More On Musician Temperament

The ever sharp Sam Bergman published a fascinating post on 12/3/08 in response to the satirical article published by Holly Mulcahy about how musician behavior can alienate audiences (you have to love cross blog blogging). Sam does a wonderful job at expanding on Holly’s original premise, especially with regard to root causes which unintentionally develop inadvertent conduct, but it is the end of his article that caught my attention…

Labor relations can be complex and delicate structures worthy of avoiding any potential butterfly effect.
Due to the complex and delicate nature of most labor relations, it is worthwhile to consider additional options in order to avoid any unintended butterfly effect impact.

In particular, Sam suggests that in order to improve some of the detrimental onstage behavior is someone in authority should issue an order that corrects the problems and that’s that (grumbling and snarling aside). Yet,. I find myself thinking about how labor relations can be complex and delicate structures and in order to avoid any potential butterfly effect, I think it would be wise to consider additional options.

Regular readers know that I’m all about the process and I would suggest that managers use some of the additional pearls from Sam’s article to approach this issue with their musicians. In particular, take the following passage:

“…we [behave this way] because we literally don’t know any better. Musicians, alone among performing arts professionals, are never, at any point in their training, taught to be performers. We’re taught how to play music, and how to take direction. No one ever teaches us the tricks that actors, dancers, and singers learn, such as how to make the whole auditorium feel like you’re looking at them, how to walk across a stage without ever putting your back to the audience, or how to take a curtain call.”

Over the past several years, there has been a great deal of time, effort, and resources dedicated to issues of musician professional development or other such projects, such as those from the Mellon Orchestra Forum. I can only think of the potential positive impact that could have been realized if a program such as that allocated some of its ample resources to these issues. I already know of some orchestras which have worked on these topics by bringing in a paid professional to work on this issue (like a stage coach) and if approached from this perspective, I believe that the end result might get the most out of mandating improved stage decorum.

Nevertheless, I’m interested in hearing any firsthand accounts of efforts which address the issues identified in the articles from Holly and Sam. If you have something to share, please send it in as a comment. In the meantime, you can read Holly’s article here and Sam’s entire post over at the diminutive font sized Minnesota Orchestra blog, Inside The Classics.

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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4 thoughts on “More On Musician Temperament”

  1. What can one say? Well, while it “can” be said that we don’t know any better, I have to disagree, as we have all watched singers, actors, and dancers, no?

    Nevertheless, it is important that we as musicians remember that we are also “performers”, and that “performing” does not mean that the craft is made secondary to deportment.

  2. Hi, Drew –
    The idea of management forcing or ordering musicians to smile, not roll their eyes, or have basic manners while on stage is probably not going to go over so well with the players. Just guessing. Especially the players who have had their chairs for 10+ years and are in such a habit that they don’t even know they’re doing it. I’ve played with some orchestras that felt their only avenue for revenge on a bad conductor is to give him the evil eye in concert, which could be misinterpreted by the audience in a number of ways. There is a deepening sense of frustration and disillusionment in orchestra players, most especially in those still in their 20s.

    Why don’t we make stage presence part of the hiring process once again? Build from the ground up? There are plenty of jobs that don’t hire ANYBODY after hearing 100+ people. I sincerely feel that the only reason is because they never get to really talk to these human beings who are applying for the position. Why isn’t there an interview process after a musician makes it to a certain round after screens? There are plenty of highly skilled musicians out there — why not place a high value on the ones with actual personality and manners?

    • Those are all great points Elise; in fact, I think it’s worth another follow-up post. In short, I continue to think it is a disastrous idea to embed these issues in the audition process but I’ll go into that more in the subsequent post.

      The concerns you point are are exactly the sort of thing that make the process critical to success. At the same time, I don’t think there are any show-stoppers. As for the occasional evil-eye to a conductor, I don’t think that’s going to be a big issue. After all, I think there’s a distinction between how a player looks while actively playing and when they are sitting during rests, etc. that’s not to say they aren’t important issues, they are, but ones that all have solutions.

  3. I think deportment is a vital element of the craft of making music, particularly with the classical music business being in the state it presently finds itself in. Orchestras need to attract and sustain new audiences, and if a new ticket buyer feels alienated by unprofessional conduct onstage they might not purchase tickets in the future.

    I think Elise is absolutely right that orders from the management concerning stage deportment will probably go over badly with most orchestral musicians. I believe, however, that what should be a simple solution to this problem exists. Based on my experience I’d say that in most cases orchestral musicians reject imposition of authority from their management because of disillusionment with the management. If players are used to an administration that is not in tune with the needs of the musicians, they will rebel. Put more bluntly, musicians who are used to their administration making stupid decisions will start to think anything the administration tries to do is stupid.

    If the management can build a close working relationship with the players, the players will have more faith in the management and will be a little more willing to make concessions. Some players will inevitably rebel against any attempt to institute tighter control but most of these players will eventually come around if they can be shown that better deportment is in the orchestra’s best interests.

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