Yesterday, I found myself telling a student who had just played beautifully an excerpt from Mozart 41, “Well, it sounds great but you probably shouldn’t use that unconventional bowing and fingering for an audition.” It made me reflect on how the training to become an orchestral player involves such an intense effort to make every last detail the same as everyone else, but better.
So why should we be surprised when this same obsessive tendency manifests in our business dealings as union musicians and managers? I think we see it in the need to create models, new or old, for orchestras. Those models, like my criticism of my student’s fingering, often serve to stifle creativity and innovation – regardless of the potential quality of the result.
How do “models” stifle innovation? They do it by taking perfectly fine ideas for some orchestras and creating an expectation that those ideas must be applied to all orchestras – or at least those orchestras which wish to be considered “serious.”
This is reinforced by the training of orchestra managers – many, if not most of whom received their formation from the League of American Orchestras programs. What is intended to be sharing of best practices becomes stifling conformity – especially when faced with the financial and time pressures most managers experience.
Musicians negotiate their contracts with a close eye on what other orchestras are doing. Goals for compensation and work rules are set with the intention of sharing in the successes of the next rung up the orchestra ladder, but they end up throttling innovation.
Both managers and musicians keep track of their peers with massive spreadsheets listing every possible detail of operations, contracts and work rules. The orchestra business is to groupthink what damp basements are to black mold.
So many of us have concluded that we need to adapt, to change the way we do some things. (In reality, orchestras have always been adapting, but it always seems to come as a shock.) So what do we do? Respond incrementally as we reinvigorate our relationships with our own communities and audiences? Of course not! We need a New Model.
Wow, a New Model! Are you worried about how to develop a new model? It’s hard work to create something new and most new ideas are actually failures – a necessary but unpleasant part of the process. No problem – the new model is actually the Memphis Symphony. Seriously.No need for messy experimentation. (Everyone knows I’m being sarcastic, right?)
Something about new models inspires executive directors to want to take a scythe to existing practices – tear up the collective bargaining agreements, a wholesale redefinition of the orchestra, reinventing the role of the musician. Whether it’s New England Conservatory President and former Minnesota Orchestra executive director Tony Woodcock, former LA Phil executive directorErnest Fleischmann (an old new model from the late ‘80’s) or former Saint Paul executive director Bruce Coppock, a major rupture, rather than gradual evolution seems to be the order of the day.
Musicians respond by springing to the barricades.We start looking for connections and conspiracies as you can see in some of the comments on this blog.Some feel that we need to prepare to resist the “Memphis model” being imposed. (Memphis musician Michael Barar ably pointed out here that it may notmodel what you think it models.)
Apparently, some think that the report of Mellon Orchestra Forum Elephant Task is supposed to be a new model for orchestras. Full disclosure: I was co-author of that report. Re-read paragraphs 1-2 on page 4 to see why it’s not intended to be a model.
Now, I like a lot of what I hear about the Memphis Symphony’s experimentation. But why burden them with the role of the New Model? Let’s let them be the Memphis Symphony for Memphis and let every other orchestra be the right orchestra for their city.
So, how ’bout let’s not have any more models?
Let’s recognize that each community and each orchestra is different. As is the ‘arts ecology’ of each city. Some orchestras may need to send small groups to small venues throughout the suburbs; maybe no one still lives near the concert hall that was built 90 years ago. Music education needs differ from city to city; maybe some orchestras need to start programs while others can simply collaborate with existing programs. Maybe some orchestras need their musicians’ help to help inspire and cultivate strong board members; actually – that is a universal need among orchestras.
We don’t need every orchestra to have the ‘Memphis model,’any more than we need every orchestra to be just like the Chicago Symphony. We do need every orchestra to know their own community, inspire their audiences and build on that support.
Tomorrow: the path forward.