Conductors Are To Waiters As Composers Are To What?

The 11/29/2013 edition of BBC News published an article by Alison Feeney-Hart where she interviewed conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and asked about his tips for becoming a great conductor. By and large, Salonen’s advice is superb; it’s not only grounded but downright populist when compared to the traditional Maestro Mystique. Having said that, there was one bit that pestered at me to the point of writing this post.

Adaptistration People 169First and foremost, go read the source article before continuing with the rest of this post; it is not very long and gets right to the point. Likewise, all of the points are genuinely excellent so that’s just an added bonus (I’m particularly fond of #3, #9, and #10).

I’ll wait, no worries.

Welcome Back

Could you tell which point inspired this post? Hint: it comes after #3 and before #5.

4. Accept that you are just a waiter

The composer is the chef and conductors are the waiters. Both are totally honourable professions but we have to accept that if I conduct a piece by Beethoven, I’m just a waiter. I might be head waiter, but waiter none the less and I am there to make sure the food comes to the table on time and intact.

As gratifying as it is that Salonen purports a refreshingly unpretentious perspective on his role as conductor, it fails to stick the landing thanks to the conductor/composer vs. waiter/chef analogy.

As much as some would prefer, you simply can’t deny the profound gap in compensation and influence between music directors and composers, ensemble musicians, and with the exception of CEOs, everyone in the admin office.

How many waiters, even head waiters, earn considerably more than the head chef? Similarly, how many get to decide the menu or occupy a distinct gatekeeper position on which of the chef’s new creations see the light of day?

To be clear, this isn’t a discussion about whether or not conductors deserve their current levels of compensation, rather, the need to stop pretending that it doesn’t exist.

AirlinesPerhaps a more effective option than the chef/waiter example would be that the conductor is the pilot in charge of delivering passengers to wonderful musical destinations.

Granted, this option isn’t without faults (ironically, pilots are union employees and conductors are decidedly not), but it more accurately represents a conductor’s position and influence while simultaneously acknowledging that the destination, i.e. the composer’s work, is what it is all about.

Is This All Getting Blown Out Of Proportion?

In order to make sure I’m not being overly sensitive on this topic, I contacted several composer colleagues and asked what s/he thought of #4. All but a handful picked up on the same items.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of them wanted to be quoted by name for this article and in most cases, I wouldn’t use anonymously sourced content but I do believe this situation rises to the level of being an exception to the rule.

“I get what he’s saying but I can’t avoid getting a bad feeling every time I think conductors at his level will earn more in one year than I will my entire career writing music.”

“I can’t count the number of hours I’ve spent sending scores to conductors and networking for the slightest edge on being among the tiniest fraction of composers that get to hear their work performed by a professional orchestra.”

“Next to composers, I guess being a conductor is just about the most difficult thing to succeed at in this business but I’m not sure that justifies how much more those waiters gets paid over this chef once he or she can snatch that brass ring.”

What Do You Think?

I’m curious to know what you think. Is this being blown out of proportion? Is there such a thing as taking humility too far? Does the reality that conductors earn so much more than other stakeholders preclude humility? Are we missing something that would help put all of this in a clearer perspective?

I’m very curious to know what you think; likewise, I’m equally keen to know what you think might be a more suitable comparison conductors could consider when thinking about and speaking on this point.

As such, take a moment to send in a comment.

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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15 thoughts on “Conductors Are To Waiters As Composers Are To What?”

  1. Sitting on both sides of the fence (interestingly, as Salonen does!) I’ve always thought of the orchestra world like a magazine. Let’s use “The Devil Wears Prada” movie as an easy example: A conductor is the Editor-in-Chief (Miranda Priestly) and composers are the Designers (James Holt), with the players actually presenting the work (the Clackers), the management coordinating everything (Nigel) and the governing board is the Publisher (Irv Ravitz).

    Salonen may have grown into a much better conductor than in his early days (hopefully we all do) but I still don’t get a sense of genuineness from him, just an empty desire to satisfy what his funders (advertisers and magazine readers) and award adjudicators want to hear.

    Personally, I particularly agree with his points 2, 3 and 5.

  2. Without even reading the article, the flaw in the analogy is that conductors in this country are also often Music Directors – which involves much more than simply carrying out the composer’s intentions faithfully and well. It’s a more complex role than either pilot or waiter. Orchestra culture never makes any sense if you think of it as being 100% about music.

    • That bit stuck in the back of my mind too and on a tangential line of thought, I’ve often wondered why more orchestras don’t separate MD payments into two separate expenses; one for artistic duties and one for non artistic duties. When Gerard Schwarz was MD at Seattle, his compensation was often reported in that fashion and although it certainly meant more paperwork and time, the additional level of transparency and valuation, for both internal and external stakeholders, seemed to be a worthwhile effort.

  3. I think you’re conflating the ‘current levels of compensation’ of conductors and music directors, which are decidedly NOT the same thing. There are thousands of conductors who aren’t music directors, and don’t make much money. Salonen is talking about conducting, and the job of serving up another’s creation. I think that’s a great analogy! If you think the job of conductor is something else, say that, please.

      • Ha! My accountant would beg to differ!!! But allow me to be constructive: I’m referring to the art of conducting, which is what I think Salonen was writing about. There are thousands of people who practice this art, and very few of us make the kind of income that you’re talking about. I suppose your blog is focused more on the large-budget groups, so yes, those practicing the art of conducting in front of those groups do command a curiously high base rate. But for every six-(or seven!) figure M.D. there are countless conductors scraping to make any kind of living off their paltry base rate.

      • It’s important not to confuse any one individual’s earnings with field-wide averages. So in this instance, conductors at orchestras with annual budgets in the $100k-$250k range still earn more than the average composer.

  4. Hi, Drew,

    In my writing, the way I approach this comparison, especially when my protagonist/conductor is speaking, is to say that the composer is the boss and the conductor the employee. This also does not address the earnings disparity. I was thinking in “writer” terms, however. In Hollywood, for example, nobody has a job if they don’t find a good screenplay written by a writer. So in music world terms, nobody has anything to do if composers don’t write music. You’d think they’d be the highest paid, most in demand people, but just like writers in Hollywood, they are at the mercy of the performers because if they want to hear their music, they must meet, network, and support musicians, conductors, orchestras, etc.

    On this subject, I was especially excited last week when the Minnesota Orchestra finally announced its 2014-15 season, and the Composer Institute’s Future Classics concert was on it in January. The Composer Institute gives young composers a chance to meet musicians, talk with a major conductor, and hear their music played by a professional orchestra. I’ve met some of those composers over the years and totally empathize with their lives and difficulties getting their music out there. Writers have the same problem.

    Just my 2 cents,

  5. What the composer does can endure (and be “served up”) in many ways for many years. What the conductor does will endure for a lifetime and can occasionally be frozen in time by recordings. I go for the artist who creates in favor of the artist who interprets, but I’m not on anybody’s budget committee.

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