Nearly two years of the global pandemic have had a dramatic effect on everything, including how orchestras are run. This summer, when the League of American Orchestras’ Essentials of Orchestra Management seminar returns after a pandemic-enforced three-year hiatus, there will be new areas to explore. For Jennifer Barlament, executive director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and a core faculty member of the Essentials program since 2017, one of those areas is attention to change management. “That’s what we have all been doing 24/7,” she says. “What we have been able to achieve in the midst of major disruptive change has to do with the level of skill that we have in bringing people together, listening to voices, and creating a strategic plan.” Pre-COVID, Barlament says, orchestra managers “were not set up for flexibility. Artistic planning was about how to build a grid and be locked and loaded 18 months out. During the pandemic, we realized that there is great value in being able to respond to world events. We can do in-person and virtual events. We can keep people safe and healthy and do concerts. We can have incredible pre-planning and also be flexible and responsive.”
In late July and early August of 2022, between 30 and 35 current and aspiring orchestra administrators will gather in New York City for the League’s intensive, 10-day Essentials of Orchestra Management seminar, learning from top professionals in the field and from each other. The program, which took place at the USC Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles from 2015 through 2019, will now be presented by the League in collaboration with Juilliard Extension, using the Juilliard School’s housing, classrooms, and other resources; participants will receive a non-credit Juilliard Extension certificate upon completion. Essentials is aimed at early and mid-career professionals, musicians, career changers, and students, as well as experienced orchestra administrators wishing to expand their knowledge.
“Essentials of Orchestra Management is more essential than ever,” says League President and CEO Simon Woods, who was the director of Essentials from 2018 until he became the League’s leader in 2020. “Essentials is a beloved program, and we’re excited to unveil its new identity. There are alumni from Essentials and its predecessor programs working across the orchestra field, and many of them credit Essentials as a career-defining moment. Now we’re taking the program to the next stage in its evolution, combining the League’s depth and experience in curriculum development with the resources of one of the music world’s most inspiring educational institutions.”
The League anticipates a higher-than-usual number of applicants, given the pent-up demand after three years off. Scott Faulkner, principal bass of the Reno Philharmonic and former executive director of the Reno Chamber Orchestra, who assumed the directorship of the seminar after Simon Woods, explains, “We decided not to do Essentials virtually in 2020 and 2021. You can teach finance over Zoom, but the culture of the intensive, residential seminar—the context, the relationships, the networking inside and outside of the sessions—is central to the experience.” David Styers, the League’s director of Learning and Leadership Programs who administers the program, also expects to see an increased number of applications from career changers: “people who were spurred by the pandemic to follow their passion.”
While the League has offered management training programs since the 1950s, the Essentials prototype was launched in 2000 by veteran orchestra manager Peter Pastreich. Since that year, more than 450 people have participated in the seminar, many of whom now hold leadership positions in the field. Faulkner was an Essentials student in 2002, when it took place in January at the League’s New York office. A bass player, he had just become executive director at the Reno Chamber Orchestra, and recalls, “I was starting from scratch. Essentials was the most important training I had as an executive director.”
The program has evolved in its two-decade history. While its nuts-and-bolts approach, with how-to sessions on finance, governance, union negotiations, artistic planning, marketing, and related topics, remains, finding a balance with broader topics, such as equity, organizational culture and generational change, has grown in importance. “It’s a combination of technical skills, like how to read a spreadsheet, and thinking about what our future is,” Barlament says.
The core faculty—Faulkner, Barlament, and Alexander Laing, principal clarinet of the Phoenix Symphony—are planning sessions with the aid of Styers and John-Morgan Bush, formerly of the League and now Juilliard’s director of Lifelong Learning. As in the past, the core faculty’s teaching will be supplemented by contributions from about 25 guest presenters, all experts in their subject matter and many with orchestra management backgrounds. “There are plenty of management training programs out there, but there’s no need for translation at Essentials,” Styers says. “This program is unique in showing how the management of an orchestra is different from management of businesses, other non-profits, even other arts organizations. The topics cover the breadth of what an executive director has to think of in all types of orchestras—major orchestras, small-budget orchestras, youth orchestras, orchestras with unique structures. Essentials tries to scale every idea for every size orchestra. No one majored in orchestra management in college, and Essentials is the crash course that you didn’t get in your academic life.” Seminar participants receive a reading and video list that they are expected to digest before they arrive, so everyone, regardless of experience, starts with a common base of understanding.
The seminar’s teaching style has evolved over the years, “from the transfer of knowledge from elder statesmen in the field to more of a conversation,” Faulkner says. “We encourage the students to push back at things—and we push back at them, if warranted. We see it as part lecture, part think tank.” For example, in the wake of COVID, the use of digital media is likely to be a major topic this summer. “I expect that the younger students will be more fluent with this subject,” Faulkner says.
The 9 a.m.-6 p.m. schedule covers three to four topics a day, grouped thematically. It will feature presentations and panel discussions, but also interactive elements like small-group sessions, role-playing, debriefing, synthesis, and plenty of space for questions, as well as a group capstone project. The core faculty members are present at all the sessions, Barlament says, “to underline, illuminate, repeat, and ask questions.” Another key role of the faculty is mentoring, both in formally scheduled meetings and impromptu consultations. “That’s some of the most important work we do,” she says. Seminar participants will also attend concerts and evaluate those experiences from an orchestra manager’s point of view.
Philosophical questions about the future of orchestras that became even more urgent during the last two years will be a theme throughout the seminar. The killing of George Floyd in 2020 sparked a national reckoning about racial justice, and arts groups were among the many sectors to take a harder look at themselves as a result. Work on equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) had already been instituted as part of the Essentials curriculum in previous iterations. However, faculty member Alexander Laing notes, “Orchestras have been slow to recognize and act on this area, commonly referred to as EDI. I think that what has happened in the country and the world since the last time Essentials convened will certainly have the impact of growing the understanding across the field that American orchestras are not neutral or a-racial institutions.” The first full day of the 2022 Essentials seminar includes a three-hour block devoted to EDI. And this year, Faulkner says, all core and guest faculty will be expected to include EDI in their presentations, discussing how those topics touch their area of expertise.
The experience of running an orchestra during the pandemic, requiring dramatically new approaches to issues like flexibility and team management, will also be disseminated through the Essentials curriculum. Barlament says that the “plate spinning” experience of managing in the face of constant change was eye-opening. “Ironically, it was really fun in certain ways,” she recalls. “It made the whole endeavor seem more engaging and exciting. Everyone had to get in there together, work through problems simultaneously, and consider all the implications. The management structure had been getting less siloed in general, and who gets to participate in any discussion was changing. That sped up in the pandemic. All these things that had been gradually coming along got put on fast forward. People had nascent ideas that are now suddenly important. The idea of the Philadelphia Orchestra recording all the works of Florence Price—that was not on the table two years ago. It’s a time of clarity and change for institutions.”
John-Morgan Bush, who administered the Essentials seminar at the League before moving to Juilliard, says, “COVID-19 has forced us to imagine so many different ways of engagement. For example, Juilliard really expanded engagement in the arts through media and harnessed creative energy for new formats. And everyone is thinking, ‘What is business as usual now?’ That’s a theme for the seminar: how do we continue best practices and also adapt? We are looking at the far future of orchestras, not just the immediate future.”
Immediate impacts of COVID are on the agenda as well; for example, will audiences return, and in what kind of numbers? Faulkner says that the seminar will encompass data from the League, researchers who have partnered with the League on several studies, and the marketing and communications experts at the seminar. In addition, he expects that there will be “a wealth of experience in the room from the students themselves about what they have seen and done at their home orchestras. I’m also sure there will be success (and horror) stories about how orchestras got music to their audiences, as well as how their box-office staffs have been screamed at by folks who don’t like mask and vaccine requirements. The multi-tentacled pandemic issue is one of the big topics that will inform most of the sessions. It will be addressed explicitly in both tactical and philosophical ways.”
At Essentials, the question of change and the future of orchestras hovers over any discussion of how to read a spreadsheet, build a community engagement program, work with a board of directors, or negotiate with musicians. Asked what topic might best exemplify the learning in the seminar, Faulkner pointed to the issue of culture, and the Peter Drucker quote “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” “As classical music organizations, we are blessed and burdened by our 300 years of history, and doing things a certain way,” Faulkner says. “What’s the baby? What’s the bathwater? What can be shed?”
Like many of his colleagues, Faulkner sees the COVID experience as an opportunity for a reset. “What have we learned about artistic planning? There’s no going backward in electronic media and digital, so what does and does not work?,” he asks. “For-profit companies devote lots of resources to planning for failure; orchestras don’t. So how can we build in capacity to take some chances? The bottom line is, change has to happen. Orchestras need to include more people and voices from different generations and backgrounds. These kinds of issues start with governance, and having boards committed to evolving out of our molds. Digging into how orchestras attract, maintain, and remain relevant to the audiences of the future is ultimately one of the most essential parts of Essentials. It remains to be seen how we will make Generation Z love us, so that we can survive another 100 years.”
Learning in the Classroom and Beyond
Faulkner and the rest of the Essentials faculty and leadership look forward to a lively cohort of “smart, energetic, insightful students” this summer. Learning takes place not only in the classrooms, but in the corridors, at evening pizza party/war stories get-togethers, and late-night conversations reminiscent of college life. The dormitory setup will be a bit different from those college days, however—Styers is hoping to ensure that every participant gets a single room—and a logistical necessity, new this year, is the New York State and Juilliard requirement that all participants be vaccinated. A mask mandate will depend on rules in force at the time.
Students of past Essentials seminars have formed strong personal and professional alliances. Former classmates get together for reunions and tap each other for advice. The faculty also remain a supportive resource for alumni. “I talk to alums pretty frequently,” Barlament says. “They might have something come up and want to talk to someone who knows them but is not tied to their institution. At Essentials, you are able to get close to people quickly, understand what they care about, and stay in touch over the long term.”
Styers points out that the League regularly evaluates its programs to determine whether they are relevant. The demand for Essentials has never flagged. “There’s always the next generation,” he says. “Some of these people were just children when the program began. There are constantly new people who need to go through this experience to ground them, as well as the people who are changing careers. We keep it fresh, and it can go on for another 20 years and be relevant to the children being born today.”
“I love teaching this course,” Barlament says. “Spending time with these participants—dedicated, curious, open-minded, passionate people—makes me feel optimistic about the future of orchestras. I wish everyone had a chance to experience that up close.”
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Symphony magazine.