Minnesota Gets Grumpy Over Departure Figures

The 6/11/2013 edition of MinnPost.com published a letter by Minnesota Orchestra Association (MOA) Director of Human Resources, Esther Saarela, where the author takes issue with the notion of artistic brain drain within the organization. Officially, Saarela is responding to a letter from the previous day written by an audience association leader that cites data provided by the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra (MMO); consequently, Saarela’s letter is actually serving as a fascinating little proxy war by openly challenging the MMO’s figures.

ADAPTISTRATION-GUY-092According to Saarela, only two musicians have resigned and five have requested leaves of absence since the lockout was initiated in October, 2012. Saarela also claims that eleven of the musicians the MMO classifies as ghosts (“musicians lost to the lockout”) left before the onset of the lockout; the inference here is that they shouldn’t be included in the tally of departed musicians.

Fighting Fire With Fire

Saarela’s letter suggests that discussions about the impact of musician retention should be limited to quantifiable data.

It’s regretful to lose any talented musician, and debating the impact of difficult contract negotiations on musician departures is fair. But that debate is best accomplished with facts rather than exaggerations or distortions.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it might be difficult to find many voices opposed to the notion of using quantifiable data as the basis for reliable analysis; having said that, Saarela’s letter utlizies the very same disingenuous approach she calls out.

Fighting Fire With Water

In order to conduct an accurate analysis of the lockout’s impact on musician retention, you need information from the individuals in question.

The best way to obtain this information from musician employees who have already left or requested leave is via exit interview.

For example, we simply don’t know why all eleven musicians Saarela referenced decided to leave during the 2011/12 season. It could have everything to do with reasons that eventually led to the lockout or it could be due to entirely unrelated reasons.

Sadly, the orchestra field has never embraced the routine practice of implementing a thorough exit interview process (a process that typically falls under the auspices of human resources) and according to my sources inside the MOA administration, that orchestra is no exception.

Consequently, the MOA has no reliable moral high ground when it comes to determining the current work environment’s impact on recent musician departures. Likewise, without any sort similarly reliable interview data, the MMO are in a similar position.

For now, it seems clear that there is a much higher than average numbers of musicians leaving the MOA but the related discussions are characterized more by spin than fact. Unless that changes, observers will have to be content with watching both sides hurl rocks at one another’s glass house.

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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20 thoughts on “Minnesota Gets Grumpy Over Departure Figures”

    • I don’t believe anyone has referenced musicians that decided to leave before the 2011/12 season, rather, musicians that decided to leave during that season and whether or not they should be included in any current analysis related to musician retention.

      In the end, the distinction is inconsequential because the only aspects that matter are those related to the sort of information derived from a properly designed and implemented exit interview policy. If a program like this existed, it would be able to track patterns that should ultimately impact strategic decision making.

      • I think in the cases of both MN Orchestra and the SPCO, there was already a strategy in place which would guarantee a large exodus of players to make room for a younger, cheaper orchestra. This was also a strategy with Crystal Sugar after their 18 month lock out. Their strategic decision making had already taken place.

      • There was a huge lockout situation with American Crystal Sugar in Moorhead MN which devastated the community. Interestingly, the SAME law firm advised Crystal Sugar, the MN O, the SPCO, and the MN Wild (pro hockey team) and all four mgmts locked out their workers. The hockey lockout of course was the shortest.

  1. An exit interview process is only useful if you’re willing to adjust course based on new information. If you think you’re infallible and your scheme for managing an organization is already perfect, why gather information at all? Just do whatever it takes to force it on through!

    • I recall that toward the end of the Detroit lockout and shortly thereafter, the employer took a position, and I’m paraphrasing here, that any musicians not wishing to stay didn’t want to participate in the new vision wasn’t worth keeping around anyway. It was very much a “don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out” perspective. It will be interesting to see if the MOA adopts a similar strategy at some point.

      • Strike, not lockout. 🙂

        And as for the point “we simply don’t know why all eleven musicians Saarela referenced decided to leave during the 2011/12 season”…technically true. However, I can confirm, based on conversations and emails with the affected parties or coworkers of the affected parties, that many of these departures or retirements were due, at least in part, to the knowledge that contract negotiations would be immensely difficult and the Minnesota Orchestra would be a fundamentally different organization after 1 October 2012. Of course, take that with a grain of salt depending on how much you trust me, but…yeah. I won’t say any more than that, because obviously I don’t want to speak for specific individuals without their permission.

        Also, since we’re talking about Ms. Saarela… I think it’s worth mentioning that months ago, Ms. Saarela’s daughter Katie wrote a highly immature letter to the Star Tribune suggesting that musicians learn how to cut coupons or use Craigslist. This letter seems to suggest a festering hostility and resentment within the organization – and a fundamental misunderstanding of the business of major orchestras – that will be extremely difficult to overcome, even if a settlement could be reached tomorrow. http://www.startribune.com/opinion/letters/179388601.html

        In any case, I feel like a discussion of why exactly people left is perhaps overshadowing a more pressing issue: there are way too many open seats in the orchestra…especially principal seats. And this statistic will only get troubling as the summer (and fall…and winter…) goes on. Hopefully everyone can agree on that reality. But unfortunately, I don’t think we can. Michael Henson could have an orchestra the size of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and he’d still deny there’s a problem.

  2. It’s true that there are no formal exit interviews, and thus, no official data. However, the musicians I am sure conducted many informal exit interviews with fellow musicians over drinks. Thus, the musicians are in a position to know why their colleagues left and are leaving.

    Also, 25-50% cuts in salary and a bunch of work rule changes that alter the nature of your job and hurt morale? Why is the Minnesota Orchestra management even *bothering* to try to spin those musician-leaving numbers? Anyone with common sense can draw their own conclusions based on what they themselves would do if they had better opportunities elsewhere or simply couldn’t take it anymore.

    • Something like discussion over drinks does not rise to the level of a properly designed exit interview program implemented with independent conditions by professionals who are above reproach. In short, I’d place just as little value on anecdotal evidence as anything implied. If the musicians wish to strengthen their case, they’ll follow through with something more concrete.

      Having said that, the situation is so partisan that the only reliable way to produce a reasonable analysis is to use an independent resource.

  3. Nothing like “damning with faint praise” . . .


    “Coppock was on the SPCO board during the lockout, and some musicians have quietly indicated their distress about his role developing management strategy. Coppock knows there are “rough feelings” among the musicians, but he believes time, and music making will heal those wounds. He wants to ensure there is a proper celebration and recognition for those who step down as they have served SPCO audiences with distinction.

    “And if they choose to retire, God bless them because they have really done their job.” Coppock said.”

  4. One could argue they began adopting that strategy some time ago, as referenced in toward the end of this interview from November: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2012/11/08/arts/orchestra-musicians-leaving-because-of-contract-issues. I believe Richard Davis was quoted back in the fall about how those musicians that could leave, probably would (sorry, don’t have the link at hand). He may not have intended that line to come off as cold, but many people read it that way.

    • Yup. In September Richard Davis said, “We’re threading the needle. This is going to be very challenging, to find a way to protect the artistic integrity of this world-class orchestra and not lose the players that have made it that way… These are real people with real lives, and they have to protect their own financial circumstances and artistic integrity. There’s a risk that they find their way to another place, and those who can leave will. It’s going to be a personal decision where they want to perform.” I’ve heard through the grapevine that US Bancorp told Richard Davis to stop talking about this issue publicly because his actions were reflecting poorly on the company. This wouldn’t surprise me, as he hasn’t been interviewed for months and months on the lockout, even though he’s still the chair of management’s negotiating committee… http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/168850596.html?refer=y

  5. Esther Saarela may have to hew the company line, but her comment bucket doesn’t hold water.

    One reason for so many vacancies in the Minnesota Orchestra is because for several years the MOA has neglected to hold auditions to fill vacant positions, despite contractual obligations to do so. While many orchestras may lose three or so players a year to other orchestras, outside of normal retirements, these are usually due to promotions to better-paying jobs and/or title positions. In the case of the Minnesota Orchestra, many of the departures would, in normal times, be seen as lateral moves at best. Minnesota’s lauded Principal Clarinet Burt Hara left for Associate Principal in LA. Principal Second Violin Gina DiBello moved to Section First Violin in Chicago. (An added attraction for her move to the CSO may be the fact that her father plays in the double bass section.) Peter McGuire, Acting First Associate Concertmaster left the Minnesota Orchestra for one of the Concertmaster positions in Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra. He is a Minnesota boy who won his dream job and never wanted to leave and should never have been given reasons to leave. He actively contributed to the surrounding community as a chamber musician and educator, and should have been viewed by management as an ideal legacy player. He gave an “Exit Interview” of sorts to Minnesota Public Radio. Excerpts follow: (http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2012/11/08/arts/orchestra-musicians-leaving-because-of-contract-issues)

    McGuire, who’s 35 and from Mankato, has deep roots in Minnesota. Ever since he was a young student at the Mankato Suzuki School, his dream was to play violin for the Minnesota Orchestra. . . . McGuire said he started to feel uneasy long before the orchestra made its first contract offer this past spring. “There was this kind of ‘the bully’s going to meet you at lunchtime’ feeling for at least a year and a half,” he said. When Minnesota Orchestra management proposed deep cuts in musicians’ salaries, McGuire took it personally. “You say I’m much less valuable than I have been, and what choice do I have but to prove that’s not the case?” he said. “A 42 percent cut … would you not look for work the next day?” . . . McGuire said he doesn’t want to stay with an orchestra he feels is moving in the wrong direction.

    The argument that some of the players are just “on leave of absence” is both true and ludicrous. It is the industry standard in orchestras, and most other fields, to take a year’s leave on accepting another position. This is not hemming or hawing over whether they really intend to leave. It is more of a personal insurance policy. There may be personal or professional reasons a new job doesn’t work out as planned. The only other possible reason for these players to want to come back to Minnesota in favor of their new positions is if they hold out hope for drastic changes in MOA management policies and/or leadership in the coming year.

  6. Drew, do you know if there is data available for major American orchestras showing how many musicians vacancies per orchestra there are year-by-year (vacancies due to retirement, leaving for other jobs, etc.)? That sounds like a random thing to ask, but bear with me. With that data, I bet we could show that it is statistically improbable for this many vacancies to occur in a “normal” year, showing that some outside factor is behind the spike in vacancies. Of course this wouldn’t objectively tell us what that outside factor is, just that it exists. But I think it would be naïve to say we don’t know what this outside factor is, even if we can’t objectively prove it.

    It is astounding to me that the MOA is seemingly trying to paint musicians leaving as “part of the natural ebb and flow of any organization.” While the engineer in me certainly sympathizes with the call for objective data, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we can do one of two things: 1) wait for an expert to objectively verify that it is in fact a duck, and then go back-and-forth arguing over the expert’s credentials and analysis, or 2) call it a duck and move on solving the problem that we all know exists.

    But as Emily alluded to above, how we got here is in some ways irrelevant at this point. The fact is that about a quarter of the orchestra’s seats currently sit vacant and that the MOA hasn’t acknowledged that there is an artistic problem yet, despite warnings from Osmo. Can we officially say that the jig is up on the MOA’s promise to “heighten artistry through excellent concerts” (quote from their Strategic Business Plan) through their market-reset?

    Quack, quack……

  7. As one locked out musician told me, Ms. Saarela’s off repeated statement about three musicians leaving per year on average would mean that over the last 25 years, close to 75 musicians had left. This clearly did not happen. So while it isn’t as objective as a formal exit interview, a comparison of departures over certain time periods within the same organization might be illuminating.

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