Miscommunication or Missed Communication? Part 1

Poor communication, it’s tough enough to create effective communication within the office but establishing good communication from managers to musicians is even harder. Unfortunately, the vast majority of orchestras make this task twice as difficult as it should be…

Since 2004, I’ve been having a steady number of conversations with orchestra managers across the country about how they communicate with their musicians. Most managers have a good grasp on about how well information flows from their office to player representatives but the majority of managers only have a vague understanding about how well information flows between the players.

When I ask them about how they go about creating better paths of communication nearly all of the managers talk about how they’ve created spreadsheets or memos containing financial and marketing information and those documents are then distributed to player representatives or even to the entire player roster via email. I also hear about “town hall” style meetings where the executive administrator will get up in front of the players and go on about this or that and in the end, those are all good things.

However, when I ask managers to describe how the players communicate between themselves the majority have no firm understanding. In fact, the only thing most of the managers feel confident about is their belief that the musicians do a very poor job of communicating.

With a few exceptions, I would have to agree with them. Most players’ associations do an inadequate job of conveying and disseminating information from management to musicians on a regular basis and they do an even worse job at communicating amongst themselves about that information.

Nevertheless, here’s the part that completely baffles me: when I ask managers what they do to help improve these situations they usually shrug and say something along the lines of “That’s the musician’s problem.” I usually follow up by suggesting one of several options they can do to help musicians communicate better, mostly on the musician’s terms, all of which involve some level of investment for professional development.

The typical response from managers is “We shouldn’t be paying for that; if they want to do those things then they can pay for it!” Some managers go on to point out various attempts they’ve made in the past to help musicians but they typically yield little to no positive long-term results.

One of the primary complaints I hear from those managers is that the musician representatives and/or the local union didn’t like the people they brought in to help the players. Here’s where things take a left turn toward insanity, I usually ask if they consulted with the musician representatives and/or local union before they identified a facilitator or consultant and I have yet to find a manager that confirms they did.

Several managers I speak to have gone so far to say something along the lines of “Why should I do that? They’ll only want to bring in someone that hates managers.”

Tomorrow, we’ll continue exploring these attitudes and what can be done to make improvements.

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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