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Robert Niles

Top signs you should not be on an orchestra's board of directors

September 18, 2013 at 7:50 PM

Put the successes of the Los Angeles Philharmonic next to the failures of the Minnesota Orchestra, and one thing seems clear: a successful orchestra requires a board with the right attitude. That is, thoughtful and resourceful people who understand — and love — the art of symphonic music.

Unfortunately, people sometimes join an orchestra board for the wrong reasons, and the result can be nothing less than the death of your local orchestra. Thus, we've compiled a list. We'd laugh, if we could stop crying:

Signs you should NOT be on an orchestra board of directors

You get more excited for the Festival of Homes, Debutante Ball, or other big fundraising events, than you do for orchestra performances.

You think the primary purpose of education programs is to leverage grant money to pay for orchestra staff.

You think that the orchestra staff should be paid more than the musicians, since they're the ones doing the full time work.

You don't see playing music as a "real" job, so orchestra members should be happy to be paid anything at all.

You think the musicians should feel grateful for the opportunity to be associated with you and your fellow board members.

You've suggested that the orchestra save money by cutting the number of string players and playing pieces that require only a small orchestra.

You think it's more important that the conductor work well with you and the rest of the board than with the musicians. After all he works for you, not them.

You want to segregate your audience by scheduling separate performances for young or ethnic audiences, not for outreach, but so they don't show up when you and your friends are attending.

You listen to and support classical music because you believe that reflects well on you, not because you like it.

You think the most important thing you to secure your orchestra's future is to break the local musicians' union.


Update: And you've got some good ones! Here are a few additions to the list, inspired by comments below.

You'd rather find musicians through Craigslist than International Musician.

You think that a lockout or a strike won't be devastating, and could be a good thing for an orchestra.

You think that it's your orchestra, instead of the community's.

You believe that classical music is dying, and that there's nothing you can do about that, so why bother?

From Emily Hogstad
Posted on September 18, 2013 at 9:37 PM
Ooo, fun game! Here are some ideas, which of course are NOT informed by my personal experience as a patron in Minneapolis...

You believe classical music is dying.

You're super-excited to get rid of the conductor that brought your orchestra to international prominence because he costs too much.

You give only .015% of your income to the orchestra but you still get a leadership position on the board.

You don't understand why Michael Henson would mislead you.

You don't realize the mission statement of your orchestra has been changed to not include the word "orchestra."

You feel your involvement volunteering with the orchestra marks you as a high security risk, so you hire a bodyguard to protect you.

You think blogs are senseless and must be ignored.

You think it's somehow within your rights to buy up domain names "" and ""

You don't know how to buy your domain name purchase through a third party.

You hire security guards to keep musicians from associating with board members and big donors at the 2012 Symphony Ball fundraiser.

You hold your Symphony Ball 2013 in your new $50 million lobby which you renovated with state money you received because you said your financial future was bright. The lobby is made entirely of glass, but you are renting hedges and shrubbery and darkening windows so donors don't need to see protesters outside.

You think it's a great idea to spend roughly $30,000 a pop for full-page ads in the Minneapolis Star Tribune to spread lies at the expense of your musicians and patrons.

You dismiss the orchestra's largest donor and the mayor of the city your orchestra is located in.

You're fine with the entire orchestra finding jobs elsewhere.


From Brian Kelly
Posted on September 19, 2013 at 4:11 AM
Are things really that bad ? How do people get appointed to the board of directors ie. who appoints them ?
From John Rokos
Posted on September 19, 2013 at 11:43 AM
You're getting almost like an Old Testament prophet! Will the people who shouldn't be on a board understand what you're saying, or if they do, take any notice?
From Anne Horvath
Posted on September 19, 2013 at 1:00 PM
Clutch My Pearls, Robert. How about:

After locking out *your* musicians, *your* orchestra's CEO (unsuccessfully) posts help-wanted ads for replacement musicians on Craiglist.

From Julie Slama
Posted on September 19, 2013 at 2:37 PM
Well said, Robert. Board members have a public trust, not a personal chamber orchestra. That went out with pink wigs. When financial difficulties arise, the proper attitude should be, "Not on MY watch!"
From Emily Hogstad
Posted on September 19, 2013 at 3:06 PM
"Are things really that bad ?"


"How do people get appointed to the board of directors ie. who appoints them ?"

Other board members. There's zero public accountability, at least in Minnesota.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on September 19, 2013 at 5:45 PM
I think that sometimes even well-meaning people, board members or not, get infected with the above attitudes. For example, no board member or administrator (or musician!) would want to admit that they apply for education grants just to pay staff, and that their organization has no actual vision or for an education program. But it happens all the time.

I think it's important to examine these attitudes and the problems they can cause.

From Rick Lohmann
Posted on September 20, 2013 at 3:23 AM
Laurie, everyone knows that you don't get education grants to pay staff and overhead expenses. You get education grants so that you can get more education grants so that you can get more education grants so that you can get more education grants so that you can get more education grants. It matters not that the purpose of the fifth education grant diverts focus from the purpose of the first, or that there is no overarching philosophy to the program, or that the average tenure of the staff Education co-ordinator is 2 years because it is so poorly paid, or that the attention span of the average board education committee member resembles that of a goldfish. I'll amend that to be nice: A well-meaning goldfish. My opinions have been colored by my experience with a certain orchestra we both have some experience with ;-). ("We reached 10,000 children last year! With what, you ask? Who cares? We reached 10,000 children!") Cheers!
From Laurie Niles
Posted on September 20, 2013 at 4:21 PM
Rick, I ran into the same kind of attitude when teaching a public school program. I was trying to teach the kids to play, in a very rudimentary way, and arguing that perhaps they should have the opportunity to continue to play. If you start them at first grade, you really need some kind of program that continues to offer progress through the rest of their schooling. "Laurie, we aren't trying to make violinists out of them," the principal said. Believe me, nor was I, that is a whole other ball of wax and a whole other level of devotion! "If they got exposure to it, that's what's important."

Yet this glancing-blow kind of "exposure" education gives them only frustration. Once the kids buy in, they want to learn and get good at it, not just dabble. There are a hundred levels beyond what they are doing, and many people don't understand that.

"Exposure" is just not the same as an educational program. You wouldn't read one book to a child and then say, "We gave him exposure to reading!" and be satisfied that his education was fully served! No, people don't have to take violin lessons. But musical literacy would certainly boost our collective brain cells and ability to function in community with one another. And it's going to take more than these piecemeal efforts funded by piecemeal grants.

From Michael Arnold Mages
Posted on September 23, 2013 at 4:39 PM
> "Laurie, we aren't trying to make violinists out of them," the principal said.

The answer to that is, "No we aren't. We are trying to make more complete human beings who are interested in the world around them. We are trying to make citizens who have an appreciation for beauty, craftsmanship and passion."

From Jeff Nelson
Posted on September 23, 2013 at 7:05 PM
I have a couple more reasons, which I have witnessed personally.

"My (fill in appropriate relative's name) is truly gifted,(not) and he/she is going to play in that orchestra and get paid!

The said board member is married to a former musician (or is one themselves) who went to school with one or more members of the orchestra, and has plenty of scores left to settle. Let the bloodbath begin!

And my personal favorite, the board chair is the parent of someone truly gifted. Every suggestion is met with a flying rage because said chair thinks it is all an attempt to thwart their vision/career of their precious charge. Yikes!

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