Why Are Conductors Exempt From Wearing Masks Onstage?

If you’ve been watching any of the early efforts from orchestras experimenting with socially distanced concerts, you’ve probably noticed that on-stage musicians are wearing masks, even wind players when they aren’t actively playing.

In the handful of indoor events, audience members are wearing masks as well. So why are some conductors going without masks or walking out wearing a mask, but removing it while conducting?

Holly Mulcahy was wondering the same thing and published an article on 9/18/2020 about the etiquette of wearing masks at her blog, Neo Classical. The guidelines are divided into three groups: musicians, conductors, and guest soloists.

Here are the top-level recommendations for each, you can find additional items along with examples at the full article:

  1. Do not complain on social media about wearing a mask.
  2. Guest soloists, if the orchestra wears masks, so do you
  3. Conductors, you are part of a team (which means you wear a mask too).

What’s particularly interesting on the conductor points is Mulcahy includes input from two conductors: Bruce Kiesling and Leonard Slatkin. Both reaffirm her positions along with providing additional rationale.

Among all the complex COVID related conversations orchestra managers are enduring, one that maxes out the empathy scale is when a music director pushes back against wearing a mask. They’ll provide no shortage of reasons why they should be exempt and while some rise to the level of consideration, such as needing to convey facial expression, none of them are ultimately justifiable.

In the end, part of what music directors are paid for is their ability to adapt. Is it a bigger challenge to conduct without the full range of facial expressions? Of course. But if it rises to the level of being a mask wearing showstopper, that probably says more about the limitations of the respective conductor than anything else.

Orchestra Etiquette in a Covid Era

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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