When Did “Older” And “Exciting” Become Mutually Exclusive?

Since publishing yesterday’s post about the Boston Globe article examining the New Hampshire Music Festival’s abandoned plans to revamp the festival’s artistic structure, the Globe article has been attracting some fascinating comments. One theme throughout those comments is the notion that younger musicians equal exciting performances. Some comments replying to that sentiment supported the notion that musicians get lazy, sloppy, and lackluster with age and subsequent complaints from these musicians are attempts to conceal professional failings. All of this is related to one of the more contentious, yet unspoken, aspects of this business that by its nature, tenure promotes indolence…

Young = Exciting? Please.

Of all the prickly issues in this business, tenure is one of the prickliest. We covered this subject several years ago in an article titled Reader Response: Musician Tenure and after reading the article again earlier this week, I think most of what’s there is every bit as suitable today as it was then.

Simply put, there’s no denying that the cog-in-a-wheel syndrome can grind down the artistic luster of even the most inspired musician. Add to that, the normal layer of life oriented burdens such as new-born induced sleep deprivation, health problems, divorce, etc. and there are plenty of reasons why playing can erode. Those certainly aren’t excuses and to that end, a great deal of time and effort has been spent by players and managers over the decades to craft artistic review language to appropriately deal with the end result of tarnished performance standards.

At the same time, we could collectively marginalize this syndrome by focusing more on creating a system that prevents the need for artistic review by creating ways to combat regularly occurring performance degradation. Certainly, this is far from a novel concept as businesses have explored positive methods for improving and prolonging employee performance for quite some time. Yet, the orchestra business seems to be strangely detached, almost as if all musicians are expected to be entirely self motivated throughout the full length of their career. Can you imagine a company like Google achieving what they have with principles like that?

Ultimately, age has little bearing on artistic output. Young players don’t monopolize the exciting end of the spectrum and older players aren’t merely “instrument operators.” Maintaining high levels of thrilling artistic accomplishment is something that is a sincere team effort so the less time spent on generation games, the better.

In fact, I’d love to hear more about programs and other efforts to maintain, promote, and advance levels of artistic accomplishment that are sponsored by employers. So don’t be shy, share what you know in a comment below.

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 “When Did “Older” And “Exciting” Become Mutually Exclusive?”

    • You are correct that I do point out orchestra websites where executives who feel compelled to post their pictures, biographies, or personal messages to patrons on the organization’s website when there is nothing beyond scant information about the musicians.

      Let me point out what I say in each year’s reviews, that there is absolutely nothing improper with posting biographical data, photographs, and personal messages from or about executives, but when those endeavors eclipse learning about the actual musicians it is time for the organization to reevaluate its priorities.

      As such, if music festivals were included in the reviews then yes, they would have been included in the “Worst Of” category for “Narcissistic Executive Directors.” Thanks for pointing it out and I may very well post something about it in tomorrow’s blog.

  1. Classical music faces real problems of relevance in our cities. These issues run deeper than many are willing to address head on. Ideas like young players making “exciting” music is easier to imagine. For those hired to improve an organization’s situation older musicians make easy targets. It is certainly simpler to fire players than it is to motivate a workplace. It is easier to market new faces than it is to better communicate the core mission. Of course new hires will faces the same professional issues as their elders as they age if the underlying problems are not confronted. However, by then the music director or executive may have moved on.
    I believe that worker performance could be maintained by increasing our value to our city. We are too caught up in selling the idea of recreating a Big 5 orchestra to a few wealthy donors on a shoe string budget. Musicians are more enthusiastic when there is an audience. Orchestras of all budget sizes are struggling to sell tickets. The biggest difference between the top few and the rest is philanthropic money. Huge gifts still flow towards those old and respected institutions but they rarely come to the smaller groups. In the absence of greater community involvement based on local tastes I don’t see how we can expect to fill seats and attract new donors. Without adequate pay and half empty halls it is short sighted to expect the next generation of performers to be any different than their predecessors.

  2. I’m going to stir the pot a little and say that the idea of “young=exciting” does have some validity. This plays out in numerous fields: for example, it’s been shown that great mathematicians typically do their most significant work before they reach 30. Furthermore, you use Google as an example, and a lot of their success is due to the fact that they have young founders and are willing to let their young workers express their creativity through independent projects.

    Following further Google’s example, a LOT of the credit also goes to the old and wise CEO, Eric Schmidt. (Well, he’s older than Page and Brin, anyway.) His experience and expertise in business management is the yin to the yang of Page and Brin’s adventurous creativity. Google is a great example of an organization that has harnessed the energy and creativity of its young workforce and tempered it just enough with experience. You want to let Icarus fly, but just make sure he doesn’t get carried away.

    So how can orchestras apply this? From my own playing experience (only at the semi-professional level), the frustration stems from a hierarchical structure that rewards years of service over ability with no exceptions. I appreciate that paying your dues and familiarity with the ensemble deserves some recognition, but if the young hotshot is ready, let them have some solos. It seems to me this would motivate all the musicians to maintain or improve their skills, similar to pro sports where the starters know that the second stringers are eagerly waiting the coach’s call.

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