By Jim McCarthy Oct 28, 2009 4 comments

Awaiting the Great Pumpkin, er, Great Performance

Washington Post writer Anne Midgette set off a very interesting discussion with her column about orchestra conductors and their value as business speakers.  Here’s a key tidbit:

“…to hold up orchestras, and their relationship with conductors, as a business model is to subscribe to an idealized view of classical music as a happy sphere of beautiful golden tones. It doesn’t reflect most orchestras’ reality. Orchestras are notoriously dysfunctional places, often filled with talented people suffering from acute frustration at their lack of autonomy or of artistic self-expression. And the conductor of stereotype is an autocratic figure who doesn’t care if his musicians are happy or not.”

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that someone who’s job is to command 60 identically dressed people with a point of his hand would eventually start feeling superior.  Just look at airport security guards, and you can see how little power it takes to go to some people’s heads.

But the real story of this piece starts in the comments.  While Anne’s point is that maybe the orchestra conductor is the wrong person to be giving lessons on managing people,  many readers were offended at the very notion that a conductor should ever have to lower himself or herself to anything other than conducting an orchestra. One commenter, for example, said, “Because of the unfortunate lack of government support for our many wonderful orchestras, music directors are forced to take on this entrepreneurial role.”

However you might feel about arts funding, I’d challenge the notion that it’s bad for the conductor of a major orchestra to begin to think outside the tiny box of the conductor’s stand.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: any organization that is not audience-centered is dead, or possibly dead with forward momentum.

Here’s part of another interesting comment: “There is one thing and one thing alone that is the main ingredient of an orchestra’s success, or failure for that matter; it is what happens on stage, in other words, the level of artistry and excellence. Why else would an audience member have any interest at all about being a repeat patron?”

Awaiting the Great Performance, er, Pumpkin (United Media)

Awaiting the Great Performance, er, Pumpkin (United Media)

This is, as you might notice, an example of the Great Performance Delusion, wherein a person is convinced that each year, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch that he thinks is the most sincere and give presents and candies to the good boys and girls, probably in the form of healthy annual raises, generous insurance benefits, and an ample budget for support staff.

Being audience-centered does NOT mean asking people what they want and then trying desperately to give it to them, unless you are a soulless hack.

It means caring about the people paying the freight and doing your best to make your talents something they will care about.

So when I hear someone say there is “one thing and one thing alone,” that makes an orchestra a success, I know they miss the point and are suffering from the GPD.  The idea of a silo for art and a silo for business is deeply dysfunctional.  If you think business taints your art to the point where it’s no longer valid, you need to get out of the habit of expecting people to pay for your performances.

In fact, if you think “business” (by which I presume you mean the exchange of money for goods and services) is an unbearable taint in general, I suggest you start asking more carefully how it comes to be that money arrives in your bank account every couple weeks.

Somebody’s paying.  You’re already tainted, and now that you know it, you need to learn to live with that.

And the first step is to ask how you can make yourself valuable to the people who are footing the bill.

Will it be with high-minded notions about how things should be in a world where you’re accountable to no one or with a focus on how to bring delight and enrichment to the people who make your organization go?

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