A Way to Move Forward

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about the DSO’s stalemate and many people have since asked me to share my ideas about a possible new model that might reverse current trends and create sustainability. But before I do this we need to turn our attention to the result of the Detroit Symphony strike.  This should give us pause for thought.  There has been a long and protracted battle.  Total internecine warfare.  At the end of which neither side has won.  Crazy, really.  But the worst of it is that the community has lost-big time.  It is being deprived of its orchestra, the musicians’ work, their involvement in helping the city face up to a new economic reality and a new position in the world.  Which is exactly what the orchestra needed to understand but didn’t.

Detroit Symphony musicians

Well shame on them.  I can only imagine that as one of the perceived major orchestras in the U.S. (by budget not by size), a line has been drawn which represents all the major orchestras.   This line has everything to do with a narrow self-definition of what an orchestra can and should do, and more particularly what a musician is capable of.  And these issues are further obscured and inflamed by the swirling confusion of entitlement.  Orchestra musicians will likely be seen in the same light as members of public service unions—that is, unwilling to make the same sacrifices as workers who are not sheltered by collective bargaining agreements.
So no season, no orchestra, and probably no future.
But then on Monday, February 21, the DSO management announced that “the time has come for a new symphony model to emerge, an ensemble…that fully engages the community as ambassadors, educators, and performers.“  The administration is prepared to move forward with a newly assembled group that would achieve just that.  What this might mean to the existing orchestra and the organization’s structure is unclear. But it is a bold and provocative move and one which could define a new future for the whole organization.
So to a new way forward for the field, as well as Detroit.  My prescription actually moves the issue upstream a bit:
First, it may be stating the obvious but let’s acknowledge once and for all that there is a major problem with orchestras in general and it needs fixing.  Then let us focus on redefining the role of musicians rather than the role of orchestras.  Nearly 30 years ago, Ernest Fleischmann, in his famous proposal for the modern orchestra, recommended a “Community of Musicians.”   His vision was of a “golden pond” of instrumentalists, a gargantuan conglomerate perhaps even more unwieldy than today’s orchestras, with a mode of delivery that remained a passive experience for listeners. But he was definitely onto something. And it was a great shame that his ideas did not gain more traction.  I would propose building upon his ideas through reinventing the role of the musician, after which the complete remodeling of the orchestra would happen as a consequence.
Instead of over-specialization and the exclusive pursuit of perfection dictated by the demands of the recording industry, let us instead strive for excellence, a broader set of skills for our musicians, and a new responsibility by our musicians to the community.  Instead of musical technicians, let us mold what the founder of “El Sistema” calls “apostles to society.”   Let’s release our musicians’ creative potential in a directed and synergistic way for a whole community. Musicians are brilliant and wonderful people and can do anything; we need to trust their judgment and direction and creativity.
Music schools have begun taking steps to prepare young musicians for such a future.  Excellent musicianship continues, of course, to be a given and students graduate with ever more impressive chops.

Gear-Up Workshop at NEC

However, numerous conservatories such as Juilliard , the EastmanSchool of Music , and Oberlin have also added programs that help young musicians develop the leadership skills needed to create their own professional careers. At NEC, our Community Performances and Partnerships program  offers valuable training and performance opportunities for students appearing before a wide range of audience out in the community. And we now have a brand new Entrepreneurial Musicianship program that is designed to give young musicians the additional extra-musical skills they need to be leaders in their chosen community. We also inaugurated The Abreu Fellows Training Program at New England Conservatory, which is preparing 50 outstanding young artists over five years to create “El Sistema” inspired projects across the U.S. The first cadre of Fellows is already out there in major leadership roles at the L.A. Philharmonic and at music education programs in Philadelphia, Juneau, Alaska, and Durham, North Carolina.

2010-2011 Abreu Fellows

Given these strong positive efforts, it is surpassingly strange that there is no connection between the conservatory programs, the trainers, and the orchestras that will employ conservatory-trained musicians.  There is no dialogue about what type of musicians music schools are preparing, how the paradigm needs to shift, and what new skills orchestras should be considering for the future. I cannot think of another industry where there is no relationship between the employers and the trainers.  For the future, this really needs to change and I believe the key words are “partnerships” and “collaborations”—orchestral partnerships with music schools, and orchestral collaborations within the community.  To facilitate these, we need to tear up all those restrictive collective bargaining agreements and create a context of flexibility and trust. This has never previously been possible between musicians, management and boards, but the new model would not be based on confrontation and dysfunction. It would be about a shared vision, ownership, and musician empowerment.
Orchestras could then focus upon community interaction with an educational bias.  Musicians would have multiple functions and responsibilities, many of which would be self-managed and created in the community.

Students in the CPP class

They would work as individuals but also as leaders in ensembles, and would come together in the larger ensemble of the full orchestra.  Collective bargaining agreements (contracts), if they are still needed, would be based on productivity and responsibility to the community.  The orchestra would still give concerts but these concerts would be far more varied and creative featuring:  more free concerts for the community; new mixed repertoire concerts for 20—30 year olds in new formats and settings; straight classical concerts for traditional audiences; interactive education concerts for younger audiences; community concerts outside the shrine of a concert hall; and broad accessibility through websites and other technology. This is the model that the Memphis Symphony is so courageously and boldly exploring at the moment and why we should give that ensemble our unequivocal support.
The role of Music Director will develop as well.  Orchestras will need someone who is a collaborator, open to education, open to power sharing, alive to community partnerships, devoted to the power of music and the individual musician’s role in developing this for the wider community.  How different this would be and how empowering and potent for all.
The financial model would change because the mission will have changed.  The character of community interaction will inspire greater investment and support from new sources.  The orchestra’s compelling case for funding would now be based upon relevance, total accessibility, community connection, and a spirit of contemporary creativity rarely to be seen in this field.  Instead of being inward looking, the orchestra would embrace the community and not just a core audience.  And at the end of the day, there would be sustainability for the institution and the art form with music moving to the center of our society and away from the periphery.
You may be thinking, this is all so unbelievably idealistic and so unattainable.  Well, I now work in the most supremely idealistic environment with young people who do not know the meaning of parameters for creativity, let alone the suffocating effects of union agreements.  Everything is unfettered, everything is possible, and this amazing  faculty has been given leave for the most glorious exploration of the power of music.  So….why should it end there when students come to confront the “real world?”  Why should this powerful optimism and creativity die as it reaches the shores of a professional life?  Because that, by and large, is what can happen.  Promise becomes the victim of peer group pressure, the collective weight of a work force maintaining the status quo, and I have seen this happen in orchestras to young players many times.
The world has changed.  We as musicians, teachers, managers and volunteers need to reconsider a model for the future—a model that is much more inclusive, flexible, and varied.  We need energy and courage to allow us to reinvent and reposition our musical life, because the alternative is just not acceptable.

*Click HERE to watch a video of Tony speaking at a 2010 Salzburg Global Seminar session titled “The Performing Arts in Lean Times: Opportunities for Reinvention”

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27 Responses to A Way to Move Forward

  1. Alex Laing says:

    I wanted to direct your attention to comments that were posted at Adaptistration (Drew McManus’ blog) by a member of the Memphis Symphony. For me, these comments were a reminder that over nationalizing the situations in Detroit and Memphis may obscure some of the most powerful lessons they offer to the rest of us in the professional orchestra community. While there is certainly a lot to be learned from both Detroit and Memphis, I think it is likely that their successes and failures are much more a result of local forces, personalities and choices than they are of national ones.

    Alex Laing, the Phoenix Symphony

    [at Adaptistration] Michael Barar says:
    February 22, 2011 at 1:55 am

    “I’m disappointed to see another reference to what we’re doing here in Memphis in a discussion about the DSO dispute and presumably about “service conversion/exchange”. While I realize that not all of my colleagues in orchestras throughout the United States agree with me, I continue to argue that we are not the sort of model that seems to bear our name because we have not exchanged nor converted any of our normal orchestral services and we have been very careful to craft contractual terms that prevent community engagement services from interfering with our core concert presenting duties.

    Process here matters too, as our optional community engagement activities were not adopted in a concessionary bargaining situation. Given where I see our name cited these days this seems to me to be a major point to drive home. It seems to me that a model involves process, and if that is the case, then, if there is a model here at all, it cannot be imposed in Detroit or anywhere else since we arrived where we are by listening to each other and bargaining in good faith to achieve goals we all believed would improve the lot for all stakeholders. That doesn’t mean that any side got all they wanted, but it resulted in agreements over three contracts now between the Memphis Symphony musicians and our board.

    Had our management taken the same approach with us that the DSO’s had with their musicians I’m quite sure that we never would have agreed to the community engagement language we now have. If we have a lesson to teach, I believe it is that musicians, management, and boards can work together when there is an open and honest dialogue. Taking this to mean that we need to convert orchestral services to anything else is more than a stretch.”

  2. Ian Stewart says:

    An interesting summary but unfortunately I still think the discussion around community work and money is irrelevant. Seth Godin said something like reducing the cost of a product shows a lack of imagination, a better way is to increase value.

    However money is irrelevant. Someone on a bus last week in Britain overheard a young girl on social security, say that she could not afford to pay her heating bill, but had just spent £50 on a manicure. The daughter of someone my wife worked for, spent £200 on a pair of shoes when she was 16. Young people in Britain will think nothing of spending £60 on alcohol when they go out of Friday night. Money is not the object, if people want something they will pay for it.
    Secondly, community promotion in Britain has been tried and failed. It was thought that ballet companies should go into schools and do workshops because children would become interested. They would in turn persuade their parents and possibly their siblings to go to the ballet. After several years it was discovered that this campaign did not increase audiences at all.

    The contemporary arts are unpopular. My wife studied at one of the best contemporary dance schools in the world – she hates contemporary dance, she says it is all isolated and disconnected from anything, anyone is interested in – and has not been to a dance performance for years.
    I studied classical music yet 90% of it I think is self-indulgent and only exists because it is subsidised. In Britain contemporary compositions are stuck in the middle of concerts of popular works – you can only have you sweet after you have eaten up all your cabbage.

    When you go to a therapist or business trainer they take to back to the hard, unpleasant truths none of us like to know, and you start from there. The hard truth is the majority of people don’t like classical music and don’t want to pay tax to subsidise it.
    Now we know that, we can build policies on rock rather than optimistic sand.

  3. S. D. says:

    I find it remarkable that so many want to throw in the towel on orchestras. The musicians role is to make great music. That doesn’t leave time for a whole lot of ambassadorship. That said, most orchestras have been doing community and educational work for decades. If they had stopped, then shame on them. The problem lies entirely with management, plain and simple. The musicians simply want respect and decent earnings. The management seems to want to keep it to themselves, to over-control everything, and the blame most likely falls in the weird training they must receive as “arts administrators.” Remember when one man and a small staff ran a whole orchestra? It can be done. And that a young musician’s training is being warped from being a superb musician to being a jack-of-all-hats, is most alarming.

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  5. Clifford says:

    What a load of garbage. Where does this guy think his faculty members come from? They are either the professionals in the best local orchestras, concert soloists who are engaged by orchestras, or stagnant players who resent those who are currently at the top of their field. The only divide is between an incompetent administration (and the writing was on the wall in Detroit for several years now, so the board that kept the current management in place has much to answer for) and players who, for decades now, have negotiated in good faith with a succession of GM’s to find a solution to Detroit’s particular issues. To suggest that the DSO management had any motive other than punitive in their negotiations is tenuous. One only has to look back to their “A” and “B” scenarios in the initial negotiotions to see that incorporating closer ties to the community was no admirable vision, but rather a pressure tactic. How typical of poor managers to ignore the views of those in the field, dictating what must be done to solve the industry’s problems to the out-of-touch players. The similarity to haughty academics is not surprising, but remains tiresome.

    • Aaron Genest says:

      “They are either the professionals in the best local orchestras, concert soloists who are engaged by orchestras, or stagnant players who resent those who are currently at the top of their field. ”

      This makes me sad. It’s a massive, unfounded generalization. My brother-in-law, just for example, is a Ph.D. grad from Curtis, and highly successful, but happier in an academic position than in an orchestral position. Yes, he solos, but only incidentally and mostly locally. I’m sure there are many more like him.

      The divide between orchestra players, management, and boards is horrible. The answer may not be community engagement, it may not be changing the music, and it may not involve mandating player involvement in management tasks, but creative solutions should be recognized as positive engagement, not pilloried as uninformed.

      Tony begins by lamenting that nobody won in the DSO situation. It is entirely possible that one side (e.g. management/board) was more unreasonable than the other, but the language coming from both sides was and is destructive to the success of classical orchestras in North America. Regardless of the particular circumstances of the meltdown at the DSO, new suggestions for moving forward with orchestras in N.A. begin a valuable dialogue and should be treated with respect. The problems facing orchestras are shared by management, musicians, audiences, boards, and other stakeholders and therefore is not one that can be solved alone.

      • clifford says:

        Aaron, I was referring to the performance faculty, which, at the NEC, would presumably be made up of players fromthe BSO and other orchestras in the area.
        The Detroit Symphony is not unfamiliar with work stoppages, but in the recent past negotiations were reported to be very easy and productive. What has changed is the management, and the current management has shown itself to be incompetent.

        Rather than blaming the players for this sad state of affairs, those who love their symphony orchestras should applaud the musicians of the DSO for refusing to be guinea pigs for their management’s short-sighted, punitive “vision”. No one is saying that community involvement isn’t necessary, but to look at the DSO management’s plan as some sort of beacon for positive change is naive. My comments refer to this particular case, and not to innovative programmes tried elsewhere. What the DSO management has proposed is not innovative, not a productive use of musicians’ talents, and definitely not a proposal that has been studied by those who propose it. It is simply a negotiating tool, being used as a pressure tactic. So how does that show respect for Detroit music lovers? Quite simply, it doesn’t. And the fact that the dean of such a venerable institution as the NEC hasn’t seen through it is lamentable.

      • Aaron Genest says:

        Thanks for your reply, Clifford. (I appear to be unable to reply specifically to your second post.)

        I’m not familiar enough with both sides of the issues of the DSO table to comment on the nature of the management’s proposals. From the inspections I have made, it certainly seems like management was way out of line.

        Prima facia, however, the statement from the management with respect to moving forward is positive. Taken out of the context of the current mess, the idea is a good one. Taken in context, it’s likely an insult.

        I, and others outside of the DSO’s affairs, are unlikely to be able to have any impact on how musicians, staff, and management interact over the next while in Detroit. However, there is value in speculating about new directions for orchestras, something upon which Tony spends the bulk of his space. Perhaps it’s inappropriate to associate this discussion with the DSO’s situation, but it is precisely their situation which has spawned these conversations.

        That the dean of NEC has failed to see how unreasonable DSO’s management was in the latest round of negotiations may be lamentable, if indeed it is true, but I’m not sure it means that the rest of the ideas presented in the post are worthy of dismissal.

  6. Sandi says:

    Insightful comments by Tony Woodcock. The situation here in Detroit is unbearable. And, yes, there is a case study waiting to be written. The “need to win” and absolute and complete lack of trust in each other makes this a lose-lose proposition. Collaboration and trust are inherent in most any endeavor, and this is now nonexistent between management and the musicians. The orchestra is willing to make many concessions – they want to play. They want to be part of the fabric of this community – but they have artistic standards and a desire for some control over the work they do. I honestly believe that the only possible way out of this is for there to be a change in leadership. The orchestra is the orchestra – the management is not the orchestra. Unless management backs down and out, the fine orchestra that we know will be dead, and the Detroit Symphony will be stuck with a manager no one will want to work for. And, Detroit will lose one of its few and finest gems.

    I am curious as to whether Mr. Woodcock has any perspective on the notion of redefining the DSO as the Michigan Orchestra…. a concept he has experience with….

  7. Brian says:

    Tony has a lot to learn. Listen to the musicians. They’re the soldiers in this battle.

  8. Kristine says:

    You are forgetting the easiest win in the classical music arena…what about all those musicians who attended conservatory, never won a professional “gig” and who aren’t content to passively watch a concert? The Baltimore Symphony is creating a program for us “Rusty Musicians” to participate and be a part of the orchestra. Why aren’t there more programs for amateur musicians, who are musicians at heart, but work at something else to pay the bills? There are thousands of us, already trained classical fans out there waiting for a challenge. Once we stopped being “students” there was nothing there for us continue growth as a musician. Why aren’t there amateur concerto competitions? Why not evening/weekend master’s / DMA performance programs? Why aren’t there chamber music programs where serious and like minded people can meet up and be coached on a regular basis? Why is everyting geared towards students or professionals?

  9. Earnst Dopler says:

    Even popular musicians such as U2 or Lady Gaga, who’s music appeals to a much wider audience than classical, would never attempt to perform more than ten concerts a year in any one city and yet orchestras attempt to market ten times as many concerts in the same city. This is overkill, over-exposure, and over-supply which far exceeds the actual demand. This over supply is causing the value of the orchestra concert experience to decline. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing but classical musicians, as highly educated and intelligent as they often are, just don’t seem to get it. Their own love of the genre blinds them to the reality that there is actually very little demand for 19th century classical music here in the 21st century.

    Big Band music, the popular music of the 20’s-50’s can no longer draw an audience the way it once did. Rock music, so popular in the past 50 years, will probably be replaced by a new style which makes it hard for rock musicians to find regular audiences. Why do classical musicians fail to recognize this simple truth of history and cling to the delusion that this very dated genre demands more interest than it actual does?

    Classical musicians and orchestras need to wake up and face the reality and reduce the number of concerts they offer in a given city each year if they are going to survive. Forcing orchestras to guarantee annual salaries to 100 musicians forces orchestras to force 100 performances on audiences that would at best be interested in a dozen. Orchestra musicians need to look elsewhere for ways of supplementing their income. Outside of major cosmopolitan centers such as London and New York the orchestra as we know it is no longer a viable enterprise, not without heavy government funding which is drying up.

    Today’s new college students are, by necessity, being more selective about their education and career paths because there are fewer jobs and more new graduates than ever looking for work. Everyone knows that a BA doesn’t lead to a job anymore and music students are no different. There won’t be many orchestra jobs available in the future and young musicians entering college should plan accordingly.

  10. D. P. Sturdevant says:

    Should musicians perform in schools? Absolutely. Should this be a substitute for quality general and instrumental music education programs in schools? Absolutely not. We must be careful that in their reinvention, orchestras do not absolve the public school education system of its responsibility to provide substantive arts education from K-12. Exposure to the arts is critical to a ‘complete’ education, and school administrations are derelict in their responsibilities if they let programs whither because of a perceived shift in public priorities.

    Over the past two decades, as music programs whithered and dissappeared, orchestras and orchestral musicians were passive bystanders; we realize now to our peril. No amount of ‘community outreach’ is going to quickly make up for this gap in education.

    Maestro Abreu has been steadfast in his assertion that the success of Sistema is that it is a social not a music program. It may be time to sell this idea to our educators.

  11. Ian Stewart says:

    There is a new book out called The Intellectuals and the Masses. For me it sums up how classical music got to where it is now.

    “Modernism he says, is less a cultural movement motivated by certain aesthetic and spiritual imperatives than a social cabal. Its chief ambition is to exclude as many people as possible from the enjoyment and understanding of the culture so that the self-appointed mandarins of culture may enjoy their own superiority unhindered by the press of common folk”
    (The Intellectuals and the Masses: from a review of this book written by Roger Kimball, Editor of New Criterion.)

  12. Brian says:

    The problem with the modern orchestra is that it is a central part of a “culture industry” that is disconnected from it’s surrounding communities and only beholden to the bottom line, i.e. what sells and how many “units”. There are other way to calculate value than simply by counting receipts! I believe Tony is on to something. I make my living, and a good one, in the Montreal Symphony. I have given a lot back to my musical community in a rather unconventional way, by playing all the Beethoven quartets in peoples homes for NOTHING. Everything a good union musician is not supposed to do all in one project. How many times have I heard “I only open my case for money”? My idea was to allow people to encounter this music up close, to swim with the fish in the fishbowl if you will, to remove the artificial barrier that the stage creates, where “we” are looking across a divide at “them”, like animals in a zoo. This all started as a critique of this very culture industry that is paying my bills, but also as a desperate outreach to reinvigorate music for the listeners, to give it value for them so that they would go to concerts instead of a hockey game. There are other kinds of economy that do not involve the exchange of money, and I feel this kind of social economy, a kind of community building where the value of the thing itself (in this case the music) is increased are a missing ingredient. I’m not talking about music education, that is another large part of the problem, but rather about how to keep the music that we’re playing relevant. After investing years in this project, our quartet, the Adorno, named after the philosopher/cultural critic Theodore Adorno, has played all the quartets of Beethoven and has built a very vibrant community. The Montreal Symphony has asked us to continue our project in their new hall starting next season, and at last we will receive some renumeration for all our efforts. An interesting and innovative outreach effort on their part while at the same time trusting their musicians to be creative!

    • Aaron Genest says:

      Fascinating idea, Brian. Just a quick note that “house concerts” of a very similar type to yours have been a staple of indie folk and (unplugged) rock artists for years. They’re a great way of building audiences for the genre as well as the musicians who are doing the “outreach” performances.

  13. joe says:

    Perhaps you should practice what you preach at NEC. NEC cut loose the El Sistema USA program, an incredible outreach and educational resource, because it didn’t fit with what you described as NEC’s “core mission.” Really? What is the “core mission” of NEC — of an orchestra? Great music performed by great musicians has always been the “core mission” of an orchestra, not showing off instruments to second graders. You want them now to rethink that mission. Fine. But the core mission of NEC has been, since its founding, to reach out and educate the public, more than to produce star violinists. To create a culture in which great music can thrive. To send musical missionaries into the world. That’s not the case anymore, because NEC is rethinking its mission in entirely the opposite direction. It now wants to compete with Juilliard and Curtis to produce stars. So which is it? Sauce for the goose… BTW, if the DSO board hadn’t gambled away their money in the stock market, and had concentrated on building their donor base, none of this would be an issue.

  14. Tom O'Bedlam says:

    Orchestras seem to exist in a sphere unconnected with the conservatoires and music colleges and academies that develop players to be able to join them. Although some have outreach programmes to tap in to schools and local communities, what’s really needed is more of those partnerships whereby young musicians actually sit with, play with and learn from the orchestras themselves.

    Whilst some offer this facility, it needs to become much more widespread and much more established within colleges and academies if it’s to start having a discernible ‘knock-on’ effect on people making the leap from trainee musician to professional orchestral performer.

  15. Tom O'Bedlam says:

    And how rare such opportunities are becoming, in light of cultural cutbacks plaguing the artsworld at the moment…

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  17. Shawn Galvin says:

    While I find many of your ideas thought provoking and usefully progressive, I think it may be necessary to site the reasons that collective bargaining agreements have become standard among professional orchestras, historically, and from there argue how it is possible to move forward without them. These agreements have existed for a reason.

  18. Andy Buelow says:

    This is an excellent blog post and one that I hope receives the attention it deserves. I would also direct reader’s attention to Diane Ragsdale’s blog; she did a fascinating article a year or two ago suggesting that “it is time for arts organizations to stop selling excellence and start brokering relationships.” In addition to the Memphis Symphony example, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has provided significant leadership. In the past decade they have pioneered a new model for shared artistic leadership, an increased emphasis on lower-cost neighborhood concerts, and a new business model that focuses on brokering relationships with patrons.

  19. Stephen Moldof says:

    I was prompted to read this Blog by the discussion at the NY NEC meeting on March 24. I’m very troubled by your broad attack on collective bargaining, collective bargaining agreements, and unions in general. They detract from and are unnecessary to your discussion, which otherwise has some interesting thoughts. Also, while you may consider this to be your “personal” blog, they are accessed through the NEC website and particularly the portion that pertains to your position as President, and thus understandably are viewed as reflective of the Conservatory’s position on these issues and not simply your own. It is the latter that particularly is of concern to me. I prefer to address this further through a personal note, which I consider the more appropriate way to discuss this, at least initially.

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  21. Brad says:

    It’s not surprising that a manager would side with management on the DSO debate. Tearing up collective bargaining agreements so that musicians will play better? Nice try. It does read though, as if the intent is to put a bunch of older, more prepared musicians out of work so that NEC can boost it’s placement statistics. Lower paid? Doesn’t matter as long as you can show placement numbers.

    The whole post seems so self serving and I’m glad the comments point this out.

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