Musicians and “input” – Part 1

The underlying question in the "dual committee" dispute in An Orchestra That Shall Not Be Named is, of course, the efficacy of musician "input" into various management and board decisions – governance, in short.

It’s a topic that’s been widely discussed within our business for several decades now. William Mesa’s map of the Harmony archives provides direction towards some of the literature on the subject. During my tenure as editor of Senza Sordino, I wrote an editorial on the topic for the January 1996 edition, which I think still represents my views.

“Input is futile: prepared to be ignored”
An editorial in the shape of a parable

Musicians’ satisfaction with their jobs, or lack thereof, has been the topic of some serious press attention recently. Much of this stems from a recent article by Bernard Holland in the New York Times on the recently–concluded New York Philharmonic contract negotiations. As have many other observers, Holland makes a tentative connection between increased musician involvement in the affairs of the orchestral institution and musician happiness. But will involvement in decision-making end, or at least thaw, the winter of our discontent with our jobs? Consider the following parable.

A member of an orchestra (say the principal violist) is asked to serve on a committee evaluating a new computer system for the orchestra’s offices. During a series of meetings, the musician, who has an extensive background in the subject, raises some questions about the staff’s proposal to upgrade its computer network. Despite the musician coming up with a proposal that would save some money and also enable management to redeploy a staff support person to more productive pursuits than network tweaking, and despite having his recommendation validated by some expert opinions, the staff’s original proposal is enacted. Not only is money wasted, but the staff is stuck with a computer network that wastes their time and energy. Now what is wrong with this picture?

The answer is, “nothing.”

Turn the situation around for a minute. Imagine that the orchestra’s finance director also happen to be, for example, a very competent amateur violist (no viola jokes, please). Imagine also that this violist-CPA comes back stage and, in the presence of much of the viola section, suggests to the principal violist that the opening of, say, the slow movement of the Beethoven Fifth symphony would work much better on a down bow rather than the up bow marked by the principal. What would be the principal’s reaction and why?

Well, if I were the principal in question, I suspect I’d be rather upset. Regardless of whether the finance director was right or not (and most violists would prefer the down bow, by the way), the finance director is not responsible for viola bowings. If the conductor doesn’t like the finance director’s bowings, the principal violist, not the finance director, will incur the wrath of the godlike one. Moreover, one of the few joys of being a principal violist, a small level of autonomy in artistic matters, will have been infringed, and that employee’s enthusiasm and performance compromised as a result.

Now turn this situation around again. Whose performance ratings get tanked if the principal violist’s computer recommendations turn out to produce a system of twenty desktop lemons networked to five printing turkeys? Almost certainly not the principal violist’s (he’s in enough trouble over the bowings already). Moreover, one of the few joys of being an orchestra finance director, a small level of autonomy in deciding how to run her department, will have been seriously compromised, as will her interest and enthusiasm.

This is the real problem with most of the experiments in musician involvement in institutional decision–making. Musicians are put on committees to deal with matters for which they have no responsibility (and often little knowledge), while in the one area they do know, music-making, they are allowed no say. Advanced programs of worker involvement in industry give workers considerable control and autonomy in terms of the production process. On some assembly lines, any worker can stop the line to fix a quality problem. What is the equivalent in our business of stopping the line? Certainly not having the worker sit on a marketing committee. Stopping the line on the orchestra plant floor is a musician standing up in the middle of a run-through of a Beethoven slow movement and saying to the conductor, “Kurt, could we do letter ‘A’ again? There was a pitch problem in the winds. Perhaps you could tune the thirds in the clarinets and bassoons.” Likely to meet with favor from Kurt? Likely to be encouraged by managements and boards? Likely to get the musician fired for insubordination? Now you’re getting warm.

Musician involvement in the affairs of the institution is no substitute for real involvement in the production process, which is the only kind of worker involvement that has ever resulted in anything positive. It puts musicians who serve on such committees at risk of being viewed as ignorant and naïve by the board and staff on those committees, even if they’re not, while often resulting in considerable frustration for the musicians themselves. It is also not a joy for the staff members who report to such committees, who now have one more check on their autonomy and one more group of people to educate. Is this really an improvement over the current situation?

Orchestras as institutions don’t suffer from too few people making decisions. The exact opposite is true; successful orchestras are invariably those with competent and strong executive directors who lead their boards and control their music directors. Leaders need to be held accountable for the success or failure of what they lead, and that means they need real autonomy and authority to get things done, not just “responsibility.” Orchestras where there are multiple power centers contending for mastery are orchestras that are failing or going to fail, because all that gets done is the shifting of blame from one party to the next in an ugly game of hot potato.

This is not to say that for musicians to serve on boards or board committees is totally without merit. Certainly anything the musicians can learn about how their institutions operate is all to the good, especially if the musicians are able to see through the agendas with which the information is often presented to them. The fact that board members and musicians can interact in such committees can lead to both musicians and board members coming to recognize the “other side” as human, certainly a welcome and desirable outcome. Such interaction can also diminish the chokehold that staffs often maintain, whether deliberately or not, on the flow of information within the institution.

Unfortunately, there are hazards in serving on boards and committees as well, and not just the dangers that orchestra traditionalists delight in highlighting (“committee shopping,” bypassing the bargaining committee, Electromation and the like). The natural setting for an orchestral musician is not a boardroom, after all, whereas many board members spend their entire working lives in business meetings. Imagine your reaction to the average board member showing up with an instrument to play in your section, and you will see how some board members, at least, are likely to regard you when you’re on their turf. Now imagine the board member making a wrong entrance, and you will begin to understand how the odd faux pax by a musician serving on a board committee can serve to diminish the respect that board members have for musicians— probably not the result intended or desired by those musicians.

No one should forget that the “American” model of the orchestral institution—a board of community volunteers who raise money and hire professional leadership, a professional staff of experts in their various functions, and an orchestra of musicians employed full–time to provide the community with musical services—has given this country most of the world’s greatest (and best-attended) orchestras. This is an achievement that would have seemed unimaginable 50 years ago, and one in which all the participants in the American orchestra business can take pride. Would that we all did. If the Munich Imbibers and the Berlin Bombers each had won four of the last eight Super Bowls (a similarly “unimaginable” achievement), would the Deutschland Football Bund be publishing tracts such as Germanizing the German Football Team and recommending that football players sit on owner’s boards? More likely they’d be electing Brett Färf and Emitt Schmidt presidents–for–life.

I am profoundly thankful that at least some ICSOM orchestras—mine included, at long last—have competent staffs that know more about managing, marketing, and fundraising than I do. But if your orchestra is not among that favored few and you’re serving on a board committee where you really know more than the board members or staff about the subject in question, let’s face it—your institution is in deep doo-doo. If they knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t need you there, they wouldn’t want you there, and you wouldn’t want to be there either.

Besides, you’ve probably got your hands full serving on the dismissal committee for that poor schlemiel who stood up and tried to tell your music director how to rehearse.

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One Response to “Musicians and “input” – Part 1”

  1. Christine Says:

    I think your ideas about musicians’ input, particularly in administrative matters, are right on the money.

    I have always questioned the idea of inviting musicians to serve on the marketing committee in order to improve their sense of control in the workplace (which is really the musical arena). And certainly, the musician who finds that he knows more about “x” than the “x” staff, is not likely to feel better about his job.

    Having said that, I wonder if you are aware of any experiments or successes in the area of giving symphony musicians more control or input into the musical area of their jobs?

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