Don Draper’s Guide To Being A Music Director

Sometimes, the best things you can learn from Mad Men don’t actually come from the show. Case in point, Jon Hamm channeled his Mad Men character, Don Draper, to create a wildly entertaining spoof for his hosting appearance on Season 34, Episode 6 of Saturday Night Live. In a skit called Don Draper’s Guide To Picking Up Women, Hamm reveals his character’s secrets to success. Fortunately for this business, most of it translates nicely to ambitious music directors…

Don Draper's Guide To Being A Music DirectorGiven that Don Draper lives in the world of the early 1960s and a number of contemporary music directors seem to operate best when employing a mindset from that period time, it doesn’t take much effort to turn the advice from the SNL skit into stereotypical music director best practices.

So in order to build and maintain a wildly successful career as a world class music director, all you have to do is adapt* these four easy steps from Don Draper’s Guide To Picking Up Women:

  1. Don’s Guide: When in doubt, remain absolutely silent.
    Music Director adaptation:
    1. Let’s face it, you’ll spend most of your career second guessing everything you do anyway and since you don’t know any more about the music than the players sitting in front of you, don’t talk during rehearsals. Their egos will quickly lead them to conclude that you respect and admire their musicality; consequently, they’ll tell all of their colleagues that you’re an artistic master.
    2. Don’t answer phone or email messages from staff; in fact, never reveal you true contact information and make everyone communicate through your English-as-a-second-language personal assistant who works nine time zones away (note: hire a lazy and incompetent assistant and make the organization pay for him/her).
  2. Don’s Guide: When asked about your past, give vague, open-ended answers.
    Music Director adaptation:
    1. The last thing you want anyone to realize is that your programming decisions were responsible for the 30 percent decline in ticket sales at your last music director position. If asked, look into the distance and say “I recall smiles in a sea of faces and that we reached previously unknown levels of ticket sales (then wink, like Don).”
  3. Don’s Guide: Have a great name.
    Music Director adaptation:
    1. This is a no-brainer. If your name sounds remotely English, change to something Eastern European, Russian, Italian, Spanish, or Scandinavian; the more diacritical marks, the better.
  4. Don’s Guide: Look fantastic in a suit, look fantastic in casual wear, look fantastic in anything. Sound good, smell good, kiss good, strut around with supreme confidence. Be uncannily successful at your job. Blow people away every time you say anything. Take six hour lunches. Disappear for weeks at a time. Lie to everyone about everything. Drink and smoke constantly.
    Music Director adaptation:
    1. The secret here is a good tailor and plastic surgeon can fix anything nature or a life of excess throws your way, so spend whatever it takes (don’t worry, it’s still a fraction of what a violinist spends on a good instrument and you’ll make the orchestra pay for it anyway).
    2. If you’re American (even Canadian) by birth, learn to speak with an affected accent. Grow your hair long and either slick it back with a lot of product or let it run wild and free.
    3. Walking out on and off stage is the single most important thing you’ll do in a performance so get a few strutting lessons from an image coach.
    4. Dishonesty is crucial, some handy lies include “Yes, you can take that subscription series off,” “I think you’re right on track to receiving tenure,” “My assistant sent the bowings and program notes to you yesterday,” and “Of course I’ll be at that fundraiser.”
    5. Disappearing for weeks on end and taking six hour lunches are unwritten job requirements so no worries there but along with drinking and smoking, don’t forget drug abuse. After all, any powerfully addictive stimulant (prescription or street corner) will make your conducting particularly animated during a performance and therefore more “Maestro-ish.” If any of these vices get out of control, explain the byproducts as “artistic temperament.”

Religiously follow these best practices and you too will become a Maestro in Don Draper’s image.

*NOTICE: Good advice isn’t cheap. So once you have obtained career bliss and are beloved figure throughout all of classical music, please remit 20 percent of your career gross income to:

Drew McManus LLC
505 N. Lake Shore Dr. #4111
Chicago, IL 60611

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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