here at Adaptistration about this very issue after attending a chamber concert at the Grand Teton Music Festival. Here’s what I wrote,

But here’s the real secret to the quartet’s success (beyond their fantastic artistic ability); it wasn’t just because Chuck took a few moments to talk before each selection, it was because what he said was interesting and added to the moment.

Obviously, Chuck lives and breathes the world of bassoon. Having that sort of intimate knowledge and understanding places him in a singular position to be uniquely equipped to convey what’s interesting about the instrument, its music, and those who have mastered its intricacies. Chuck didn’t drone on and on as though he were giving an academic lecture (as so many people do when trying to talk to the audience before performing), he was simply talking to everyone in the audience as though they were just friends.

So why doesn’t the orchestra world do this more often? There’s no universal answer, however…[many] well intentioned efforts usually end up coming across as timid and dull.

Now I find myself sitting at my computer listening to a national radio broadcast (an opportunity to engage millions of public radio listeners) about one of the prime reasons why the classical music business is tearing down boundaries: because a Big 5 conductor walked out on stage with a microphone during a subscription concert [insert cricket noise  here].

I didn’t hear anything about what was actually said nor why the audience member telling this story found the maestro’s words engaging. All I heard about was the mechanics behind the event: conductor talking = good stuff.

Is it any wonder why people from the outside look in at classical music and don’t want anything to do with it?

Postscript: If you take the time to listen to the entire segment you’ll hear Jesse trot out one of the League’s favorite home spun statistics: the amazingly "low" failure rate among symphony orchestras. This time around, they bumped up the number of member orchestras used to determine their failure rate. A few years ago it was 350, then it went to 900, now it’s up to 1,800 (that 1,800 figure was mentioned three times in less than thirty seconds at the opening of the Soundcheck segment). Every year since Adaptistration began I have addressed that defective statistic, the most recent correction was published in an article from June 8, 2005.

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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11 thoughts on “When Best Practices Aren’t”

  1. Drew, I share your questions about ”best practices” as universal band-aids. Any practice or initiative, taken out of the context in which it was developed, is only half useful and rarely directly applicable.

    The more useful question when something ”works” is to ask what elements led it to work in that situation — personality of the conductor, perhaps, or temperament of the audience, or public perception of the organization, etc. — and whether your organization has those elements. Also handy is to determine exactly what problem you’re trying to solve, before you start implementing solutions.

    I also agree that the talking conductor is often a solution in search of a problem. In some circumstances, it matches wonderfully with the goals of the organization. In other cases, it’s just more didactic, one-way, non-interactive chatter.

  2. Excellent observations Andrew. It’s even more interesting when you examine the artistic component in an orchestra. I often work with musicians who are hell-bent when it comes to knowing what they want without first realizing the full extent of their respective problems and if what they want will solve that problem.

    Monkey see, monkey do?

  3. 1) Outreach opportunities can be quantified – Conductor speaks to audience, that many people “reached”, into the next funding proposal or progress report for current funding. Hate the game, not the player

    2) A question: If you weren’t at these events, why do you assume a-priori that the conductor bored the socks off the audience?

    3) Blogs are a “best practice” now. Every news outlet has to have them. Few offer real content, the most frequent word in them is “I”, and for all the promises of engagement with their audience, not many generate comments. It cuts both ways

  4. I recall another performance of a Jennifer Higdon piece, this one by the NSO under Leonard Slatkin. The five minutes that Slatkin spent talking about her Concerto for Orchestra were five of the most useless minutes of my life. Here were the points he made:

    * Jennifer Higdon is a modern composer.
    * But her music is fun to listen to.
    * This piece has a lot of brilliant orchestral writing.
    * I (Slatkin) like it.

    By contrast, when I attend performances by the Daedalus Quartet (disclosure: whose violist is a friend of mine), one of their members always delivers commentary about at least one work that helps to illuminate it, often with actual musical examples played by the quartet. And, as I told one of their members after one concert, “your talk had the signal merit of being right, or at least I thought so.”

    Can we next discuss the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s decision to play jazz and serve cocktails before some symphony concerts? Was this inspired by success in some other context? Why does anyone think it’s a good idea, for real?

  5. Thanks for your comments Ravi; I’ll do my best to answer your questions. You asked why I assumed that the conductor bored the audience and I went back over the piece to if I actually wrote that since it wasn’t my intention. If you go back to the article I think you’ll find that I deliberately mentioned that I wasn’t at the concert in Philadelphia and therefore didn’t know if what was said was interesting or not. As for Detroit, I was working from the article written by Mr. Stryker (a link to which was provided). The comment about boring the audience was in a later section when examining the issue of talking from the stage as a Best Practice, I hope that adequately answers your question.

    I wish I could comment more to your first remark but I’m note entirely certain the point you’re attempting to make. If you could clarify it a bit, I’ll be happy to respond.

    I would agree with you that blogs have become a Best Practice as well. As a matter of fact, I’ll go even further by saying that they are being regularly co-opted by corporations for their own purposes. My recent participation at the Chamber Music America conference blogging panel included a large component which examined these very issues. Mainly, how chamber musicians need to remember that blogs aren’t simple PR tools, they are a way for them to connect with their audience in a sincere and meaningful way.

    The reason why many blogs frequently contain the word “I” is because that’s exactly what they are designed to do; to serve as a medium for opinion, information, and dynamic discussion (which is exactly what is happening here). As such, I sincerely hope the blogging medium resists any efforts to pigeon hole it into any traditional classification. It’s a new medium and a wonderful tool, but like any other tool it can be used skillfully or clumsily and with disingenuous or sincere intentions. In the end, it’s the readers who will determine the relevancy.

  6. That little gleam in the eye that a microphone creates in conductors these days is a public relations minefield. Sometimes we escape unscathed, but sometimes not! First-time attenders tend to enjoy the comments, whether they’re long or short. Current subscribers are sometimes less than enthusiastic, frigidly pointing out that program notes and pre-concert lectures are sufficient apology for the chosen program. Add to that ambivalence the possibility that the commentary might not be rehearsed or consistent with each performance. And the probability that loquacious conductors might not be sympathetic to their PR department’s desire to respond to audience critiques! It’s an interesting situation. When your conductor is charismatic and enthusiastic (and photogenic) almost anything can be forgiven – and I’ve watched many audiences visibly relax and engage with the conductor and the program because of a few well-spoken words.

  7. Drew,

    To clarify my first point, I think that orchestras use talkbacks as one example of how they reach out to their constituents and to their community. When the conductor speaks before a concert or when there is a preconcert lecture, there is a quantifiable, verifiable claim that x number of people were reached as part of audience education, appreciation, development, and so forth. This can be used in funding proposals and auditable numbers are now required in just about every governmental and RFP. I think it is unfortunate that our public institutions large and small have to justify themselves this way but there it stands. It is a special burden on small theatre companies, chamber ensembles, and other low-to-no-staff organizations that all of a sudden have to have K-to-grave educational arms.

    Thanks for the clearing my misunderstanding of what you had written about the conductors speaking to the audience. I do think though that it is one of those points where opinions of the same event can vary all over the map. I live in Los Angeles and have heard the LA Phil’s Music Director speak on a few occasions. In my opinion, his talks were remarkably free of any content, context, or value. On the other hand, there are those who are dazzled by his persona and can’t wait until the next time it happens. I think, therefore, it is hard to negate the Public Relations value of such things. If orchestras didn’t try these kinds of things, couldn’t they be faulted for standing still?

    I think blogs are now where email was twenty years ago and listservs were ten years ago. The initial head rush is wearing off and the shakeout is underway. Yes, it is nice to know what the blogger is doing, with whom, and for what purpose. There is a line between a journal and journalism. I’m concerned that the “I”-form pushes many blogs away from engagement and towards vicarious living through the person who has the contacts and the entre. How does this engagement translate to action?


    Ravi Narasimhan
    Redondo Beach, CA

  8. Thanks for the additional thoughts Ravi, I think they are all useful. I completely agree that having to justify outreach methods in the way you describe is a large hassle, and quite frankly, almost worthless unless you can find a way to question audience members after the fact to determine their level of impact (not to mention it’s quite easy to abuse those statistics). That issue is, in-and-of itself worth separate discussion and one which has been touched on before here at Adaptistration. I wholeheartedly agree that the system you described is additionally troublesome for smaller budget institutions.

    I don’t know if I would accuse an orchestra for standing still if they didn’t have a conductor speak from the stage. There are a number of other ways to implement improved interaction between artists and audience and with a much more dynamic structure. Of course, the more infectious a personality a conductor has, the better equipped they are at reaching a larger segment of the audience when talking from the stage. But I think Andrew put his finger on it with his comment above when he said “it’s just more didactic, one-way, non-interactive chatter.”

    As to your final point, I hate to use myself as an example but I know the work I’ve done here at Adaptistration has had a significant amount of impact on the orchestra business. A few examples are the annual website review. I’ve noticed a number of organizations improve their websites (although the overall average is nearly the same as last year). I also receive a large volume of email from orchestra managers asking for additional details and many have purchased the Website Review Report which serves as a written guide on how to go about designing an orchestra website.

    Add to that, based on the email messages I received from individuals and orchestra managers the Take A Friend To Orchestra Month initiative from last year did a great deal of work in bringing a number of new people to orchestra concerts that month. When hurricane Katrina hit, dozens of displaced musicians were able to make contact with generous souls offering lodging, general assistance, and work offers.

    Add to that the thousands of email messages I’ve received since starting up Adaptistration from managers, musicians, and patrons who just wanted to let me know how something they read here inspired them to do one thing or another. Then there’s the simple fact that if people didn’t find what goes on here useful they wouldn’t visit as often as they do.

    I don’t think blogging is either a journal or journalism by traditional definitions. Instead, it’s simply a tool which individuals will use in their own creative way to accomplish the goal of increased targeted communication. I think I mentioned in my last note that I hope blogs don’t succumb to the pressure to conform to any traditional interpretation of journalism. If they do, I believe it would be one of the largest lost opportunities from the digital age.

  9. I am a technical writer in the software industry, and the last time I heard the term “Best Practices” bandied about – which was about an hour ago – I said “…and by that phrase, do you mean requirements, recommendations, cool tips & tricks? We already know what those are and how to document them. Why are you looking for a ‘best practices’ document and what would go in it? Are ‘best practices’ something completely different, or what?”

    My eyes glaze over at the phrase.

  10. I agree that just sticking a microphone in a conductor’s hand and having him/her talk to the audience is far from a universal cure.

    Some conductors are naturals at this, others simply reinforce preconceived notions that the music is inaccessible to anyone lacking a PhD. in musicology (not to mention irrelevant).

    Our conductor talks quite a bit from stage (especially when we play unfamiliar repertoire), and while a few of the old guard in the audience hate it, the vast majority of the audience appreciates it. We have a four concert series that is based on a first half lecture demonstation (equal parts playing as talking) and then a second half performance. After the concert, there is a Q&A session from stage. This is very popular with new subscribers (folks who think “I might like this, but I don’t know enough about the music, and the ‘rules’ of concert going, to really appreciate it). Many orchestras are experimenting with this kind of format. From what I’ve seen some do it well, and some do it poorly.

    As you say, it’s not just the fact that you’re talking, it’s what you are saying and how you are saying it that makes it work (or not).

  11. Drew,

    A couple of short observations on your most recent reply:

    Yes, I do think it is possible for good to come out of electronically mediated discussions among practitioners. The difficult part is translating that to results with the public. The Take a Friend campaign (new to me) sounds interesting. I know that the theatre world is trying Free Nights of Theatre and in Los Angeles, the intimate theatre community has been trying to develop a larger audience base for some time – all use the Internet extensively. So long as it is one tool among many I don’t suppose I have any major qualms. My concern is that it has been oversold as a primary means. If that was not your intent, my error.

    I think the following, said about listservs, is true of blogs:

    Regarding the reader’s comment on Leonard Slatkin, I’ve learned a lot from his BBC broadcasts. Maybe he just needs a few more minutes to supply details about the work in question?


    Ravi Narasimhan

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