Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Orchestra troubles: What ails Charles Noble?

By Barry Johnson

Yesterday, I had coffee with my old colleague David Stabler, and he mentioned that violist Charles Noble had written an interesting post on his Noble Viola blog. Here's how the post begins:
"I’m dissatisfied.  Not super unhappy, not depressed, just dissatisfied.  With playing in an orchestra.  There. I said it." 
He's not specific about his discontent, although from the post and the subsequent comment thread we learn that he hasn't taken a vacation in a long time and that the artistic achievement of the Oregon Symphony isn't the issue. He also suggests that he often feels this way during the orchestra's season, but usually not until March. And though he's tried to do some things to keep the music fresh, they haven't worked: "But I still find myself on the ragged edge of burnout already."

Finally, he asks for some advice from his colleagues. In the comment thread that advice includes, taking up Chinese cooking, playing more chamber music, studying the scores more closely and just sucking it up and forging onward, Beckett style: I can't go on. I can't go on. I must go on.

I'm not a musician, let alone a symphony musician. I don't know Charles Noble personally. And my advice on this sort of thing is often terrible. But that's not going to stop me from hypothesizing, now, is it?

I will argue from analogy and from my experience with daily newspapers.

American newspaper companies have tended to be hierarchical within their divisions and divided between the business side and the editorial side. A reporter for the newspaper can be assigned any story or to any beat that his or her editor wants. Decisions about the overall direction of news coverage, determinations about whether specific journalism rules, protocols and techniques were properly applied, even decisions about grammar and style, are made by the upper ranks of editors. Some newsrooms are more collaborative than others; and within newsrooms, some editors are more collaborative than others. But in general, important decisions are made at the top and executed at the bottom. Within the execution, some freedom of action and expression is allowed, of course.

Let's continue:  Dividing the newsroom from the business side of the newspaper helped preserve legitimate news inquiries from the objections of powerful forces outside the newspaper -- advertisers, unions, large corporations, government. In general the prevailing attitude of the business side, led by the publisher (who also was the boss of editorial side), was "you write the best stories you can and don't worry, we'll take care of the rest." But as the business model for newspapers started to break down, the business side couldn't take care of the rest, and the editorial side felt the effects (it's estimated that newsrooms these days are roughly half the size they were at their peak in 2001).

What the prevailing attitude did, I think, was to infantilize the reporters and line editors. They had been told not to worry their pretty little heads about business matters, and so few of them took an active interest in the direction of their companies.  And even if they did, as lowly foot soldiers, they didn't have the standing to comment or suggest or even disapprove of decisions the company commanders made.

The financial crisis of newspapers, I am arguing, awakened many of them to their circumstance: That they didn't have the opportunity to participate in the great decisions that would determine their own fate.

The effect of all of this on morale within newspaper companies was predictable. Many gifted journalists left the large legacy newspapers, sometimes to work for smaller online companies and sometimes for other work altogether. Those who decided to stay constantly questioned that decision, even though many of them were doing exactly what they had always hoped to do -- write and edit for a daily newspaper.

One of the reasons I have had a deep interest in arts organizations is that they seem to be close analogs of the newspaper business. The same demographic issues, for example, and unclear connection between artistic (journalistic) success and business success. And the system of decision making for both is legitimized by tradition and leader charisma. The decision-making loop is small and difficult to affect if you're outside the loop.

Now, the parallels aren't exact, and I'm generalizing about two very large and heterogeneous groups. Maybe these descriptions are too broad to be useful.

But having said that, I still wonder if Charles Noble's primary issue (aside for the lack of vacations, which strikes me as Step One, by the way) isn't with the way that orchestras are organized. Noble has interesting ideas about music (read his blog, if you doubt me), his orchestra, his instrument. He understands the economic and cultural challenges facing symphonies. The question I would ask: Does he have a way of contributing his informed opinions about these matters to the decision-makers at the symphony? And can he be confident that his opinions will be circulated, considered, debated and their merits tested?

I have made this point in my comments on the Detroit Symphony musicians strike. If an organization needs to change its direction, it needs all of the advice and consent it can get from its immediate community, without fear or favor. And it's not just in figuring out the right direction: The application of the community members to the work of turning the boat around and then proceeding into new country is crucial to the success of the organization. Participation leads to buy-in, and buy-in leads to willing, confident rowers.

One of the champions of this sort of approach among American symphonies is consultant Drew McManus on his Adaptistration blog.  Back in 2004 he posted about a study that had uncovered a huge reservoir of dissatisfaction among symphony musicians: "Although it’s a bit of an oversimplification, they [Seymour and Robert Levine, who did the study] attribute a lack of control in the musician’s workplace, both artistic and not, as the primary source for this problem."

Now, again, this is a general study. Noble's problem is specific. It may have specific solutions (a vacation, more Drunken Noodles), but it sounds similar enough to the malaise at American newspapers not to suggest that this may be the central problem. And the solution? Well, that discussion is for another time.