Leaving the California Symphony

Time to Create Change on a Bigger Level

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Speaking at Adobe’s Magento Imagine Conference, May 2019. As a person on a mission to change the narrative for symphony orchestras, creating change beyond my one organization feels like a good next step. © Adobe

Today I announced that I’ll be leaving the California Symphony at the end of this summer, a move I’ve been thinking about and planning for since last December. Author Dan Pink writes in his book that annual milestones are important reflection points. Looking back over the past five years has illuminated for me that what we have achieved is extraordinary, that I’m eager to help other organizations do the same, and that now is the right time to hand off the California Symphony in a position of strength.

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“This orchestra has exploded in terms of enthusiasm, audience engagement, and ambition.” — San Francisco Classical Voice

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“As orchestras around the country deal with aging audiences and search for ways to stay relevant…the California Symphony has succeeded by taking bold risks without compromising its musical integrity.” — Southwest Airlines Magazine

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“The California Symphony may be the most forward-looking music organization around.” — Mercury News

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Changing the Narrative

Nothing we’ve implemented at the California Symphony is limited to this market or this community. Every one of our evidence-based strategies is replicable: listening to our audiences through user experience research, creating a culture of equity, diversity, and inclusivity, focusing on patron retention and loyalty over the long haul, and using iterative design and data as our guide.

Over the last two years or so, as the California Symphony has seen more and more success and visibility, more and more people and organizations have reached out to me for advice on everything from jobs to strategy to large-scale transformation — and I have tremendously enjoyed each of those conversations and engagements. Working to address the issues and challenges of our industry and make an impact beyond my one organization has lifted me out of the weeds of the day-to-day, energized me, and filled me up.

Helping others find their own pathways to success by deploying these revenue-generating and audience-building strategies is exactly what I will be doing more of as I venture into the next phase of my career as an advisor and consultant to other arts organizations. If you are one of those people who has already contacted me or brought me in, thank you. I have found our time together incredibly valuable as we’ve empowered your in-house teams to do this work.

Courage and Vulnerability

As excited as I am, I’d be lying if I said that change is always comfortable or easy, even for someone who has built her career on it. In an industry that often says the path to career advancement is to play the same role you had before but at a larger organization, I’m trying to rewrite the rules and have an impact one organization. Yeah, that feels a little uncomfortable and scary to say! However, “We fail,” author Brené Brown says in her recent book , “the minute we let someone else define success for us.”

Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston who studies courage and vulnerability, says that in order to have courage, one must be vulnerable. She tells us that that, especially for leaders, vulnerability is very difficult. But it’s also vital.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how orchestras need Brown’s breed of courageous leaders: our challenges are difficult and complex, it never gets cheaper to have 70, 80 or 90 people on stage performing at the highest levels, philanthropic trends have evolved, relationships with musicians are often fragile, and audiences (and how to market to them) have changed as well. These challenges call for bold leadership, not reactionary or business-as-usual type solutions.

So even if this move into a new career space feels a little scary, what I’m trying to say is that now won’t be the last time I feel this way if I’m going to continue tackling the big issues bravely and boldly. Practicing vulnerability is a good skill to build, I think, even if it seems counterintuitive for a leader.

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“Our ability to be daring leaders will never be greater than our capacity for vulnerability.” — Brené Brown

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One Day

I intend to return to running an orchestra one day.

One day an enterprising board will want to create a customer-first company culture to generate the revenue it needs to fund this art and to grow loyal, younger, and far more diverse audiences. And they will want to double down on using data to inform how it gets there, instead of subjective opinion or “we’ve always done it this way.”

One day a players committee will say that being an incredibly talented musician isn’t the only thing required to advance our organizations. That creating an inclusive environment in our concert halls starts with creating an inclusive environment on stage. That we absolutely can be artistically excellent at the highest levels and achieve these other things, too. That, in fact, achieving an inclusive environment on stage will help us become more artistically excellent.

When will this day come? When we all have the courage to be vulnerable.

And that could be soon:

Everywhere I go, all over the country, I have amazing one-on-one conversations about the future of orchestral music with board members and musicians. There is palpable momentum for positive change. One day, the values animating these conversations will align throughout an organization, which will pave the way for the industry’s future. Like the California Symphony, that orchestra will explode with enthusiasm, audience engagement, and ambition. That orchestra will succeed by taking bold risks without compromising its musical integrity. That orchestra will definitely be the most forward-looking music organization around. That orchestra will change the narrative in the biggest way.

And, of course, why stop at just one?


Meanwhile, there’s much we can do together right now. The lessons I’ve learned at the California Symphony (and Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, and the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival before that) can absolutely be shared and adapted to meet specific needs. So I’ve taken the leap of making myself available to partner with you. Like I said, having an impact beyond my home base is what this next chapter is about.

Also, I will keep writing this blog to keep sharing more research, stories, and ideas. I hope some of your organizations become the successful case studies I get to write about next.

Time to get to work.

About the Author

Wall Street JournalSan JoseMercury News

Working to change the narrative for symphony orchestras.

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