Great Expectations

I’m moderating a Virtual Discussion Panel this week at about the expectations vs. realities of winning and maintaining a position in a professional orchestra. Of course, it wouldn’t be quite as interesting if the panelists were all professional musicians, it would end up sounding more like preaching to the choir. Instead, the eight member panel is divided into a number of unique groups…

First, there are three professional musicians that hold tenured orchestra positions, each at a different stage in a typical career and each in a different budget size ensemble:

  • Douglas Fisher: Bassoon, Columbus Symphony Orchestra and President, Central Ohio Federation of Musicians, Local 103, AFM
  • Timothy Judd: Violin, Richmond Symphony Orchestra and RSO ROPA delegate, 2000
  • James Nickel: Assistant Principal Horn, Dallas Symphony and ISCOM Member at Large
  • Doug is a veteran musician with a great deal of political service. James is younger than Doug and has held positions in Canadian and American orchestras. Tim is the youngest of the tenured musicians and is currently in the fourth year of that position.

    Next, there are two professional musicians which do not currently hold tenured orchestra positions:

  • Elizabeth Meyers: Viola, graduate, Eastman School of Music
  • Samuel Thompson: Violin, experienced musician and substitute violinist, San Antonio Symphony
  • Elizabeth is a recent graduate from the Eastman School of music who is living in New York City and has since co-founded the flute/viola/harp trio, “janus”. Sam is a 30 something violinist living the life that many conservatory trained musicians live: the life of a professional classical music gig musician. However, Sam holds a distinct honor of being the violinist featured in numerous world wide publications during the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Sam was the violinist that played for fellow refugees in the Super dome while they awaited evacuation.

    To add another layer of contrast, the panel also includes two Graduate level students from Eastman, both of which have participated in one or more courses through Eastman’s Institute of Music Leadership (IML) program:

  • Matt Fritz, graduate student, orchestral conducting, Eastman School of Music
  • Adam Pijanowski, graduate student, tuba performance, Eastman School of Music
  • Having participated in numerous discussions geared toward better preparing them for the realities of orchestral life, it will be intriguing to see if their expectations will match the hindsight from the other panelists.

    Rounding out the panel is James Undercofler, outgoing Dean, Eastman School of Music, newly-designated President and CEO, Philadelphia Orchestra. James was a driving force behind the development of Eastman’s IML program and is an experienced performer. Working as closely with students and professionals, his perspective straddles nearly every aspect of the unfolding discussion.

    Perhaps the best part of the Virtual Discussion Panel is that it is designed as a dynamic, interactive environment. Visitors can interact with the panelists by sharing their own observations and posing questions to panelists via posting comments throughout the duration of the discussion (registration is required to post comments).

    Although this discussion is designed largely toward established and aspiring orchestral musicians, the content is equally valuable to orchestra managers as the issues being discussed have a direct impact on day-to-day issues as well as long term strategic concerns. As such, do yourself a favor and stop by the Virtual Discussion Panel each day this week and don’t be shy about posting a comment with your thoughts and observations.

    Postscript: Two of the Virtual Discussion Panelists are also authors of recent articles published at Douglas Fisher and Timothy Judd. Both articles examine some of the core issues which musicians and managers deal with on a daily basis. In addition to the Virtual Discussion Panel, both articles are well worth the time to read and like much of the content as at, you can post a comment.

    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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