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Are Orchestra Musicians Just Zoo Animals?

The unintended outcomes of orchestra fundraising efforts on musicians.

by Holly Mulcahy
July 2, 2007

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Are Orchestra Musicians Just Zoo Animals?

If anyone would have told me that 15 years into a career as a professional orchestra musician might make me feel like a zoo animal I would have laughed in their face. Nevertheless, 15 years into my career and that's exactly how I feel, or at least that's how it seems for some of the time.

A number of factors contribute to this. First, as a single member of up to 100 performers, you come across as a nameless, faceless member of a collective. Add to that being a member of the most predominant instrument in any orchestra, a violinist, you have even less of an identity. Then there's all the black and white we have to wear; after some time, you can feel like an anonymous zebra walking out into your pen eating the same grass day after day. At the same, time, most musicians are somewhat prepared for this reality since being a part of a large ensemble is something they've actively prepared for most of their life.

But then there are the unexpected realities which rob you of your identity and artistic individuality; for example, the various ways some orchestras conduct fundraising efforts to directly support musicians. I don't believe for a moment that there is any great conspiracy among professional fundraisers (a thankless job if there ever was one) to dehumanize the musicians they are raising money for but one of the most common vehicles for fundraising can do exactly that if not conducted in just the right way. In particular, I'm thinking about fundraising efforts which focus on endowing a chair in the ensemble or sponsoring a specific player.

One of my first orchestra jobs was with the Delaware Symphony. Although this ensemble wasn't a full time orchestra offering a living wage, benefits, etc., it still had to rely on donations from patrons and board members to exist from one year to the next. The Delaware Symphony had a fundraising program where individual donors could "adopt" orchestra musicians. In return for the $200 donation, the donor would be mentioned in the program book and attend a reception where they could meet their "adopted" musician. 

Attending these receptions was something to be desired as a musician, or at least, that's the way it seemed at the time. For instance, not all musicians were "adopted" which meant that only a selection of random musicians were invited to the event (we were never told how our managers decided to select which musicians would be adopted over others).

A week before my first concert with the ensemble, I received a letter from the management notifying me that I had been "adopted". As instructed I sent a personal note to the donors thanking them for helping the orchestra with their donation. I also mentioned that I looked forward to meeting them in-person at the reception so I could thank them personally.

At the concert reception, I was disappointed. My couple didn't come. I felt rejected; well that might be overly dramatic, but I was disappointed nevertheless. Ultimately, I just ended up chatting with my fellow musician friends who had already met their "adoptive parents." At the same time, I did overhear some of the conversations between other guests. Some well intentioned managers and staffers from the orchestra attempted to introduce a few musicians to donors, but it came across embarrassingly. Instead of introducing musicians as the artists their donations are benefiting it came across more like those commercials you see on television asking for money to support children in underdeveloped countries.

After hearing a few of these introductions, I halfway expected the managers to give each donor a little Polaroid picture of each player paper clipped to a form letter starting out with "Here's your charity case…"

It felt disturbing that the introductions didn't make it clear that the musicians were people who believed strongly in the well-being of the orchestra and obviously interested in the future of classical music. By coming to this event, musicians were also donating their time by participating in events designed to increase interaction between those who make the music and those who listen and appreciate it. Instead, it seemed as though we were inadvertently being depicted as some sort of expendable character out of a Charles Dickens novel.

When mentioning this to one of my musician friends who had played in the ensemble for several years,

"Don't sweat it," she said. "You're just a zoo animal to them anyway. Before making a donation, all the donors ever see is: Concertmaster 1,000 bucks, Principle Musician 500 bucks, and Section Player 200 bucks. The management might as well create an advertisement that says for only 54 cents a day, you can feed and house a section player for a year, what a bargain!

Maybe my friend was being overdramatic as well, but it did get my naïve mind thinking. Maybe the individual musicians were just used as expendable tools to serve as a vehicle for bringing cash into the organization. Although this is a very necessary and difficult job, I'm not exactly excited about participating in programs that inadvertently demean the individuals it is designed to benefit. This seemed counter intuitive at best and unproductive at worst not to mention it marginalized one of the rare structured opportunities where we as musicians actually get to meet the people who take part in the music we create.

At the same time, at its heart, I think the idea of endowing a specific chair or section player in an orchestra is a good idea and Delaware Symphony just needed to change a few things about how it executes that fundraising campaign. 

For example, they need some professional guidance on how to properly conduct introductions between donors and musicians during face-to-face receptions. Managers need to learn more about the musicians and most could use pointers from a social coach (and if there's enough money, the musicians could use some time with a social coach as well). Putting a face to the orchestra can be a powerful tool toward giving patrons a stake in the organization's success. Pride in "my local symphony" goes pretty far due to a stronger connection and sense of partnership in the musical experience, all of which can be quite rewarding for the patron.

Since my Delaware experiences I have attended numerous similar events over the years with the various orchestras I have played with. Even though each group has its own spin, they all use the same basic formula goes something like this: "Please join us for an after concert reception for food, drink, and a chance to meet the musicians."

Even though this seems like a fairly simple idea, I have yet to participate in such an event that successfully meets these goals. Instead of having have all sorts and types getting to know one another the typical reception is usually fruitless and ends up like this:

  • A bunch of musicians hang together chatting about the concert and other such small talk
  • Most of the donors are chatting about the concert as well, but with managers, board members, and maybe one or two of the actual musicians. 
  • Executive managers use the opportunity to single out potential large donors from the pack and start a conversation that usually ends with some sort of fundraising pitch.
  • Staff members make a handful of attempts to put donors and musicians together but they usually single out players such as the concertmaster.

The whole ordeal resembles an 8th grade dance where all the girls are on one side and the boys on the other, each divided into their own cliques. This sort of ubiquitous concert reception is such a wasted opportunity due mostly in part to a distinct lack of etiquette in introductions and conversations.

Besides making staff read "Miss Manners" or Emily Post's "Etiquette" why not direct professional training funds to hire a specialist do work with managers and musicians alike? In fact, it wouldn't be a bad idea for orchestras to hire a social consultant who is well established in the community to get to know musicians and make them a sort of "social director" for meet-and-greet events; something like a professional who is responsible for making introductions and keeping conversations going.

What is necessary in these receptions is a person who is well versed in the life of a musician, the mission of the orchestra, and how important donors are to nonprofit organizations. If you can combine this with the ability to bring vastly differing peoples to a common ground, I think orchestras would end up getting much more out of these functions.  

In the end, I suppose classical musicians are somewhat like zoo animals. We perform for a crowd, we are a part of a non-profit organization, and our shrinking audiences sure make it feel like we are losing our "environment", therefore jeopardizing our future. But unlike zoo animals, musicians can form a unique bond with patrons that can last a lifetime therefore strengthening our current patron base and standing in the community. The trick is setting up the right atmosphere to get those relationships started and, to me, that seems like a worthwhile investment.

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Ron Spigelman from Springfield MO writes:
July 10, 2007
Time to take back the farm
The issues here are: personal relationships initiative, sincerity, desire and ownership. First ownership: Managements and Music Directors have to allow and encourage the musician body in any orchestra large or small to take the initiative on audience engagement, why? It is simple, most managements and music directors are transitional. The Knight Foundation found that on average a management and a music director turns over on average every 7 years yet with an orchestra it is every 30 years. It is ultimately clear who makes the larger investment in their community as for many musicians it is their home for their entire careers. And the board?…again transitional with term limits forcing turnover. Therefore the first paradigm shift that needs to occur is that musicians need to be allowed to take a front and center role in all levels of decision making. Musician and admin training will have to change to allow this to happen in a profound way but that is a different post, I want to get to your point. When the musician’s role changes to this model, then there will be a vested interest and a buy in with what goes on. This will hopefully lead to a desire to make personal connections and encourage initiative.

Desire: Well you obviously have to want this to happen. I have met many musicians throughout my career so far who aren’t interested in anything but playing. I don’t see the musician at fault here because there is so little or no training in doing anything else but this. Managements and music directors often with direction from a board are told that they are to make all the decisions, so a musician is not empowered to do anything but to play and go home. The biggest problem for the smaller regionals is that since it is a very part time situation, musicians are not around when most of the decisions are being made. For most their primary focus is going to be on their main source of income and that of course is totally understandable. Nevertheless, if you have a large enough contingent within an orchestra that wants to take initiative, this can be overcome and with a transition in management and board inevitably around the corner…now is the time! I lobbied the board successfully here to have a musician representative on the executive committee.

Initiative: The problem that I found with your suggestion is that to simply focus on the reception that already is not working and only adding a “social director” to the mix to facilitate, means that there is still no vested interest in creating the relationships needed, it will in my opinion only make it a more forced and unnatural experience . And, if that doesn’t work, then it is “oh well we tried and it didn’t work, it’s over”. There needs to be more personal investment of time and effort so that there is a determination to make it work, but the desire to have this engagement needs to come first followed by a management and a board willing to become partners with any idea. Ultimately the goal needs to be a true personal connection, that is how you can move forward and be satisfied that we are relevant to people. Here is a list of initiatives both here in Springfield Mo and other places that are being tried and have been working, no Franzia wine or Sam’s Club quiche bites in sight!: Starting with the simple –

Before one concert have musicians stand with the ushers (with instruments in hand) greeting and talking to audience members as they arrive. We did it here it was a great ice breaker and audience members can then look for the players onstage that they met rather than trying to remember where they sat afterwards. The musicians want to repeat it next season.

Duane Saetveit assoc Principal Horn in Buffalo had a brilliant program called Afterthoughts. He hosted a post concert chat show on stage a few times a season with guests from the orchestra, sometimes whole sections, the conductors, there was even one with the backstage staff and yes management. Audience members would either write their questions on a slip in the program and hand them in at intermission to the ushers, or could ask questions live. It was a very spontaneous sometimes riotous event. Duane is a master host, very warm and witty, and that is the key if you want to do it.

Christmas/Holiday cards. We started this here in my first season and it is now something many patrons (and musicians) have told me they look forward to. For 20 minutes in one rehearsal each musician writes a personal hand written card to the 20 subscribers that are on the envelopes and cards handed out to them. With all musicians participating this covers the entire subscriber base. It has now got to the point that most musicians will take the cards home because they want to write longer messages. Simple and personal.

Pittsburg, “A Pre-concert Happening”. As reported by Greg Sandow on his blog on March 17, the Pittsburg Symphony had musicians in the lobby before the premiere of a new piece by Higdon engaging individuals and small groups by playing them excerpts of the piece. The post says it all and the personal connections made surely contributed to the overwhelming ovation the piece received.

We do a program called Coffee Cake and Classics at Borders. The week of every concert on a Thursday night I host and present a free informal lecture, Borders gives out free coffee and a discount coupon. We have a mix and mingle beforehand and many times it is a musician who is a special guest to demonstrate their instrument, talk about themselves and visit personally with people who are there.

Check out the Syracuse Symphony musician profiles (they are online and updated often). They are much more personal than most out there.

The Fort Worth Symphony next season will begin rotating musicians to present and narrate their Young People’s Concerts and they now have a committee of musicians who are helping to program them also. After all by using the Knight foundation statistics, they will be the one’s still there when those same children will grow up and have the ability to buy tickets to a concert.

Lastly, I am happy to report our board voted to implement the Musicians Initiative fund. I gave a brief outline of it in my comment to you in response to your last post about competitions. Simply, it is a fund that musicians can apply to for outreach projects that they want to start themselves as well as a discretionary fund for smaller needs such as students who cannot afford materials, repairs to their instrument etc. The most important aspect of it, is that the fund will be run entirely by a committee of musicians who will award the money to the projects. I am more excited about this than anything else we have started here, and I wont have anything to do with it!

To your dead on target observations about the "adoption" program, this is something else that here we are encouraging the musicians to take control of, because the way you describe it and the way it happens comes across as insincere. There are two musicians here that actually helped raise $2500 each last season!

If musicians are in a zoo, it is simple, don’t make their cages nicer and hope they will be satisfied, instead give them the keys so they can get out on their own! In other words, trust them. A great performance of a Symphony means that everyone is working perfectly together, the same synergy has to occur with the running of the organization also, with the ultimate goal of becoming relevant to our communities. We do that with a meaningful and sincere personal connection.


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