Re-Imagining the Orchestra

You may be aware that the New World Symphony is America’s leading training orchestra, boasting top rate talent. And you may have heard about their breathtaking new hall in Miami Beach. But did you know that members of this group are daring to re-imagine the business model of orchestras from the bottom up?

The fact that many American orchestras struggle to survive is no secret. In the past few years, top-tier ensembles in Philadelphia, Syracuse, Honolulu, Detroit, Louisville, Dallas, and New Mexico have cancelled concerts, issued pay cuts, declared bankruptcy, or closed their doors. Reversing this trend will likely require more than savvier social media use, fundraising efforts, or other one-dimensional potions.

I recently completed a two-day residency with the NWS focused around this very problem. Below is a summary of our journey.

PROCESS

As a starting point, we used the following scenario. The year is 2020, and almost every major full-time American symphony orchestra has since declared bankruptcy and closed its doors. (Obviously nobody desires this outcome, but imposing these “conditions” forced fellows to think creatively and challenge status quo.)

Confronted by that hypothetical, a group of NWS alum decides to found a new ensemble, Orchestra Future. For this organization, two priorities are non-negotiable:

  1. We must produce outstanding art (an area where Orchestras Past excelled)
  2. We must create a sustainable business model (an area where Orchestras Past were not ultimately able to succeed in the 21st Century)

Beyond these two points, anything and everything was on the table. How might this new, alternate Orchestra Future look?

Magical solutions did not instantly appear. As with any meaningful strategic planning, the process benefited from thoughtful discussion and collective wisdom. Participants began by dissecting Orchestras Past (in other words, the 2011 paradigm), honing in specifically on three large-scale areas they deemed essential: 1) Event Design, 2) Institutional Culture, and 3) Relevance.

After considering both positive and negative aspects of Orchestras Past, attention turned to specific, actionable solutions for Orchestra Future. And even though our meeting time was limited, some fascinating conclusions were drawn.

MISSION

Our thought leaders turned first to mission. They decided that the purpose of Orchestra Future will be to:

  1. Serve and celebrate local community
  2. Function as an arts and innovation “fountain”

These essential priorities would impact every major decision, from programming and musician responsibilities to activities pursued and marketing tactics.

HIRING PRACTICES

With Orchestras Past, outstanding performance was the sole or primary criteria when auditioning new members.

Applicants will only be considered by Orchestra Future when they clearly bring a valuable secondary asset with them. That might mean being an extraordinary educator, great public speaker, good schmoozer, effective fundraiser, dynamic marketing visionary, freakish master of multiple artistic talents, etc. In other words, every employee must clearly demonstrate his/her value towards achieving both non-negotiable priorities (great art and sustainable business model).

CORE PERFORMANCE ACTIVITIES

Orchestras Past engaged in two primary types of performance activities. The ratio of time devoted and perceived importance between these areas was estimated at around 85/15.

  1. Formal concerts-85%. “Masterworks,” “Pops,” or some other program variation. This area was the meat and potatoes for every full-time musician of Orchestras Past.
  2. Engagement-15%. Educational and community outreach events. For members of Orchestras Past, involvement here was often optional.

Both of these activity categories continue to play a role in Orchestra Future. But their relative importance is reallocated to 50/50. And though all musicians will be required to participate on both sides of the equation, not all divide their time equally. Some are more focused on one side or the other, falling somewhere on the spectrum between 85/15 and 15/85.

EVENT DESIGN

In addition to outstanding performance (always important), concerts by Orchestras Past were characterized by several features. A partial list of conventions includes:

  • Programming. Overture-concerto-symphony model. Multi-movement works always played in their entirety. Music by dead, white, European composers comprised 95+% of programs.
  • Instrumentation. Only three kinds of instrumentations were permitted: full orchestra, orchestra with soloist(s), solo encore.
  • Visual stimulation. Typically minimal.
  • Verbal communication with audience. Nothing, or offered solely by the conductor.

While Orchestras Past delivered incredible art through these formats, Orchestra Future will vastly expand the palate of experiences offered. The NWS group imagined a number of initiatives that, at times, challenged each of these conventions.  In particular, they considered ways that event design could directly reflect their mission priorities of local community and arts/innovation fountain.

MUSICIAN RESPONSIBILITY

In Orchestras Past, musicians had the following responsibilities:

  1. Performance. First and foremost, show up on time for rehearsals/performances, be prepared, and follow strictly regulated etiquette guidelines (85-100% of job).
  2. Engagement. At a distant second, participate in educational and engagement events. Not always required (0-15%).
  3. Service. Some musicians had roles on various committees (0-5%).

In Orchestra Future, not only will the proportion of energy dedicated to each of these categories change, but musicians have additional responsibilities including:

  • Secondary skill. Every performer is involved with a secondary area where they have aptitude, interest, and ability to help the organization succeed.
  • Marketing. All stakeholders play an active role in marketing and advocacy.

INSTITUTIONAL CULTURE

Sadly, Orchestras Past had a reputation for being resistant to change. And whether true or not, an infamous study by Harvard researcher Richard Hackman found that orchestral musicians ranked among the lowest in terms of overall job satisfaction compared to other professions, just under federal prison guards.

Though the NWS fellows did not have enough time to outline a comprehensive new cultural positioning statement, they did offer some reflections. Orchestra Future must be a place where creativity, innovation, and experimentation are celebrated at every level. Players should be actively involved with operations, vision, and major decisions of the ensemble. Ideas will be evaluated on the merit of the proposal rather than the rank of its originator. A respectful and supportive environment is key, with a prohibition placed on unconstructive complaining and negative attitudes. If orchestras are truly to serve communities, they must begin with a healthy, vibrant internal culture.

—-

Of course, we’re not yet in the year 2020, and thankfully all of the major American orchestras have not closed their doors. There is a lot these organizations can do now to avoid the heart-breaking scenario that NWS discussed. While specific solutions may vary, one thing is certain: Major innovation is surely a requisite ingredient (true for any sector in our complicated and quickly evolving world). If different results are desired, the model must change.

Thank you to the New World Symphony for being brave enough to tackle this crucial topic. It’s only a starting point—talk won’t save the industry, only action. But this conversation marked an important step, and will hopefully serve as inspiration and a catalyst for meaningful change.

Long live the orchestra!  Here’s to sustainable models that allow this culturally rich institution to produce outstanding art for many, many years to come!

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