I heard a good conductor who, when asked how to make an orchestra grow, responded,
“You get every musician to play his best at every service.”
I thought this was a killer answer, but unfortunately the conductor died on his next question when someone asked, “How do you do that?”
The conductor got points for honesty, though, when he said, “I don’t know.”
In retrospect, I know how he felt. Clearly, complicated problems rarely accommodate simple solutions. As someone once said, “For every problem there are answers that are simple, obvious, and wrong.” But perhaps there are some general ideas we can consider to help turn the tide or at least tread the financial and cultural water with a little more buoyancy. And I wonder if some of these solutions would seem more self-evident if a clear perspective, free from the traditional attitudinal baggage of the past were applied.
First: We must think anew.
The late Peter Drucker, legendary business consultant to for profit and nonprofit managers alike, once said that every few years businesses should get behind closed doors and do the following exercise: imagine no one is actually doing what they are doing—that their business concern, whether it’s selling time-shares, consumer electronics, or Bartók has the unblemished sheen of a new idea. Given this premise, how would we do it if we were truly doing everything for the first time?
The real challenge here is to look at our business with a gaze that is both penetrating and original, not only to distinguish forest from trees, but trees from leaves, and to examine everything we do and ask, “why?” I think a truly imaginative and detailed look at how we do business with this totally fresh “What if …why not…?” point of view might well yield some very interesting ideas for our present and future.
Everything short of excellence should be on the table, with only excellence being non-negotiable. Our audience may not know classical music, but inferring that they can’t tell an excellent product from a mediocre one is incorrect. In my experience, they can hear a phony from a mile away.
Second: We must alter our philosophy of the concert experience.
This change in approach has two parts, one physical the other conceptual. First, we need to have every customer leave our concerts, in the words of P.T. Barnum, “…always wanting more.” And I would add, “eager to have the experience again.”
Too often in our business, the “concert experience” is defined as the period of time from the down-beat to the final cadence. Instead, we ought to adopt the attitude of the theater community, where the dramatic experience is not defined by the curtain’s ascension or the delivery of the first line. Instead, it is defined from the time the customer first sees the performance venue and ends the moment it leaves their sight.
This comprehensive approach to customer service and the overall customer experience extends from the logistics of coat check to the decoration of the venue, from the continuity of messaging to promotional advertisements, and from concert programs to signage in the facility. It includes the mouthwatering nature of the concessions, and it needs to be executed as excellently and adroitly as the product on stage. This exactitude of customer service needs to be obvious to our patrons as well. They will start caring about us when it is clear that we care about them, as demonstrated by the caliber of our hospitality.
But the conceptual second change needs to precede the former. We need to get our collective minds around the idea that the best way to advocate for our art form is to attend to our customers as well as present them with the timeless music that brought us to this business in the first place.
I often feel that many in this business, on and off stage, believe that we somehow cheapen the value of our hallowed artistic product by serving to the customer. The seriousness of our business often makes our audiences feel that we think they are lucky to be at our concerts; in truth, lucky is how we should feel about their attendance and we should make this evident to them.
We need to understand that the best thing we can do for our art form is to win repeat customers. In the same spirit that I endorsed artistic excellence as the only issue which is off the table when examining ourselves, I do not espouse “dumbing down” our product. However, I feel it is entirely possible to present the entire range of repertoire at our disposal, from Bach to Varese, without pandering to or intimidating our audience.
Good museums present art as diverse as Botticelli and Jackson Pollack. They make no judgment on the attitudes of their customers. One may not like everything one sees during a visit to a museum, but the experience is stimulating and rewarding enough to merit a return visit. We should aspire to be open, inviting, broadly artistic, and culturally inclusive.
Third: We must beware the sense of entitlement.
The previous two remedies applied to all branches of the industry, but this last one is directed specifically toward musicians. The sense of entitlement is a hidden curse in our business, and I have seen and heard it spill out from behind our closed institutional doors into the view of the public.
Recently, a musician I know in an ICSOM orchestra became agitated when a colleague began reading a paperback book on stage in full view of audiences during the intermissions of concerts. He decided to approach his committee chair to seek a remedy. When this person approached the committee chair, he was told that while reading during concerts was prohibited, reading before concerts was not. The committee chair went on to say that because it occurred during intermission (the musician’s break), it was not prohibited. A musician, according to the committee chair, should be able to spend his break time any way he pleases.
The danger, here, is clear: every orchestra has a few musicians that feel entitled to act thoughtlessly in front of our audiences. In at least one orchestra, however, this activity is not only tolerated but also justified and enabled. If orchestras were ecosystems, a biologist might say that this was a sign of more serious, underlying problems.
Few individuals outside of ICSOM and ROPA ensembles know the trials musicians go through to attain the skills they need to get a job. No one knows better than us the grueling nature of the combination decathlon and beauty contest that is the modern orchestra audition. It is not hard to understand how, after having run this gauntlet, musicians feel they have achieved a truly special status in their field. And they are right. But while no one doubts the achievement, no one in the audience knows or, quite frankly, cares about what it took to get here. The respect they have for the accomplishment on stage is well earned but fragile and easily compromised. If they feel that the respect is not mutual, it will, like Prospero’s spirits, vanish “…into thin air” and “…leave not a rack behind.”
To use the restaurant analogy once again, even though our food is arguably better than ever, if our customers notice a bus boy chewing gum on the job, a waiter reading a book rather than serving his tables, a maitre d’ wearing black sneakers with his formal attire (all infractions I know to have occurred in ICSOM or ROPA ensembles), or even if they are merely treated with what they perceive as simple indifference, they might well infer that we don’t care about our customers. If we don’t care about our customers, why should our customers care about us? And with so many restaurant options available, why would those customers ever come back?
I feel that these are the most serious changes our business needs to make. At every level, this business is fraught with the feeling of entitlement. Whether because of the brutal past of our business where pink slips were issued on a whim or because of the trails we surmounted to achieve our excellence or because of our concept of the special nature of our art form, we have come to believe that our audiences “owe us.”
They “owe” us their attendance at our concerts. They “owe” us their support in the community. They “owe” us the donations, bequests, and political support that keep us from penury. And if we don’t follow our traditional demonstrations of respect in our dress and demeanor on stage, well, that is no great sin. After all, they “owe” us. If we base our future on this balance-due, our financial and philosophical bankruptcy may be difficult to avoid.
Over a half million Brits have Beethoven on their hard drives where previously none existed. A few years ago I was stopped on the street by a group of twenty year olds who raved about the Mahler concert they had just heard. Perhaps there is a light at the end of the tunnel that doesn’t sound like a train whistle.
The good news is this: if competing effectively is the solution, then the future is ours to bring about. With the conviction to continue doing what we do as well as it can be done, and the commitment to revisit how we do what we do, then there are skeptics to be converted by the thousands and thousands. If institutional self-importance can be transformed to self-reflection, and personal arrogance to evangelism, with some luck we’ll all get to retirement with a sound conscience and the knowledge that we weren’t there at the beginning of the end, but at the end of the beginning.