Music Directors And Age: Survey Results

does-age-matter.jpgYesterday’s survey designed to measure how Adaptistration readers feel about music directors and age as well as the qualities they find most important in a music director (regardless of age) generated more than 100 responses – the results of which were fascinating…


For example, although a clear majority of respondents did not think that orchestras are currently giving preferential treatment to music director candidates under the age of 50, just over half thought that orchestras discriminated against under 50 candidates over the past 20 years.

So unless an unusually large number of respondents were 30-something conductors who are actively seeking jobs, it seems that Adaptistration readers think veteran conductors have the inside track when it comes to winning music director positions.

Furthermore, nearly the same percentage of respondents who didn’t think orchestras had discriminated against under 50 conductors over the past 20 years felt that a conductor can be “too old” or “too young” to effectively serve as a music director for a professional American orchestra.

Overall, respondents felt the least important qualities in a music director were:

  • where they were born and/or educated
  • their age
  • if they limit their appearances with an ensemble to no more than 10 performances.

On the opposite end, respondents felt that having a music director in town for 10 or more events was more important than actively participating in fundraising efforts and nearly as important as their rapport with board members, donors, and administrators.

Of particular interest and worth noting is respondents felt is was equally important for a music director to participate in in-school education activities as much as orchestra musicians as it is for them to live in the community, receive critical acclaim, or talk to the audience during concerts. This should make executive managers and board members sit up and take notice as music directors rarely participate directly in any sort of in-school activities to the same level as orchestra musicians.

Think about this: when was the last time you saw your music director conduct a local high school orchestra (or God forbid a band) or even conduct an All-County or All-State ensemble (frankly, the vast majority of latter groups wouldn’t be able to afford their fees). With all the talk about the importance of in-school educational activity on audience development and the importance of classical music among adults of tomorrow, you might think music directors would be popping into schools on a monthly basis.

Overall, it appears that respondents felt the most important qualities for music directors are musical knowledge, the rapport between musicians, managers, and board members, as well as staying in town long enough to conduct 10 or more concerts. Or, to put it more succinctly, they want music directors to get along with everyone, know their business, and have ample opportunities to see them demonstrate those abilities.

The following chart illustrates the results in detail (click to enlarge):

So What Do You Really Think?
The final survey question invited respondents to expand on any additional thoughts or observations they have with regard to qualities that contribute to a good music director. If nothing else, Adaptistration readers aren’t shy about sharing their thoughts and observations about music directors. Here is what they had to say:

  • As a manager/player of a smaller, per-service group, our concern for musical excellence is just as important as an ISCOM group, but perhaps the “critical acclaim” isn’t weighted as heavily as it might be in a larger community. The number of concerts conducted each year is generally a non-issue–we only have 10 basic concerts per year. Because of the organizations size, our conductor must wear more hats than just MD–hence the importance of that persons face being actively appreciated and promoted within our market, whether it is direct fundraising, education outreach, or simply as a community presence. Every orchestra is going to be in a different position when facing a new MD search. Some may be looking for an older established conductor simply because they see that as a current need for both the orchestra and the community–stability, experience, credibility. Others will be looking for someone to move the group and community forward, and perhaps a younger person is the one to do this. But it isn’t necessarily age–probably more to do with personality than anything else. ~ Anonymous
  • I believe the heightened interest in hiring a younger music director is due to the perception that he or she will bring fresh ideas on programming and a closer connection to younger composers. . ~ Anonymous
  • I play in an orchestra that appointed [a conductor] less than two years ago, I think his age (under 40 at the time of the appointment) was always mentioned as an afterthought. We granted, are not of the same stature as LA or New York but here his age seems incidental. The audience really responds to him but I think there are a good deal of musicians (a huge portion who are in their 50s, whereas I am in my 20s) who resent him for his age. ~ Anonymous
  • I started making lists of what I wanted in a conductor and then became seriously frustrated. The list was long and it made me too depressed because none of those things were happening in my small world of conductors that I presently work for. My only solution is that all conductors should be re-certified every 5 years by going back to school (I will make up the curriculum of course) for a year of refresher courses. ~ Anonymous
  • In American orchestras it is important for the MD to be at least educated here at some point. I don’t think there is time or room for cultural misunderstandings. Either with the players, board or audience. I don’t think a very young conductor is a great idea with the players. Unless they are a huge talent they are already fighting an uphill battle that they may or may not have earned. They need to pay their dues. However, if a young conductor can be adequate on the podium and sold to the public as they next big thing and it helps the bottom line then why not. ~Anonymous
  • It is not a global industry, there shouldn’t be a formula or a trend, and I don’t think there is. Every situation requires a different set of priorities and set of skills and a fit should be based on that. One orchestra might have great support, but is behind in it’s service to the community, while another could be doing great service but is not playing to the level they are capable. A niche ensemble such as a chamber orchestra that is in a city where there is a larger orchestra already might need more of a specialist musician than say a smaller community that is looking for one music director for the city’s only orchestra. One thing that should definitely become more established is that the musicians in an orchestra should have a greater say in their future and that should definitely include choosing music directors and assistant conductors for that matter, which would have been an interesting survey question. One other thing that might have been added to the survey under “Is American Born and educated” of which I am neither, is: Needs to be aware and involved in cultural surroundings and local community issues…5 would have been my response. ~ Anonymous
  • No comments but I wanted to say this great survey. As an audience member who’s orchestra recently selected a new music director I wish I could have had even this level of input. As it was, the audience was never offered an opportunity for input – we’re all lucky to have you around. ~ Anonymous
  • One rule outweighs all: No Boring Concerts! ~ Anonymous
  • Question #1 caused me to pause. Taken at face value, no, I do not believe a conductor can be either too old or too young to be effective. However, the words “young and “old” are heavily loaded terms, often used as quick shorthand for a variety of qualities. If “young” means callow, inexperienced, and immature – and it of course by no means necessarily means those things – then yes, one could be too “young” to be a conductor. Conversely, if by “old,” we mean that someone is out of touch, lacking in new ideas, or unable to project an image of vitality, then yes, someone could be too old to be an effective conductor. ~ Anonymous
  • The number of concerts a Music Director should conduct would depend on the length of the season. This balance is somewhat difficult to quantify. Even with the conductor who achieves success with all parts of an orchestra, there can be too much of a good thing. Conversely, many orchestras languish under absentee landlords with no sense of artistic purpose. ~ Anonymous
  • The only case in which a conductor could be too old is if he/she can’t hear anymore & is no longer capable of thinking “straight.” ~ Anonymous
  • The terms “too young” and “too old” can be mere shorthand in which other negative traits are being described. ~ Anonymous
  • hey must be cognizant of the challenges faced today by art music, and be constantly attempting ways of “shaping the message”. The music is really a rather mature pursuit, and strictly speaking is not necessarily fun as that term is understood today. It asks and requires something of its consumers, and that requirement is most often perceived by prospective audiences as work. It takes work to create that stillness in oneself that allows one to really process the music, and that effort runs counter to social responses generally encouraged by culture today. This is the challenge of the conductor. He must understand this in order to create interest about this music in a populace that is trained to respond to pursuits that are either visceral or sonambulistic. ~ John McLaughlin Williams
  • They should be willing to think very inventively about programming and take risks with unusual program formats, mini-festivals and thematic programs. ~ Anonymous
  • The age of the music director who bullies the administration or musicians is over. Good solid communication with mutual respect is the hallmark of a successful music director–at least in America. Those individuals who are wed to gadget programming are bull shit artists. Lesser known already composed material should be showcased instead of the bullshit modern pieces that won’t be heard in 5 years. The audience and the musicians alike hate these pieces. Age is clearly becoming a non issue. Musical curiosity and knowledge combined with people skills is the new recipe for success. ~ Anonymous
  • Hiring a young conductor certainly generates buzz for an orchestra, but I think it is unlikely that young conductors on the podiums of America’s orchestras will significantly bring down the age of the audience, which I’m sure is at least part of the reasoning behind the recent hirings in LA and New York. ~ Anonymous
  • Like the job or not, a music director must serve as an ambassador to the community. Not just to raise money–important as that is–but to witness for the importance of orchestral music in the national life. If the music director doesn’t do that job, no one in the community will. And everyone will end up poorer as a result. Worse, orchestral music will be even more marginalized. ~ Anonymous
  • This alleged controversy in the music business regarding age is mostly generated by music critics. I don’t think age in itself is much of a factor in hires.
    Orchestra musicians are often polled in the MD selection process. How well a given conductor does in those polls can be influenced by the repertoire, soloist, when in the season the concert(s) takes place, which personnel happens to be playing and other factors. A conductor will do well if he/she enhances the orchestra’s collective self-esteem and offers the possibility of artistic growth. This can be achieved in many ways, but unfortunately gives some advantage to older, non-native-born conductors. ~ Anonymous

Did you miss out on the survey but still want to weigh-in on the topic? No worries, feel free to submit a comment. Additionally, the survey has been deliberately left open so feel free to add your voice although keep in mind that your responses won’t be added to the results above.

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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5 thoughts on “Music Directors And Age: Survey Results

  1. I have come to see that the exact age of a music director is one in a long line of what amounts to bullshit criteria which have become too important. Secondary and tertiary issues are killing music director and other conductor searches in this country.

    I think if orchestras are going to do better, there has to be one criterium that has to be considered before moving on to all that other stuff. You can give the musicians a two question, yes or no survey. Anything under 50% is a definite no, but ideally you would hope to crack 60% for someone to be serious.

    #1 Is this conductor an EXCELLENT musician?

    #2 Was the concert you played with this conductor above the general standards of this orchestra?

    The conductors who pass these two issues should be considered for a return engagement. Other issues relevant to doing the actual job could also be considered at this point.

    Reading your comments, there were a lot of obviously negative ones about young conductors from (most likely) players. I think their complaints have less to do with age than musicianship and experience with orchestra players. It isn’t surprising that many young conductors spend time developing analysis skills rather than their sense of rhythm, but it is a huge problem.

    Finally, orchestras at all levels have to see guest conductors. Every year. All the time, orchestras that have only one person on the podium for 15 or more years all of a sudden have to start completely from scratch. Is it any surprise that they make such horrible mistakes? Every conductor’s publicity materials make him/her look like a genius. If an orchestra had seen 15 other conductors over the last 20 years, it would be in much better shape.

  2. I answered the age question yes, but I was thinking of age as a surrogate for level of experience. Someone who does not have experience in dealing with donors, the board, funding agencies, the press, etc. is not a good candidate to run a major orchestra, for example.

    Good points Lisa, I think a number of readers have been conveying the same basic idea that age/talent and age/savvy are not necessarily congruent.

  3. Our mid-sized orchestra just completed a MD search. What a wonderful process for musicians, admin, and board! No surprise, our first criterion was artistic excellence. But once we had culled the list, certain questions arose that could only be applied to older conductors. Is their work still artistically compelling? Is their career ascending or not? What does their body of work (then and now) tell us about what they might achieve in our community? Unfortunate that no similar questions can be applied to younger conductors.

  4. I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with one of the violinists from the orchestra, while Sawallisch was still conducting in Philadelphia. He placed his hand over his heart and said with genuine affectionate feeling that Sawallisch had taught him everything he knew about making music. He continued in that vein of admiration. Sawallisch was in his 80’s, but he did truely, make music, and the orchestra loved him.

  5. Age is not important, maturity is.

    The job of the conductor is to shape the music so that it elicits an emotional response from the listener that results in “catharsis.”

    Some conductors who could do that for me are Stokowski, Golschmann, Bruno Walter, Scherchen, Klemperer, Monteaux (sometimes),Koussevitsky, Beecham, Rodzinski, Barbirolli, . . . for example. Not Toscanini, Szell, Reiner, Wallenstein, Munch, Bernstein, and others I won’t name because they are still living.

    We have conductors today who are better technicians than those guys ever were. They can take a score and make the orchestra play every note, including the fly specks.

    But, without the talent to turn those notes on the page into a coherent message from the composer, there is no catharsis. which Aristotle (wasn’t it) fingered a few years back as what defines art.

    It this catharsis that brings audiences back week after week. If they do not experience it and do not expect it, they do not need to come back and audiences dwindle. Have audiences been dwindling the past few years? Gee, I wonder why — apart from the outrageous ticket prices.

    One of the main things that separates the men from the boys is a horizontal (good) performance versus a vertical (bad) one. Take, for example, the opening to Daphnis and Chloe: you know its a horizontal performance when the tension builds until the hair stands up on the back of your neck. Stauss’s Don Juan: is it one continuous line from the opening to the brass peroration at the end, or just a series of interesting noises. Brahms is the supreme test: does it flow without gaps like a well-written essay or is it a series of sequential loud and soft passages? When Brahms ends and I don’t feel like I’ve had a conversation with a wise friend, I know I’ve wasted my time — and money.

    The conductor and the orchestra combine their talents to produce catharsis. I have found it rare that a conductor can come to town, face a strange orchestra, and work with them to produce the kind of performance that sends me home like I’ve been ridden hard and put away wet. I want a music director who spends all but a few weeks of the season with his/her orchestra. I am opposed to giving a music directorship to a conductor who does not spend most of the concert season working with his orchestra — as in the old days, before Standard Oil invented the airplane.

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