The Logan’s Run Tenure Track

Many thanks to Patty Mitchell over at for her post from 11/8/2010 where she takes conductor James Gaffigan to task over comments he made in one of his blog posts where he suggests the field needs to make room for the current crop of Juilliard students. Writes Gaffigan, “So, let’s make room for them!  I have conducted too many orchestras where individuals can’t play their instruments anymore.”…

Now, to be certain that we’re not wallowing around in contextomy, make sure you read Gaffigan’s entire post; better still, I’ll include the complete version at the end of this post.

What I find puzzling about Gaffigan’s post isn’t the questionable ageism, it is the seemingly willful anosognosia (God have mercy on his soul if he ever has to initiate peer review for a player over the age of 55 and God help the poor managers that will inevitably deal with the storm of grievances and age based discrimination lawsuits).

Granted, I’ll give Gaffigan the benefit of the doubt to the degree that his frustrations with a system he identifies as broken appear to be quite sincere. In fact, the system is in need of overhaul but the symptoms that have Gaffigan hot under the collar aren’t from the disease he’s diagnosed.

We’re going to look at that in greater detail next Monday. [spoiler name=”spoiler alert!”]It involves introspection.[/spoiler]

In the meantime, what do you think about all of this?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Posted by James Gaffigan at 8:52 am Comments Off

Old stomping grounds

It was an interesting surprise a few weeks ago to hear that there was a possibility for me to conduct the Juilliard Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall.  My manager called and told me that I could conduct this concert on the condition that I return to the US two days earlier than planned (keeping me from seeing my wife and newly furnished apartment in Lucerne) and that I had to commute back and forth to my pre-existing engagement with the Indianapolis Symphony.  It was a crazy schedule, but I had a funny feeling that it would be a really rewarding experience.  So, I said yes…

Coming from straight weeks of guesting in Sao Paulo, Leipzig, Amsterdam, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Brussels, it was nice to be back in my old stomping grounds of Lincoln Center.  Besides having gone to LaGuardia High School and the Juilliard Pre-College, I have many great memories of attending concerts and operas, and being out with colleagues in this neighborhood.

I did not know what to expect in conducting at Juilliard. When I was in the pre-college there was a very lazy attitude amongst the students in orchestra.  The Juilliard School had a world-class reputation, but it was not for their ensembles. I would hear stories about a fantastic concert once in a while, but overall the students were not known to take orchestra as seriously as those at other conservatories or schools, such as Rice University or the Curtis Institute.

Before I arrived, the Juilliard Orchestra prepared by having sectionals and one orchestra reading/rehearsal.  When I showed up, I saw many familiar faces among both the orchestral management and the student musicians. I experienced a very warm welcome in a very new Juilliard building, including the rehearsal space on the fifth floor – it used to be a courtyard!

My rehearsal began with Brahms’s first symphony. I gave the downbeat to the opening and could not believe my ears.  Looking around in those initial few moments, I saw every set of eyes up and attentive to my gestures and to the playing of their colleagues around them. It was unbelievable.  I was happy.  I am rarely that satisfied when working; every rehearsal was productive and a pleasant experience. I am extremely proud of how quickly we grew together in just one week’s time. This group was playing Mozart and Brahms better than most professional orchestras in this country. The concert was so exciting.

The Juilliard Orchestra is no longer an orchestra made up of young talented musicians who all want to become soloists and have no respect for the orchestral canon.  These students I worked with last week are all musicians who are sensitive to their colleagues and to the conductor. They move and breathe together; they share a wonderful work ethic and a sense of humor.  If this is the future of orchestral music in the States, I am not worried at all.

So, let’s make room for them!  I have conducted too many orchestras where individuals can’t play their instruments anymore.  I know this is a very controversial statement, but if we want the public to love classical music as much as we do, we have to invigorate the field with these young, talented musicians. (I want to digress and clearly explain that younger does not mean better.  While being the assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, I had the privilege of spending time with some “older” musicians.  One colleague and friend comes to mind – Emilio Llinas who shares a stand with the principal second violin, Steve Rose. Emilio was actually hired by George Szell, and he continues to be one of the most dedicated and passionate players in the orchestra. I learned so much from his experience and I joke with him that he has been my main conducting teacher!) Obviously, there is a bigger picture to this argument and it’s easier said than done.  We can’t play God and tell people when to retire, still, I’m hoping that some changes may come to the system in the near future to encourage the timely turnover of orchestral chairs. As much as it’s a touchy subject, these days there are too many talented musicians and too few jobs.

Posted by James Gaffigan at 8:52 am Comments Off

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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13 thoughts on “The Logan’s Run Tenure Track”

  1. I remember my first few weeks at the Curtis Institute, and even now, thinking that that orchestra was one of THE best orchestras I have ever heard or ever played in (way better than Juilliard will EVER be, oh yes, I just wrote that! ZING! ;). You get a group of young, passionate, impressionable kids together based solely on their talent, have them study with the same teachers so there is a homogeneous sound, and magic happens.

    You put that same group mixed in with musicians who studied with other teachers at other schools, plus the added bonus of dealing with the politics and bureaucracy of the music as a business with it’s committees and unions, and yeah, sorry Mr. Gaffigan, the results will be mixed. It’s your job as a conductor to gather the troops and incite that passion, to the best of your ability, at least.

    I agree that there are a few jaded folks that you find there here and there in every orchestra, as well as people who everyone wishes would just “hang it up” because they can’t see their own skills are diminishing. But these people were once young, passionate folks too – who worked their butts off to win that audition. What a ridiculous idea to ask them to step down, to retire on what probably isn’t enough to retire on, to make room for someone who might end up just like them. And where does that leave us?

    It seems that Mr. Gaffigan is suggesting a scenario similar to the sports scene; when an athlete is obviously past his prime, he is not re-hired/traded/what have you. End of story. Somehow, despite music having many similarities to sports in terms of practice, skill, and talent, I just can’t imagine that working in the music business. Perhaps instating a re-audition process would work, or have musicians play a recital every few years to “retain” their post (and hopefully make them hone their skills in the process). Even so, how would this be judged – by a jury of their peers? What if the person is not liked, even if their playing is spectacular? Or if the person is popular, but his playing is touch-and-go (see: Brett Farve)? Or, if someone is obviously not sounding good (again, by whose standards?) have HR take them aside and explain that their playing is not up to par and they must get with the program – or else? Or else what?

    Touchy subject all around, if you ask me. Right now everyone is pretty much on the “honor system” in terms of practicing and being prepared. And even “being prepared” has different meanings to different people. Past that, well, age and age-related performance issues (be them physical or mental) cannot to be avoided by anyone, and that includes Mr. Gaffigan.

  2. I’ll confess my initial response ( especially after Gaffigan describes his jet set lifestyle) is that conductors and orchestral musicians live in two vastly different worlds- many of the music directors who are making one million $ plus I’m sure have a disdain for the musicians making less than a tenth of what they make and don’t understand why these musicians that are making their life so miserable don’t just retire!

    There’s also the old saying that the baton doesn’t make any noise! We very seldom hear about conductors that should retire and make room for younger colleagues

    All that being said, one of the issues that isn’t talked about much is the “end of career” dilemma. I’ve seen musicians handle it well and handle it badly. The irony is that when it’s handled badly, many times it involves musicians being “bought out”and in effect being rewarded for staying too long. In fact, there is very seldom any financial incentive for retiring at the top of your game, although there can be many mental health and physical health benefits.

    The fact that the AFM Pension benefits have been cut by 75% for younger players joining orchestras now means that the situation in 20 or 30 years will be worse. This should be a major issue that I hope ICSOM can tackle in the next few years.

    But maybe the best solution would be to make sure that we have more orchestras, rather than fewer, than can provide the possibility of making a living as an orchestral musician (or conductor)

    I look forward to the introspective discussion on this issue!

  3. Thanks so much for linking to my site, Drew, and I am glad I brought Mr. Gaffigan’s blog entry to your attention. I’m not sure it can be said that I “brought him to task” so much as my readers did! 🙂 Clearly what he wrote pushed buttons.

    Okay … now for my poorly thought out ramble …

    Should musicians retire sooner? Sometimes. Should players who can’t play retire? Absolutely. But gee, just like in other professions, some folks don’t know when or how to let go. And retirement … there’s a tricky issue, yes? So many don’t have the sort of retirement account that folks in the “real world” have. Some have to work until they die, or so it seems.

    Still, that begin said, many of us are still performing very well … better, in fact, than we may have performed when we first won a position. Go figure! Even with our addled brains and gray hair, we do fairly well.

    If someone really is playing poorly, there are contractual ways to go about dealing with this. Management certainly has the ability to send out letters of warning. After that there are ways to dismiss a player. Some people act as if we are there for life no matter what. This isn’t the case.

    Mostly, though, I was horrified that a conductor would suggest that older qualified musicians should step down merely to allow some younger qualified musicians to have the chairs. And that seems to be what he was suggesting, because while he first says that he’s “conducted too many orchestras where individuals can’t play their instruments anymore,” he then goes on to point out that not everyone is like that, that “younger doesn’t mean better” but still says we should step down because “these days there are too many talented musicians and too few jobs.” It appeared to me that he was suggesting we owe them the positions.

    I’m hoping I was misreading though. I know I’m capable of doing that.

    Okay, ramble over and out.

  4. I remember playing for a “real” conductor in my college orchestra. He said “Wow, you guys are so much better than the professionals! I wish I could take you with me on tour…etc etc.” Years later, I found that very same conductor was to be a guest conductor with my symphony. I was excited, since my initial experience was so exciting and positive. During the first rehearsal, I was horrified and disappointed as this conductor went on a verbal rampage against some wind players that didn’t deserve to have that abuse coming to them. I also witnessed this conductor have a hissy fit before the concert because he had the wrong bottled water in his dressing room and “there are not enough patrons in the audience!! I can’t go out there for that piss-ant audience!!”

  5. Comments on Gaffigan’s post are closed. Pretty much says it all.
    I’m currently playing in an orchestra with a conductor who should have retired YEARS ago. His contract was recently renewed with no input from the orchestra so now we have demoralized musicians only coming to work for the paycheck and desperately waiting for the next guest conductor. Here’s hoping it’s not Mr. Gaffigan.

  6. For decades the same music schools and in some cases the same teachers have produced generations of professional orchestra players. Given how little has changed in the way conservatories educate or in the way orchestras hire, it seems illogical to declare that any generation has the answers to our persistent challenges.

    The idea that the “dead wood” concept is a “controversial statement” is indicative of just how simplistic and introverted our industry’s conversation tends to be. The argument itself is old and lazy. It has been repeated ad nauseam by conductors, players, managers, critics, students, teachers, staff members, board members, etc. for ages. Yet simultaneously all of the above seem to agree that orchestras have been consistently improving. Nevertheless we still struggle to sell tickets and reach new audiences. We have had little success in improving the systemic problems in the workplace. All the while, players have been great at their instruments. My teacher can still kick my ass at an audition or on the job. In fact, the one thing our industry has been really successful in is getting great players to make careers at a high level outside of established cultural centers.

    Symphonic institutions already employ generations of accumulated artistic gains. Having said that, is live classical music becoming more or less a part of the community’s fabric? Why would a personnel overhaul of new players with essentially identical skills and values as their predecessors be different this time?

  7. Mr. Gaffigan has just blacklisted himself with most professional orchestra musicians who now have jobs. These are the very people who will likely be sitting in judgement of HIM when his name comes up for a Music Directorship position or when management wants feedback on his performance as a guest conductor. Good thing he likes conducting student orchestras because that’s probably where he’ll end up now.

  8. There will always be incredibly talented, fresh, vivacious, new players coming out of Juilliard and other top music schools, and it will always be exhilarating to hear their youthful virtuosity. But as a conductor with 32 years experience guest conducting hundreds of symphony orchestras, I will always be grateful, appreciative, and “in awe” of the seasoned, experienced, and mature players who have been in those orchestras (sometimes for decades), for their irreplaceable artfulness, style, and unique ability to pass on the traditions of the past to the future — as well as for their abilities to make superb music. I will always remember the first time I guest conducted The Philadelphia Orchestra. There was a violinist still in the orchestra whom many felt should have long retired. But he was still there . . . and he was still playing. I was conducting concert excerpts from “Tannhauser.” This player . . . probably near 80 at that time . . . was exceptionally generous, and very encouraging to me. And backstage, at a break, he was telling me a story, and several other musicians from the orchestra were listening as well. And in his story, this wonderful violinist told me about playing the same exact music under both Stokowski and Toscanini — AND under Bruno Walter. And then he demonstrated to me, on his violin, the different ways that all three of these maestros approached a particular passage that I had been discussing earlier that day in rehearsal.

    And that all three of those maestros felt that their musical choices went straight back to Wagner’s own personal preference. You don’t get a moment like that from a 22-year-old who just graduated from Juilliard, no matter how brilliant their technique. We — including conductors — can all learn from the “mature” musicians around us. (And I still do every day.)

  9. As a conductor having to deal with at times difficult personnel issues there is one overriding thing here that shouts at me. Even the orchestras of the highest standards are hurting, but it is not because of their standards! We have to bring people into the fold, and simply playing blazingly well doesn’t do that alone. Give me the musician who also understands an audience connection, the ones who get involved in tangible and intangible ways to promote an orchestra, the ones who get the concept of nuanced ensemble playing, and for all the slack I was cut for when I was a mere lad in this field, I too have to practice the same as much as possible on the other end. Many musicians I have worked with have incredible personalities and that alone will get people attend concerts. Plus I can think of performances that I have done with Youth orchestras that I can count as some of my most satisfying because of the journey, and the feeling of accomplishment from the group, and it is those feelings and memories that stay with you and they are not always correlated to standards. As conductors we need to work with who we have and only make changes when absolutely necessary and not philosophically. I have read from a conductor in a blurb for a season brochure that he was pleased that the majority of his audience seemed learned, and “understood” music, so as if to say we are an exclusive and elitist club for only the best young talent and the brightest audience members? It is our job to create with the tools we have the best possible scenario for all. Art is about humanity and for us to sincerely translate that, artists have to practice humility. The only thing I can say about James is that he feels he is in the music business, and that is what I read from what he wrote (he’s not alone in these thoughts). The business we are in is the People Business!

  10. Something that I think is missing from the conversation about Jimmy Gaffigan’s controversial blog post is the question of how musical standards evolve in an orchestra. I think that the real problem in Gaffigan’s statement that “I have conducted too many orchestras where people can’t play their instruments anymore” is the word “anymore”: the assumption that age is the primary factor holding back musical standards.

    Just because an orchestra is very competitive today doesn’t mean standards were always so high. Chicago, Philly, Cleveland, these have been great orchestras for 100 years–the older members of today were the hotshots of yesterday, and even though audition practices have changed a lot, I don’t think anyone would suggest that it was anything other than a monumental accomplishment to join the Cleveland orchestra of 50 years ago.

    But some orchestras, including the one I started my career in, have seen a sudden and drastic change in musical standards, and sometimes it wasn’t that long ago, even among ICSOM orchestras. It may be a harsh thing to say, but sometimes the problem with the “older players” Gaffigan is talking about has nothing to do with age and everything to do with the fact that the person in question couldn’t play very well in the first place. If you joined an orchestra when it was a tiny regional operation, and now it’s an established ICSOM member that has Juilliard grads banging down the door every time an audition is advertised, the the musical level–including the audition, peer review standards, and MD expectations–is going to change drastically. But, the older members aren’t going to be weaker players just because they’re older. They’re weaker because they auditioned for and joined a completely different level of orchestra.

    This is obviously a touchy subject, and how much of a factor it is varies greatly from one orchestra to another. But it was a HUGE factor in the group I joined right out of school, and I think many conductors probably had the same reaction to us that Jimmy writes about. But the conclusion that older players are somehow holding everyone back and need to step aside is not only ageist and unfair; it also shows a profound lack of understanding of how orchestras change and, ultimately, grow.

  11. As someone who was in the audience when Gaffigan conducted the Juilliard Orch in Kodaly Galanta Dances and Brahms #1, and who has heard the Orch regularly in Mahler, Stravinsky, Bartok, etc., I always walk out marveling at the fact that these “kids” can play the big pieces as well as they do. In fact, I often think that any small to medium-sized town would be happy to have an orchestra this good.

    That said, I also regularly attend concerts in NY of Amsterdam, Vienna, Berlin, Cleveland, Philadelphia, NY Phil, etc., and walk out wallowing in the blazing perfection these mature orchestras produce. As has already been posted, I think Gaffigan’s comments re “dead wood” are off-base.

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