A Letter To Tony Woodcock

Dear Tony,

I watched your appearance as a panelist on the WQXR American Orchestras: Endangered Species? program on 5/4/2011 and became concerned with what came across as a very aggressive and unproductive posture toward orchestra musicians and the basic system of collective representation not to mention the greater field as a whole…

Your exchanges with Ray Hair, President of the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada, appeared strained and your verbal and nonverbal communication projected an almost palpable combination of uneasiness and animosity. I published an article on 5/5/2011 which contains more of my observations about the WQZR event so instead of listing everything here, you can feel free to review that content at your leisure.

I’ve also been reading some of your articles from Tony’s Blog; From the office of the president of New England Conservatory, and am coming across a number of components that reaffirm the sort of uneasy enmity surrounding orchestra musician issues as they relate to professional orchestra governance and administration. Moreover, I’m particularly concerned that you would purport “There are no sustainable orchestral models in this country that the field can point to and emulate” (source reference).

Clearly, you feel passionately about these issues but I believe your alarmist approach combined with an increasing number of misguided points is only going to have a counterproductive impact on the field. What I wrote in my letter to Terry Teachout on a similar topic applies here as well: “…your one dimensional rhetoric will only serve to agitate overzealous anti-labor bullies and paranoid conspiracy theorists alike and whet their appetite for the mother of all labor fights.”

Since publishing your article from 5/4/2011, you’ve received a great deal of constructive feedback from a wide variety of names in the field, some better known than others, but what seems to be missing is an actual conversation. I understand all too well that maintaining a consistent level of meaningful interaction with readers is an enormous challenge. Nonetheless, after eight years, more than 2000 posts, and just over 3,500 comments I can say with all confidence that interacting with readers is a crucial component.

To that end, I’d like to propose the following:

Let’s have the two of us sit down for a community engagement exercise in the form of a public discussion about these issues and have the conversation broadcast live and available in archive format for on demand streaming. We can discuss the issues and answer each others’ questions as well as those from audience members plus remote viewers. Let’s see about finding a time by the end of the first week in June. I’ll waive any honorarium and be responsible for my own travel and lodging expenses and in turn NEC can host the event and associated logistics. Think of it like a cultural town hall meeting. I’m open to other format ideas you may have but would insist that the conversation be limited to just the two of us.

Having spent a good deal of time researching the governance, administrative, artistic, labor, and business models of professional orchestras in more than a dozen countries, I think we would have a productive and educational discussion that a wide variety of stakeholders will find enlightening and enjoyable.

Drew McManus

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 “A Letter To Tony Woodcock”

  1. At least Mr. Woodcock has raised enough funds to establish the New England Conservatory as a tuition free institution. Thank you, Mr. Woodcock! Now NEC graduates will not have to beat out hundreds of other applicants for one job in one of these unsustainable orchestras in order to sustain their student loan payments.

    Oh wait, tuition is $36,250 per year. Room and board is $12,100.

    • Thanks Bruce. I don’t know if I see it so much as throwing down a gauntlet so much as having an honest, open public discussion. As time marches on, there seems to be a growing amount of one way communication on these points and I think it would do everyone some good to have a candid, respectful discussion where ideas can be presented, challenged, and explored.

      But your point about opinion becoming fact is a very real concern and one I share. I do take issue with a few cultural bloggers in the field who have a habit of referencing unnamed sources as a way to legitimize what are otherwise unverified hypotheses.

  2. Great Drew. One can only hope that Tony’s sense of ‘fairness’ will help him to accept your invitation. He is clearly threatened by facts and the successes of others so I’m not setting my hopes too high.

    Please keep up the great work.

  3. As a general FYI, I did receive the following note this morning via email from Ellen Pfeifer, New England Conservatory Public Relations Manager (published here with her permission):

    “It may be early next week before Tony can get back to you. He’s out of town on a mini-vacation with his family until Tuesday.”

    As such, we’ll see what happens. Stay tuned…

  4. Hello Drew,

    I agree with much of what you say above regarding Mr. Woodcock’s website and his alarmist attitude in general. However, I have to disagree with the idea that Tony Woodcock’s communication with Mr. Hair was creating an environment of uneasiness and animosity. I belive, rather, that Mr. Hair was simply uneasy, angry and commited to hit on each of his talking points (certainly the managers, specifically Ms. Parsons, were guilty of this last point as well).

    After watching the entire clip which you reference above, I would love to read your letter to Ray Hair.

    From my point of view, I thought Mr.Hair represented the musicians perspective very poorly. He appeared agressive at times, defensive when questioned and unable to offer any thoughtful or construtive commentary on improving relations between management and musicians. I find that most professional orchestral musicians I know do not adopt this rigid attitude. As a former card carrying union musician, I was embarassed and cringed several times at statements he made.

    I like your idea about sitting down with Mr. Woodcock. I, for one, would certainly tune in and think that it could provide some really constuctive discourse. I really enjoy your website and will keep my fingers crossed that you have some time to write a letter to Mr. Hair as I’m sure you would have a lot of good insights.


    • I did consider writing an open letter to Ray Hair as well but figured that two letters in as many weeks was probably enough at this point. Moreover, I’m not as certain what I would engage Mr. Hair on in any sort of public setting since musician issues really are better suited to each respective orchestra musician association. But the observations of mine you quoted are precisely how I continue to feel and yes, he did come across equally aggressive and defensive.

      Nonetheless, if he is interested in have some sort of public discussion, I’m certainly up for it.

      • I’m hearing similar sentiments quite a bit and it pretty much sums up my reaction in the original post from last week about the show. It would have been nice to see two musician representatives participating, one for an ICSOM size orchestra and other from a ROPA. Bruce Ridge from North Carolina, ICSOM Chair, would have been my first choice for the ICSOM groups and I can think of dozens of other equally qualified musicians. For ROPA groups, ROPA Founder and current Symphonic Services Division Negotiator Nathan Kahn would have been ideal. Likewise, there are dozens of names that come to mind who would have done an excellent job.

  5. Hi Drew,

    I too would love to see you & Tony Woodcock sit down for a panel discussion. And while I agree that Mr. Woodcock often takes an extreme position, I appreciate him for at least promoting the idea of change, or even the possibility of change.

    It would be so much easier for someone in his position to go the route of Ray Hair or Anne Parsons and just keep to the talking points. It is nice to hear someone in the musician community challenge the standard way of working together, and suggest new standards that allow and encourage musicians to be stakeholders.

    Musicians and administration have gotten so locked on their own side of the table, that it is nearly impossible to have a discussion that stretches boundaries and challenges our presuppositions about the way things need to work (as was clearly demonstrated by Mr. Hair and Ms. Parsons during the WQXR panel).

    As someone who works administrative side, but with many friends (and certainly my own history and passion) on the musician side – I know I am not the only one who feels that this world of “musicians vs. management” where we insist on holding ground, as if either one is “bailing out the other” or as if a great organization can exist without both, is exhausting and counterproductive.

    OK, I have gotten off topic. Anyway, I will certainly tune in when your event takes place, and am absolutely in favor of many candid, respectful discussions on these topics. I just wanted to say a quick thank you to Mr. Woodcock for challenging the current state of the industry, and suggesting that there is a possibility of change (even if he has taken it to a rather extreme position).

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