Leaders Reframe False Dichotomies: Musicians vs. Management

Not a Zero-Sum Game, Part 2 of 3

Small groups of artists and administrators across the orchestra and opera world openly discussed important questions outside the bargaining table in response to the accelerated rate of change around us. Thank you to the incredible panelists above. Hosted by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Center for Innovative Leadership; Facilitated by Aubrey Bergauer; Co-produced by Aleks Romano.

Beyond the pandemic fallout of ubiquitous concert cancellations, halt of ticket revenue, and loss of work for artists and administrators, the systemic issues within classical music that predate coronavirus have been amplified over the last several months. Part one of this series describes the need to recalibrate — or reframe — how we approach the false dichotomies in our work, and this post, part two of three, describes how we can work collaboratively to create stronger organizations than we had before.

We can reject the notions that we must debate digital offerings versus live performance as if the two are mutually exclusive, haggle over content creation versus ownership and its pennies-on-the-dollar income structure, split the org into on stage talent versus off stage talent like one could live without the other, and deliberate tradition we love versus innovation we need. These choices are not diametrically opposed. These outcomes can coexist. It’s not a zero-sum game.

The Setup

The setup was simple: invite artists and administrators to openly discuss issues normally reserved for behind closed doors, private conversations, and the bargaining table. Discussions would take place over three days, with a different group each day to explore and unpack a different false dichotomy in classical music. You can view all three roundtables in their entirety for free via the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Center for Innovative Leadership, and this series of posts illuminates the top themes and recommendations from each group.

On day two, the group took on collaborative decision making at orchestras and opera companies: how musicians and management can work together to make the pie bigger for all of us.

Process Before Substance

“The difficult part of any relationship is trying to figure out how to legitimately disagree.”

“Most studies show that when we’re thinking about the long-term benefit of the organization, then the pie gets bigger.”

“Musicians need to be intentionally trained to look up from the music stand and come to some understanding about the broader goals of the organization, landscape for the industry and how it’s changing, and how to be a leader in that rather than being perpetually caught on our heels.”

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

In a negotiation, substance is the language in the contract, the deal points themselves — the things that tend to get most of our attention. Determining process, by contrast, is talking in advance about which issues need consideration, the agenda, the timeline, and end goal(s) for ratification among all parties. Harvard professor, economist, and negotiation expert Deepak Malhotra says to always determine process before substance. He says to coordinate on process with everyone in the negotiation, and to take the time needed for this. In other words, process is one necessity to help overcome the us-versus-them false dichotomy, and that’s exactly what this group of participants said as well.

Working toward change in our collective bargaining agreements is about knowing “how to legitimately have to separate — sometimes even fundamentally — not-connectible ideas,” said one of the panelists, “and still work under those situations and still come to a collaborative agreement that everybody can live with.”

Malhotra also says to normalize the process. A recurring theme in the discussion was that it takes time to get consensus among roughly a hundred people (i.e. the orchestra), and to normalize that means everyone involved needs to understand it can feel slow. “Sometimes we don’t normalize the process and then any bumps, delays become relationship killers,” Malhotra said in a CNBC keynote.

In other words, to overcome us-versus-them mentality, all us of need to plan in advance. A lot. All of us need to work toward understanding the big picture of our organization and industry before we dig into the weeds of substance. In a practice that admittedly often feels not nimble, that’s precisely the point. “The nimbleness comes from having these decisions worked out in advance,” a participant offered. “That’s a practical necessity.”

Who is on the Committee Matters

“Personal things sometimes become doctrine in the CBA for one player or two players… that’s not big picture.”

“We should encourage more musicians when they’re ready to get into managing orchestras.”

“Everybody should learn the CBA.”

“I also see that our own people point fingers and have a lot of disgruntled opinions about what contract was brought back, and so we almost fight against ourselves.”

Another process to normalize is learning the CBA (collective bargaining agreement). “Everybody should learn the CBA,” said one panelist. “Our conservatory training doesn’t really prepare us for this at all,” said another. In order to serve the organization, to work toward a bigger pie for all of us, we all need to know the agreement — everyone on stage AND off — and not leave the understanding to a few people representing all stakeholders. “This [discussion group] is not representative of musicians more broadly and their level of awareness,” one person said, “but those are the people who are being called upon to make these decisions.”

This is a professional development opportunity that could be offered to the entire institution. Sometimes I’m asked about what professional development for musicians can look like, and now I firmly believe helping everyone understand not only the contents of the agreement governing so much at the organization, but also what it means to serve in a committee capacity are some of the top growth opportunities we can provide (reluctance to serve due to fear of the unknown or lack of understanding came up in the group discussion multiple times). Because in absence of everyone reading and knowing what this critical document is saying, issues that affect a select few are championed, the squeakiest wheel gets the grease, and the people representing the desires of others aren’t even set up to successfully navigate what those desires are.

In addition to everyone needing a baseline understanding for everyone whether on the players committee or not, the roundtable also brought up committee terms. One participant was a big fan of term limits — “four years, maybe eight years max,” they said. Another came from an orchestra where half the committee rotates off each year, and what comes with that is a potential loss of institutional memory. “Those things are very short sighted,” the panelist said. “I think that makes it really hard to have long term relationships which is hard, you know? There are those conversations you need to be able to have with management, and they need to know that your word means something going forward, not just six more months.”

As the conversation continued, one person suggested that “everybody should have to be on a committee; everybody should have some service” as a means for musician engagement. Someone else brought up the idea of task forces. And then it occurred to me that this is exactly how I think about board service, and there are so many parallels to draw from that.

Think about it: as org leaders, we want to keep the board engaged, and one way we do this is via committees or task forces. These small groups are how work gets accomplished, how newer board members learn the ins and outs of the organization, and how we vet who is good for future board leadership roles. We can absolutely apply this same idea among orchestra members. We know in advance of the season which audition(s) we’ll be having for the most part, so we could first assign committees/task forces for auditions accordingly, then could assign other musicians to committees for tenure review, and then to other existing board committees (which sometimes takes place already in many orchestras where there are musicians representatives on the board), plus committees for patron loyalty and fundraising. We do all this with the board methodically and strategically — and it generally works. We could do it with musicians too.

“Helping everyone understand not just the contents of the agreement governing so much at the organization, but also what it means to serve in a committee capacity, is one of the top growth opportunities we can provide.”

I know not every musician wants this “engagement” beyond the job to show up and play. But the panel was quick to say that many members of the orchestra, and especially newer and younger members long to be involved in the life of the institution: “They just expect and want to be a part of social media and marketing decisions…turning the focus of the organization, which has traditionally been to put on really pretty concerts, to ‘how do we use this organization to serve the community?’” I meet more and more musicians like this all the time, and I’m so grateful for what they bring in addition their incredible playing.

Learn-by-Doing, and Dig into the Data

“What is the data telling you about what something is worth?”

“I see the idea of musicians educating themselves about business stuff. And business people educating themselves about musician stuff, as I think we’re ready to really blow that open.”

“I think we forget that we need to look for the common ground, and that’s where data comes into play.”

Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

So if musicians have not been formally taught how to negotiate, or what it entails to serve on the players committee, or why it’s important to really learn the CBA that governs it all, how then can an orchestra combat this? Besides professional development mentioned above, the consensus was…just do it. Join a committee or task force, learn by doing, and ask questions along the way. And above all, ask for data to back those answers when possible.

As someone who has built a career on a data-driven approach, my heart is singing at this. Data takes a lot of the guesswork out of things, it removes subjectivity and emotion, and when trying to align around organization goals and how to collectively move forward, it’s especially helpful. “When we go in, I think we forget that we need to look for the common ground too, and that’s where data comes into play,” said a panelist.

“I would like to encourage this more,” said someone else. “I see the idea of musicians educating themselves about business stuff. And businesspeople educating themselves about musician stuff, as I think we’re ready to really blow that open.”

Further endorsing the idea of educating and training our own, one participant said it this way: “I think a lot of especially young players and a lot of new members just feel it’s a huge sense of responsibility [to serve on the negotiating committee], which it is. And without knowing more about it, it wouldn’t be right for them to be in there. Also, they feel like they would be the reason the orchestra got or didn’t get a good deal. So the responsibility that falls on the shoulders of the people that do decide to be on the committee is immense. But I think one way around it is what has been suggested to have these task forces to kind of channel people’s energy into different parts of the org. Somebody might be great at negotiation, somebody might be great at audience development.”

Hearing all of this made me think that the typical approach the players committee takes to prepare for negotiations — surveying the orchestra — might not be the most effective primary tool for either party. Not that it’s not helpful at all, but I’m now thinking that it almost leads to a tit-for-tat approach to bargaining, inadvertently taking everyone away from bigger shared objectives. One participant commented, “Sometimes, when we get too segmented, then we don’t even know what our long-term goals are anymore. So it’s really about education — education in our orchestras and our communities, the costing, all those things that can get carried forward to mutual benefit.” Again and again, the conversation from the seasoned musicians at the table seemed to go back to the big picture and how to use data to achieve collective understanding.

“Join a committee or task force, learn by doing, and ask questions along the way. And above all, ask for data to back those answers when possible.”


“Making a fair process really just shouldn’t be up for debate amongst a 50–65 member group of people. Each organization individually deciding for themselves if they want their process to be fair or not?!”

“What winds up happening in practice is really far from transparent. It [evaluation] went to being highly subjective, which it absolutely just should not be.”

“I’m aware that there are a lot of orchestras operating on a professional level with no clear and consistent [tenure] process.”

Photo by davisco on Unsplash

Aligning around goals and data applies to equity and inclusion too. When talking about the percentage of Black musicians in American orchestras, and how that relates to this conversation, someone said, “First of all, where are we going? And where do we have to go to? You know, there’s a 1% or 2% number that’s thrown around [of Black musicians in professional orchestras]…So we really need to get that data.”

Last month, New York Times classical music critic Anthony Tommasini called for the end of blind auditions. His thesis focused on the absence of diversity in orchestras (that 1–2% number above) as an indicator of audition ineffectivity. He was partially right; the system is flawed. But this group made clear the driving force behind the problem isn’t the blind audition concept as a whole, it’s the lack of equity permeating it.

For every artist and administrator reading this, here are three ways to make auditions more equitable, straight from these roundtable voices:

1. Make the process consistent. Remember process before substance? True here too.

  • “When we’re back to auditioning [post-pandemic], how are people getting their jobs? Are they getting them from prelims? Are they getting them behind screens? Are they getting invited to the finals? Many orchestras still invite people to unscreened finals, and it’s incredibly unfair. Especially if they’re the only person auditioning. And let’s just say it’s screened and they’re the only person you invited — the finals are screened, but you know who that person is. So what are we really saying?”
  • “There are people who have CBAs that still allow people [to get hired] if there’s a no-hire in the audition. You can invite people for a trial, and they can get a job that way. So often, Black and brown people are out of that conversation.”

2. Recruit for auditions, and make sure to invite talented BIPOC. And do the same for the sub list.

  • “Within the CBA structure…I’m big on recruiting for auditions. We often will invite people for trials — for one week, or to the audition, or whatever. If you’re going to do that, invite at least one person of color in that trial so that it’s not just lip service about diversifying orchestras.”
  • “Experience comes off often when we’re talking about diversifying orchestras. I know numerous people who already have the experience in big orchestras — I was in an orchestra for 15 years; she [gestures to another panelist] was in an orchestra for eight years — and we and other people of color are rarely invited to an open position for an audition in a larger budgeted orchestra. Why not recruit, because we do it for trials for other musicians, we bring them from all over the world, but often people of color are not part of that.”

3. Have the screen up all the way to the end, period.

  • “The traditional audition policy is that you might have screened auditions for the first two rounds, but then in the final round, the screen comes down, which completely negates the reason why you had it up for the first couple of rounds to begin with.”

On the last point, I know that there are many reasons tossed around for why it’s so hard to have the screen up during the finals. Honestly, it’s all gatekeeping. One day a few months ago, I was looking at the NAAS national database of professional Black and Latinx musicians (i.e. musicians of color who had won orchestral jobs in classical music), and as I was scrolling, I realized the biggest professional orchestra listed more than any other was the Metropolitan Opera. Then I realized they leave the screen up to the end. If the Met orchestra can do it — one of the best ensembles in the world — the rest of us can do it too. Consider that leaving the screen is up, taking that extra step to reduce unintential bias, is perhaps what in fact makes them better.

In any conversation about reducing bias in orchestral hiring, the procedure for awarding tenure is the other side of the equity coin. Sure, some minorities are winning auditions even in the current format, but the process for determining whether they have a future at the organization is often fallible. Here are steps any orchestra can take to examine their tenure process:

1. Look for red flags in the current set up.

  • “As you’re looking at your own orchestra and checking out your own tenure procedures, things that might raise a red flag would be that there’s no clear criteria for job performance. Feedback could be given verbally rather than in writing, that you might be able to give anonymous feedback, that there’s no opportunity for a candidate to answer to the criticism or challenges that are being faced, and that the ultimate vote is anonymous, so that there’s no accountability needed.”

2. Determine objective criteria for what makes good or bad job performance.

  • “Know how to evaluate the job performance of colleagues along an objective criteria: Ask things like are they prepared for rehearsals? Are they performing consistently between rehearsals and the concerts? Are they comporting themselves in a professional manner? Those are the things by which people should be judged on their job performance.”

3. Make training part of that professional development work previously covered.

  • “Having specific training so that musicians can properly evaluate job performance is definitely the next frontier of what I’m going to be pushing for with within my own organization.”
  • “We can train for things like how to communicate effectively. This is exactly the opposite of how the process [currently] works. Oftentimes, the candidate is not communicated with. There’s sort of a cone of silence when a candidate is going through the process.”

4. Don’t make feedback anonymous.

  • “The tenure process isn’t working when people can say whatever they want to say, however they want to say it, and not be held accountable. And there’s no way to defend yourself when being reviewed.”

Lest any administrators are reading this and thinking this whole section really slams on artists, think again. Every best practice discussed here applies to hiring and evaluating off stage talent too. Anyone in a hiring manager role, please hear this: we will develop stronger candidate pools and higher performing teams when we make the process consistent (ask the same questions to each candidate, for example), invite multiple BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) candidates to apply, determine objective criteria for hiring and for performance review, and train and practice effective communication when it’s time to deliver performance feedback. Those aren’t just soundbites from a discussion group; these principles are backed by research study after study. This issue of equity and diversity affects everyone in this business, and there are no more excuses for not knowing how to proceed with so many steps laid out clearly like this. And for anyone wanting more musician-led resources on these topics, Weston Sprott and Shea Scruggs wrote about these same issues for the AFM in June 2019.

Lastly, if anyone is reading this and wagging a finger at everyone who you think should be doing this work, not so fast. We need your help too. As one panelist put it, “There’s the idea that we’re waiting for a group of people to flag this issue to fix it. Well, that’s probably exactly why we’re still waiting for the problem to be fixed.” This takes all of us, in all roles; no one is absolved.

“Those aren’t just soundbites from a discussion group; these principles are backed by research study after study.”

Last But Not Least: No Substitute for Transparency and Trust

“When there’s trust going both ways, things obviously move much, much faster.”

“If you don’t have leadership that develops a corporate culture that is committed to trust, it’s likely not to happen.”

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

Let’s be clear before we go sing Kumbaya, “Trust doesn’t mean that you are perfectly happy to tell all your secrets to everybody,” as one participant said. “There is a legitimate reality when you’re in a negotiation that both sides are trying to organize their thoughts around many different topics.” That person is right; it’s still a negotiation at the end of the day, and that requires strategy and preparation like any other important business pursuit (coming full circle to first point about the need to plan). But keep in mind the aim of a negotiation is not to assume opposition, it’s to reach agreement.

To do that, another person added, “I really hope that we can come up with trust and transparency and thinking outside of the box, particularly as it relates to negotiation that’s mutually beneficial for both musicians and organizations, because we need the organizations to survive in order for us to have the jobs that we currently do.”

Right now — no matter our role on stage or off, staff or board, our title, or place in the org chart — we have the opportunity to be the leaders on a lot of these issues, some of which with our entire society is struggling. Yes, it takes a lot of trust and transparency to do this work well, and even as someone who has successfully led multiple negotiations, this group gave me hope and confidence that it can be done better. Hope that it’s not just about us versus them, musicians versus management. Because in the end, we are all on the same team, serving the same organization. We can reframe. “We can reorient ourselves to be leaders on some of these issues,” a panelist said in conclusion. “So as opposed to being a bit behind the times as traditional organizations, we can come out of this being forced to reorient ourselves towards being a community organization rather than just an arts organization.”

Becoming a “community organization” is precisely where the third and final roundtable picked up the conservation. Part three of this series coming soon.

About the Author

Credited by Southwest Magazine with “redefining the classical concert experience as we know it,” Aubrey Bergauer defies trends and then makes her own. Her focus on not just engaging — but retaining — new audiences grew Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club to the largest group for young patrons in the nation, led the Bumbershoot Festival to achieve an unprecedented 43% increase in revenue, and propelled the California Symphony to nearly double the size of its audience and quadruple its donor base.

Praised by Wall Street Journal for leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically advance every facet of an organization, instilling and achieving common goals and vision across typically siloed marketing, development, and artistic departments, is creating a transformational change in the audience, in the office, on the stage, and in the community. A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, Bergauer now shares these ideas as founding executive director for the Center for Innovative Leadership at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, in addition to her consulting work and speaking engagements across North America, including conferences for Adobe’s Magento, Capacity Interactive, Opera America, Orchestras Canada, and the League of American Orchestras. aubreybergauer.com

“The Steve Jobs of classical music.” (Observer) Working to change the narrative for this business.

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