What You Need To Know About Peer Review Part 2

In Part 1, we examined what the peer review process entails along with why some conductors experience frustration with the process only to be completely unaware that they are the root of the problem. Today’s installment will examine some solutions along with related material…

Recapping The Problem

We know that the peer review process is initiated by the employer and in all but a handful of professional orchestras those duties are contractually assigned to the music director. Likewise, anecdotal evidence suggests that the majority of problems stem from a breakdown in the process and suggests that frustrations among all stakeholders can be marginalized by following some simply human resources best practices.

The Solution

Fortunately, the solution to fixing the system is entirely straightforward.

  1. Know the process. Ignorance of the law does not excuse and music directors need to be familiar with their respective peer review language. They need to have someone intimately familiar with peer review language explain and review the procedure at the onset of tenure along with regularly scheduled review periods.
  2. Follow the process. The rogue hero is a Hollywood script device, not a real life role model. If displeased with the process in place, make those concerns known to executive management so they can be addressed in subsequent bargaining sessions. There’s no guarantee anything will change but that’s the point where change is addressed.
  3. Prevent the need for the process. It’s much easier to point fingers than be a source for inspiration to help bring a musician out of negative artistic standards cycle. The more music directors strive to create a musical environment that relies on preventive maintenance than invasive action minimizes the need for peer review; and in the few cases it is warranted, the process runs at optimum efficiency.

It never ceases to amaze me just how little conductors know about peer review. So much so, that I’m all for mandatory examinations designed to verify and encourage acceptable levels of understanding. I wouldn’t go so far as recommending music directors agree to individual contract language that includes increased liability for failing to perform artistic disciplinary procedures in accordance with stated peer review procedures. But at the same time, it may be worthwhile option for boards to consider if they are interested in hiring a conductor with a known history of abusive artistic disciplinary practices.


A little education can go a long way.

Clearly, all parties involved in the peer review process will benefit from following existing mutually agreed upon procedures. Adherence will allow key participants in peer review to remain above reproach and help their respective organization avoid the cycle of circular retaliation that contributes to stunted musical growth.

Perhaps it would be useful to begin focusing on preparing emerging conductors by incorporating course work that teaches the history of peer review along with practical application in an academic setting. The rest of the field would likely benefit by offering professional development opportunities for existing music directors on peer review best practices. Even though it may be difficult, compiling case studies that detail the dynamic impact of poorly implemented peer review would certainly be useful.

If nothing else, the post from conductor James Gaffigan which served as inspiration for this pair of articles (not to mention some other recent high profile peer review mishaps) has me sketching out plans for a peer review professional development workshop. In the meantime, if you’re a conductor and want to talk about peer review, feel free to get in touch.

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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