Orchestral musicians have unusually challenging jobs. Many musicians have had to move to a new city for their careers and work odd hours that separate them from the support of family and friends. There are exacting physical demands, and training for their livelihoods starts at a very young age. Auditioning for a job is highly competitive, and the tenure process is rigorous. At work, orchestral musicians are required to offer up the most vulnerable and free parts of their artistic and emotional selves while simultaneously following exacting instructions outlined in their contracts, printed in the music, and given by section leaders and conductors. These factors create a huge personal and emotional investment, and it is difficult to establish autonomy.
The rare set of artistic, interpersonal and organizational demands can make navigating a career in an orchestra arduous and all-encompassing. In this environment, coworkers are often best suited to understand the distinct set of struggles associated with these jobs. Musicians can form close relationships with their colleagues, which sometimes provide support and friendship; however, other relationships can become toxic and negatively impact employees’ well-being. There is a delicate balance in an orchestra between strong leadership and collegial behavior in order to avoid dysfunction. So why are orchestras, as a whole, so neglectful of personnel management and human resources (HR)?
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The U.S.-based International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) has 53 member orchestras representing 4,000 musicians. Participating orchestras range in size from smaller orchestras like the Charlotte Symphony (64 musicians and 31 staff) to larger ones like the New York Philharmonic (92 musicians and 89 staff.) While some larger ICSOM orchestras have human resource representatives or whole departments, like the New York Philharmonic, the personnel manager is most often the first point of contact for musicians experiencing dysfunction within an organization.
The personnel manager is a musicians’ direct supervisor and is responsible for dealing with complaints directly or deciding when to involve human resources. Many orchestras offer the position of personnel manager only to current or former members because of the intricate knowledge required. While personnel managers have a functional understanding of the day-to-day requirements of the job, it is common that personnel managers have little to no specific training in human resources. A 2017 job posting for the New York Philharmonic didn’t list HR training as a requirement for the job (though they do have a separate HR department). In a 2019 posting for personnel manager of the Jacksonville Symphony, the job description reads, “The Orchestra Personnel Manager is responsible for the human resource management of orchestra personnel, including… addressing musician personnel issues.” But in the requirements for the job, the only formal training they require is a “bachelor’s degree in music with a minimum of three years experience in orchestra personnel management.”
Of the 53 ICSOM orchestras, 26 have no HR staff listed on their websites. This imbalance means that of the 4,000 musicians represented, only a little over half have access to human resources at their jobs. It would be logical that the larger orchestras have more HR staff, but that simply isn’t the case. For example, the Atlanta Symphony has 65 staff members listed on their website, but no HR specialist. By contrast, the North Carolina Symphony has 33 staff members listed, with one staff member holding the title of “Human Resources & Office Systems Manager.” There seems to be no relationship between the size of an orchestra and the level of HR representation. While some larger orchestras like the New York Philharmonic or the Boston Symphony Orchestra have three representatives, the San Francisco Symphony has only one. Of the six Canadian orchestras with an annual income of over $10 million, only one (the Toronto Symphony) lists a Director of Human Resources on their website staff directory. In Europe, the trend continues: Berlin’s three opera companies share a single HR department, which is located off-site.
This distinct absence of training in the orchestra HR field has far-reaching implications on orchestra leadership, culture, and politics, and can contribute to a toxic working environment. The lack of access to human resources often leaves musicians open to bullying, intimidation, and harassment. A high-profile example of this came in September 2018, when the principal oboe of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Katherine Needleman, filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against concertmaster Jonathan Carney. She alleged that the BSO allowed a hostile work environment caused by Carney to go unchecked. According to the Baltimore Sun, “The two documents brim with details of unprofessional behavior inside the orchestra, onstage and off—propositioning in a hotel room and a women’s restroom, discussion of pesones (Spanish for nipples), making faces and mocking gestures during rehearsals or concerts.”
Ultimately Carney was reinstated, and the two musicians currently share the stage. But this incident shows that Needleman’s concerns weren’t addressed by management in a significant way until she filed her complaint with the EEOC. A report given by an outside lawyer suggests that HR training was lacking in the organization prior to the EEOC complaint. According to the Washington Post, the report “included a suggestion that Carney be sent to sensitivity training and an emphasis on anti-harassment training for all employees,” courses which would be standard issue for everyone at most large companies. The Baltimore Symphony’s website directory does not list any HR staff even after this incident.
Of course, office politics are present in most areas of employment. But the orchestra industry’s avoidance of personnel management has a way of encouraging organizational dysfunction, which The SAGE Encyclopedia of Corporate Reputation defines as “the product of structural, cultural, or leadership patterns that undermine the purpose, health, wholeness, safety, solidarity, and worth of an organization or its stakeholders.” There are many different types of organizational dysfunction; the two types that impact the orchestra industry are cultural and leadership dysfunction.
Orchestra cultures run deep and are rooted in institutional memory and tradition. Until recently, the orchestra industry has looked very uniform, and the shift away from homogeneity is slow and ongoing. For example: Currently, 83 percent of the Berlin Philharmonic are men, a holdover from the first 100 years (1882-1982) when women were not permitted to be members of the orchestra.
The reality of statistics like this in the day-to-day life of musicians is the entrenchment of a culture that shapes individual experiences. In a recent interview for VAN, Mor Biron cited this imbalance as one of the reasons he resigned from his post as principal bassoon of the Berlin Philharmonic. “There’s a lot of masculine energy in the orchestra, which in turn is because there aren’t enough women in the orchestra,” he said. “There aren’t enough feminine vibes in the individual sections.” This lack of diversity flows into the workplace culture and can contribute to organizational dysfunction.
Another influential factor on orchestra culture is the musicians’ “players’ committee,” which mediates between musicians and management. Elected by their peers, this volunteer committee plays an integral role in administering the orchestra’s collective bargaining agreement. According to Christopher Durham, the former Chief Field Negotiator for the American Federation of Musicians, Symphonic Services Division, “Committees must also bring experience to the bargaining table. The committee must measure when and what to report to the memberships. It is responsible for handling day-to-day business, including variances, and processing and investigating grievances in a timely and thorough manner.”
But, as a musician in a top U.S. orchestra, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “Orchestra politics are tricky, and a lot of times [the appointment to the players’ committee] is tied up with popularity or personality and has nothing to do with the ability to be a good committee member.” These interactions are another area where orchestras would be better served by clearer, more transparent communication and access to human resources.
Considering the common lack of management experience in players’ committees, orchestral musicians are dependent on the goodwill of administrative leadership. The musician said, “If you don’t have a music director and a CEO and a head of the board who are willing to say, ‘We’re going to put our money where our mouths are, and we’re going to make something of this orchestra,’ then as a member of the orchestra you really don’t have any power, and you will get consumed into whatever the [existing] culture is.”
Like most industries, there are new members joining orchestras every year. Each new musician must navigate this unfamiliar workplace and adapt to the existing culture, usually without help from dedicated staff. The musician described their experience joining a different orchestra at the beginning of their career:
When I was 22, I joined an orchestra just as they were being locked out. When that happened, I went into the job wondering if I would have a job to continue in. I wondered if I was going to be paid. There was an incredible amount of stress among the players that had been there for a long time. Players in that orchestra weren’t getting the respect they deserved, whether in stature or compensation. When an orchestra feels that way, and you are a new person walking into the situation, you just sort of feel it, and you can’t fight against it because you are now part of the crowd.
Orchestras seem hesitant to include significant and reliable HR into their business models. Change is slow in an industry that is so firmly rooted in historical and institutional tradition. There is a correlation between this glacial pace of modernization and how orchestras do business: Orchestras rely too heavily on tradition to guide both musical and administrative practices.
In North America, a significant part of these traditions involves maintaining funding through donor support. While necessary for the financial health of these organizations, there is something distinctly cyclical about this pursuit. Each year a significant amount of administrative resources are dedicated to finding enough funding to keep the doors open from one season to the next. When the focus of leadership is on funding, there is less attention on the day-to-day activities of an organization. Instead, players’ committees and union representatives become overly involved in resolving personnel issues. While consultation with committees and unions is imperative to maintaining a healthy relationship between musicians and administrators, leadership must also follow through to establish expectations about work culture. If those are lacking, leadership neglects its responsibility to provide support.
When there is a lack of inclusiveness, transparency, and effective leadership, harmful experiences can happen in an orchestra. Many musicians have spent their lives chasing and perfecting their jobs and careers, making the stakes high to maintain their position. The personal and emotional investment comes from training for and winning an audition and completing successful tenure reviews. Once the tenure process is complete, performing and collaborating on and off stage builds strong interpersonal connections—creating a level of professional intimacy that can leave musicians in a vulnerable position within an organization. With so much personal investment in their employer, it is difficult for a musician to speak out against their circumstances, or walk away from a job if they have experienced negative situations in a toxic workplace. These factors create a perfect storm for organizational dysfunction to fester. As dysfunction increases, so do the adverse effects on mental health in the workplace.
Specific examples of this type of toxic environment in an orchestra come from firsthand experiences of musicians. In an interview, a musician in one of the top Canadian orchestras, who preferred to remain anonymous, described one such incident:
[My stand partner] got suddenly so angry at me. I didn’t have any idea where it was coming from. It was essentially a big explosion on stage. They were super upset, I was startled and upset and started to cry, so I removed myself to regain my composure. Later on, I sent a couple of texts, but they obviously didn’t want to talk and would rather pretend that the whole thing never happened and just return to normal. I came to find out after the fact that what this person felt was that I was being critical or judgemental of their playing and felt that I was giving them judgemental looks about mistakes or something not sounding good. In reality, I was not even hearing them.
It’s striking that when asked if the musician reported the incident, they said, “This is not the type of thing that I would ask someone to help with; it was dealt with between the two of us.”
Work culture does not need to be defined by institutional memory. Instead, orchestras should prioritize healing toxic work cultures and organizational dysfunction. Addressing the lack of HR is the first step. Creating a culture where the priority is open, transparent communication and employees feel valued, secure and respected will alleviate the patterns and pitfalls that currently plague the industry.
In an interview, licensed therapist Jann Derrick described how orchestral musicians can transcend organizational dysfunction; it’s similar to how traumatized groups move forward from their past. “Acknowledging that this is happening is essential. You’ll get push back from certain people, you always do, but just the acknowledgement of, call it what you will: toxic, people upset, people leaving,” she said. “We need to explore what this is about and find a collective way to address it. If it’s only one or two people addressing it, it’s going to take a lot longer for it all to unfold. You must put organization around how it is being addressed, putting structure and programs in place.”"Orchestras rely too heavily on tradition to guide both musical and administrative practices." Emma Quackenbush on why orchestras need to invest in human resources. @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet
These topics often go unacknowledged in the orchestra industry. Nothing will change without an industry-wide awakening to the ongoing issues that face musicians and the orchestras that employ them. According to the Human Resources Professionals Association website, the consequences of organizational dysfunction include “increased turnover, low morale, poor communication, discriminatory attitudes and behaviors, retaliation for raising concerns, and manipulation.” It is imperative to break this cycle so that this art form and those who practice it can thrive. ¶
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