Essentially for Managers

by Chester Lane 

Learning orchestra management from the best in the business is an American tradition, and still going strong after fifty years.

"How many symphonies did Shostakovich write? Prokofiev? Which of the Mahler symphonies do not require a chorus?" It's the mid-point of an intensive ten-day seminar called Essentials of Orchestra Management, and Seminar Director Peter Pastreich is peppering students with questions about the basic repertoire they will need to be familiar with if they hope to make a career in orchestra management. Tomorrow will begin with a different kind of challenge, as teaching artist David Wallace uses his viola to prepare these same students for the complex rhythmic and melodic patterns they will be hearing in Lutoslawski's Piano Concerto at a New York Philharmonic concert the following day.

The Essentials students have already tried their hands at "planning" the 2004-05 season of the San Francisco Symphony. Each of three teams has carved up a 52-week period, factoring in such elements as holidays and flexible vacation schedules as they plot time for the music director, the principal guest conductor, the visiting conductors, educational concerts, "Summer in the City" concerts, the Carnegie Hall visit, the European festival, and split-orchestra services. Each team has presented its season plan to the entire group. "Good work, and very fast," says Brent Assink, executive director of the San Francisco Symphony. He notes that, in real life, what each team has come up with would be "one of about 25 iterations of the plan." And he has some questions. "Did anybody pick up on the fact that this is our music director's tenth season?" he asks, noting that it would be nice to have him do something special to celebrate that milestone. Another faculty member, an expert in orchestra education programs, looks at one team's easel presentation and comments that a certain week is "close to the end-of-the-school-year testing period. You may get a little resistance if you schedule your kids' concerts at that time," she says.

Details, Details

"There's so much about this field that can be overwhelming," says Deborah R. Card, executive director of the Seattle Symphony and senior faculty member for Essentials. She and the other veteran managers who present this American Symphony Orchestra League course "sit there listening to ourselves, and we worry that we're painting a picture that's daunting. Whether you're the executive director of an orchestra or an assistant in its development department, there are so many things you have to pay attention to. Inspiration can be dampened when you know all the gory details. This week we spared no details."

But "to a person," says Card, the students she spoke with in mentoring sessions near the end of the most recent Essentials course "told me, 'I'm more committed to this than I was before.' There were two young people just out of school who said, 'I'm trying to figure out a way into the field, figure out a strategy. At the beginning of the week I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. Now I have much greater clarity.' "

Polly Kahn, a vice president of the League and director of its Orchestra Leadership Academy, credits the effectiveness of Essentials to the "tremendous generosity of our faculty. These people are extraordinarily busy, but while they're here they focus as though this is the only thing that exists for them. And they're incredibly forthright and honest about things they've learned along the way, including mistakes they've made." This year, for ten straight days (some of them fifteen hours long, if one includes the concerts at nearby Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center) fourteen students "soaked up everything that was thrown at them," says Kahn. Organized into five units--"The Profession of Orchestra Management," "Putting on Concerts," "Reaching Out," "Paying the Bills," and "Why We Are Here"--Essentials 2002 assembled 34 faculty members, including ten top orchestral executives and a variety of specialists in both artistic and administrative disciplines, to explore every conceivable facet of the orchestra business.

Topics ranged from nuts-and-bolts marketing strategies and labor negotiations (both old-style and "interest-based") to such intangibles as core values (Cleveland Orchestra Executive Director Thomas Morris); women in orchestra management (Card, Kahn, and Los Angeles Philharmonic Managing Director Deborah Borda); and "The American Orchestra in the 21st Century" (Pastreich, Chicago Symphony Orchestra President Henry Fogel, Aspen Music Festival and School President Don Roth, musicologist and author Michael Steinberg). Rebekah Lambert, executive director of the Eugene Symphony Orchestra, presented a session on the specific challenges of managing a smaller-budget orchestra.

Violinist Gil Shaham spoke about "life on the road," sharing a lunchtime session with Pastreich and Lambert. Steinberg surveyed the history of the American orchestra, and led a listening exercise using recorded music. David Zinman and André Previn, in town that week to conduct the New York Philharmonic and the Orchestra of St. Luke's, took time out to speak at Essentials, and their concerts were critiqued in group discussions the following morning. Composer John Adams lamented "the general perception that classical music lovers are the most timid consumers of culture in the world," stating that "classical music should reflect the world we live in" and challenging orchestras to keep living composers "on the cultural radar screen."

As Kahn sees it, the learning process in Essentials is threefold. "It's a basic '101' course that provides exposure to every aspect of orchestra management. The faculty, as the best and brightest in our field, provide role models for the students. And there's a participatory strand" that helps prospective orchestra managers develop analytic, strategic, and collaborative skills.

This is the third year that Essentials has been presented under the OLA umbrella. Running concurrently with it was Strategic Management Skills, a six-day course for more experienced people in the field built around case studies and problem-solving exercises that Kahn says help them "think like an executive director, rather than just lurching from crisis to crisis." The sharing of faculty, and the flexibility of the League's meeting-room facilities, made it possible to offer the two courses simultaneously in early January.

Essentials is a key component of OLA, which encompasses the Orchestra Management Fellowship Program and offers programs for orchestra staff, trustees, musicians, and conductors in three broad areas: Leadership and Organizational Change, Strengthening Professional Skills, and Building Careers. As Card sees it, providing orchestra management training in an "academy" context emphasizes the need for high standards but does not imply that anyone who has taken a management course will be given an official imprimatur or ranked against his or her peers. "There are a lot of people in this field who felt [OLA] was needed," she says. "But we don't test people, put this person at the top of the class and this person at the bottom. You get a certificate, just as you might with a course in Microsoft Office or Windows 2000, but all we're saying is, 'you took this class, you've gotten an overview, you understand how it all fits together.'"

Essentials, says Card, not only helps managers upgrade their own professional standards but benefits the field as a whole. "I want my colleagues to do well, because we're all affected by what happens to other orchestras," she says, noting the negative publicity generated whenever an orchestra appears to be having financial or administrative difficulties. "If we have any kind of softness or weakness, people start saying, 'well, orchestra managers don't know what they're doing, orchestras aren't really viable, they're not a good investment.' So I need my colleagues to be strong."

The list of those enrolled in Essentials and Strategic Management Skills shows remarkable diversity, both vocationally and geographically. The Essentials group included one orchestra executive director (Scott Faulkner of the Reno Chamber Orchestra) and an enterprising University of California-Berkeley student (Ari Solotoff) who created the position of manager for himself at the university orchestra (and who was recently selected as a League management fellow for 2002-03; see below). Others in the group held positions at major orchestras, such as Chris White, who directs the IN UNISON program at the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Several were orchestra musicians, including Faulkner (who still plays bass with his Reno orchestra) and Melissa Spencer, a violinist with the Fargo Moorhead Symphony. Kjristine Lund, an Essentials student with an M.B.A. and her own consulting firm, has no orchestra background, but a discriminating ear for orchestral music and experience as director of Seattle's King County Arts Commission. Four of the eight Strategic students were in the League's Orchestra Management Fellowship Program, and for them the six days in New York were a supplement to their year of hands-on training in the field.

Enrollees hailed from many parts of the U.S. as well as Australia, Germany, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic. The lure of a career in orchestral administration--and a willingness to travel far and wide to learn about the possibilities--were perhaps best summed up by Strategic student Yvonne Frindle, artistic administrator of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. She had trained in both musicology and performance at the University of Sydney before going to work in Australia's orchestra industry.

"I didn't want to play the flute badly enough [for a performing career], and I came to realize that while only three people had read my thesis, thousands were reading my program notes." Frindle felt she was "doing more good and reaching more people" that way than she could through either performance or an academic career. Strategic has exposed her to many issues outside her area of artistic administration, but solidified her desire to stay in the orchestra industry. She hopes to work "anywhere in the English-speaking world" at a job that will make use of her talents while bringing the music she loves to others.

"How to Manage a Symphony"

Held each January at the League headquarters in New York, Essentials is the latest incarnation of a professional training course that first took place under League auspices half a century ago. Deborah Card herself took the American Symphony Orchestra League Management Seminar (as it was then called) in 1978 while a senior in college, learning the gospel from Ralph Black, then executive director of the League and the orchestra industry's chief evangelist. Minnesota Orchestra President David Hyslop took the course in 1964, fresh out of college and already determined to shoot for a major orchestra career; he considers the seminar his "graduate school." Hyslop's seminar classmates included Thomas Morris, now executive director of the Cleveland Orchestra and a member of the Essentials faculty. Hyslop and Morris were among the architects of the Orchestra Management Fellowship Program, which the League inaugurated in 1980.

Stephen Vann, executive director of New York's Eos Orchestra, who went to the seminar in 1984 as a Detroit Symphony Orchestra intern, says he is still applying what he learned about contracts and innovative programming from Kenneth Haas, who was then executive director of the Cleveland Orchestra and would move on three years later to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. And just last year Eos's marketing and events coordinator, Maricha Miles, took Essentials while completing a master's degree in performing arts administration at New York University; the course taught her how, especially in matters of funding and board structure, the American orchestra world where she expects to build a career differs from that of her native Australia.

That Essentials can provide the kind of focused training no arts administration degree program could hope to achieve has everything to do with a certain longstanding American tradition: the willingness of orchestra managers to help out less experienced colleagues by sharing their secrets and candidly recounting the challenges they face.

The first-ever course in orchestra management, as one might infer from its timing (August 1952) and its venue (Brevard, North Carolina), had a "retreat" quality to it--a far cry from mid-season in the heart of America's classical music capital--but in several important respects it was the prototype for all of the League's subsequent efforts in basic management training, including Essentials. It involved the expertise of League staff (in the person of then-Executive Secretary Helen M. Thompson); it encompassed artistic concerns through the inclusion of conductors (Brevard Music Festival's James Pfohl and the Charleston Symphony Orchestra's Antonio Modarelli); and, most importantly, it offered insights and practical guidance from seasoned managers (notably John Edwards, who was then at the National Symphony Orchestra, one of six major orchestras for which he was to work during a long and distinguished career).

At the time of that inaugural management course the League had just completed its first decade of existence and was being run from Helen Thompson's home in Charleston, West Virginia. (A board decision to commit funds for renting office space was still two years away.) In 1960 the course, which had immediately become an annual event, came to New York City for the first time, and it was there that it caught the eye of one Peter Pastreich, a first-year medical student and manager of the Village Civic Symphony.

"My only previous experience [in performing arts administration] had been managing the band at Yale," says the man who now directs Essentials as a "retirement" activity after 40 years in the field. Back in 1960, as part-time manager of a community orchestra in Greenwich Village, Pastreich was "making it up as I went along. I didn't know that there were standard ways to raise money or sell tickets." The management course, held that year in New York's Henry Hudson Hotel, taught him that "it wasn't necessary to just invent the whole thing. I learned that there was a general outline of how orchestras were managed, what the techniques were. I also found out that there were many good people in the field. That really mattered to me--I could have gone back to medical school, and I was struggling with the question of whether, as an orchestra manager, I'd be going into a field worthy of my talents."

To come up with the course fee, the cash-strapped student had sold a first-hand account of his experience to The New York Times. (The newspaper paid him $100, Pastreich remembers, meaning that he came out a little bit ahead.) "How to Manage a Symphony" ran in the arts section--on an inside page, but surrounded by eye-catching items on the conducting activities of Fritz Reiner, Igor Markevitch, and Pierre Monteux--and it afforded an unaccustomed look at the trials and rewards of managing an orchestra. A bright young man with a waning interest in medical school had been fired up by Helen Thompson's challenge--"If you can survive this week, you should be able to withstand the rigors of orchestra management," she announced at the start of the course--and was undaunted by the discovery that "appreciation [for one's efforts] must never be expected in this profession" (as John Edwards pointed out) or that "remuneration for the orchestra manager must come chiefly in satisfaction from the work done, and the results of this work must be measured by the artistic standard of the orchestra."

In describing the course to Times readers in 1960, Pastreich was already looking at orchestra management--and the League's involvement in it--with wide-open eyes, and not a small dose of wry humor:

Graduates of the American Symphony Orchestra League's course are now holding management positions in more than thirty-five major and community orchestras in the United States. But Mrs. Thompson admitted that not all her former students were equally successful. One graduate absconded with $1,200 soon after he found an orchestra, and another left with the office equipment. Many, too, learn from the course that orchestra management is not the field for them. One manager told of having lost his job when the conductor spotted him in the audience at a concert, and later accused him of not applauding.

Pastreich had no intention of repeating such mistakes. The management course had quickened his desire to work with orchestras, and before long he was ready to accept Helen Thompson's offer of an Avalon Foundation fellowship--which, much like today's Orchestra Management Fellowship Program, provided him with on-the-job training at the Pittsburgh and Baltimore symphony orchestras (then managed by John Edwards and Ralph Black, respectively), at the Denver Symphony, and in various League projects. He would go on to a succession of top management posts at the orchestras of Nashville, Kansas City, Saint Louis, and San Francisco, along the way getting increasingly involved in the League's management training activities.

When he stepped down from the San Francisco Symphony in 1999, says Pastreich, "I didn't leave the symphony business, I just stopped being an executive director. Two years before that I had made a list of the things I was going to do when I left the symphony. At the very top of the list was to continue training managers--the part of the job that I'd always loved doing." With League educational activities being consolidated under a new entity called the Orchestra Leadership Academy, the time was right for him to begin shaping Essentials as an up-to-date version of the basic orchestra management course.

Pastreich says he "spent a good part of the first year and a half learning how to put together curriculum," then sent a draft of it to about 30 people in the field for comment--small-orchestra managers, large-orchestra managers, retired managers, and people outside the field such as an arts administration instructor at Yale. "This had to be something for our time," he says, "not just a copy of the old management course."

And there was no basic textbook available. "You can't just assign people to read 'Elements of Orchestra Management, Chapters 1, 7, and 10.' I looked for things to duplicate and distribute--searched through publications like SYMPHONY and Harmony"--the semiannual journal of the Symphony Orchestra Institute--"old 'Black Notes' columns by Ralph Black, case studies done by the Institute of Arts Administration at Harvard." He crafted additional materials such as "Crises in Orchestra Management"--a set of role-playing exercises and group-discussion situations--and a 30-page case study on the "River City Symphony," a hypothetical orchestra in trouble. "That was an adaptation of a case study written in 1972," he says, "but most of it had to be re-done to make it sound like a real orchestra in the year 2002.

"I also went to see people who knew something about teaching," he says, "because I thought of myself as a trainer, not a teacher. If I was going to do something like this I would have to learn what teaching was really about. It turns out to be more about participation than about talking--getting people to do things, to feel empowered."

Essentials student Scott Faulkner describes one of this year's participatory activities as "interesting, and pretty real. Sometimes role-playing is sort of stupid--it ends up just as people playing roles. But in our 'Operations Committee' this week I was the personnel manager voicing the musicians' concerns--and I know very well what personnel managers do. 'Maestro Starr' was displeased with some of the musicians. He had informally talked to them, and then some musicians had told me that Maestro Starr wasn't 'cutting it' and couldn't conduct standard repertoire. Our committee had to figure out not necessarily what the solution was, but how we would go about addressing it. We met as a small group--the executive director, the general manager, the artistic director, myself. We were all given a sheet of paper describing the situation, but each of us had notes written on it that the others didn't have--'you happen to know that such and such'--and in the meeting we would each volunteer this information. It was like a real-life situation."

Faulkner was awaiting the final outcome of this "Operations Committee" exercise as he explained it to me. "In a couple of hours," he said, "both of our operations committees will meet and present how we chose to deal with the issues. I'm sure Peter will have things to say."

As a young executive director who's making the transition from performing to managing, Faulkner described the Essentials experience as "intense. I need to get home and process it all, and I suspect that a lot of what I've learned here I don't know yet. It will be revealed to me as I review what I've taken in, as situations come up in my job. And it's been an opportunity to meet people I wouldn't otherwise have met--Gil Shaham, André Previn, Michael Steinberg--in addition to all those orchestra managers. Tom Morris in Cleveland, Henry Fogel in Chicago--they're wonderful and outgoing and they have time for all kinds of people.

"It's really telling and encouraging for me, and for the whole field of orchestras. The top managers are not secretive, not up on some pedestal where you can't touch them. Throughout the week I got the sense that the Essentials faculty--and Peter especially--really love treating us as though one day we would be the leaders of those orchestras."

Chester Lane is senior editor of SYMPHONY.