Musicians Behaving Badly?

The 2/28/2011 edition of the Boston Herald published a review by Keith Powers of a performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) or Mahler’s Ninth. What makes the review unusual doesn’t have anything to do with the music so much as what Powers wrote about behavior he observed in the violin section. More to the point, behavior he defined as “disturbing”…

According to Powers, members of the BSO violin section engaged in a series of inappropriate behaviors.

Most disturbing — bordering on the unprofessional — was what appeared to be some inside joke running through the violin section. Backward glances, grins and sniggering have no place in junior high classrooms, let alone onstage during performance. With a young conductor leading a challenging work, at least the appearance of engaged playing must be maintained.

Although the Boston Globe review had no mention of this behavior in their review; clearly, Powers had a very different view. After reading the article, I immediately thought of a series of articles written by Holly Mulcahy at Neo Classical that examine how each stakeholder group contributes to alienating audience members.

In this case, the installment focusing on musicians points out some of the exact same bad behaviors Powers mentioned in his post. Provided Powers’ reports are accurate, then the BSO musicians might benefit from giving it a read.

All four articles in the series are worth your time:

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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0 thoughts on “Musicians Behaving Badly?”

  1. They might give the article a read, but don’t hold your breath for change. Anyone that has seen orchestral pops concerts, youth concerts or classical concerts where a conductor, typically young, hasn’t captured the enthusiasm of the players has seen this before.

    Some players will never get, or care, that this makes them look bad and shows contempt for their audience.

  2. I just saw your post, Drew. If the report about the musicians’ behavior is true then it is even more disgraceful since the “young conductor” referred to was Sean Newhouse (BSO assistant conductor) who was the last- minute emergency replacement for the ailing James Levine.

    One would think that the orchestra would go out of its way to make the concert go well, considering the diffcult situation Maestro Newhouse was facing.

    • I think disgraceful is too strong of a term to use here whereas unprofessional or inappropriate are likely more accurate alternatives. What the review doesn’t make crystal clear is what the critic felt was the reason the violins were acting the way he reported. However, it would be fascinating to learn more about his observations.

  3. Yes, there are a few musicians whose behavior needs to be attended to on occasion. But about 10-12 years ago and in my opinion, a movement began here in Saint Paul where all of a sudden most musicians, nationwide, were misbehavers and bad players. Leaders in management therefore had cause to create this new model you are seeing now. A thread of truth blown way out of proportion to serve a higher purpose? In my opinion most professional musicians in this country play and work their hearts out. Attitudinal change must occur within an entire organization and should be exemplified from the top as well as the bottom, which is where musicians seem to be heading these days. People, open your hearts!


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