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.
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.
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.
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.
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”