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First-Year Music Director: Three Lessons Learned (Part One)

This year has been a memorable one for all of us with the onset of COVID-19. The orchestral industry, the arts world, and humanity as a whole have faced unprecedented challenges. No doubt, if you are reading this article, your organization had some plans for the spring of 2020 that were changed in big ways. Here at the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, where I just completed my first year as Music Director, we certainly fall into this category.

I think it to be a very healthy exercise to find time every year to take a step back and to reflect. What were the lessons we’ve learned from the experiences that we've had? If we don’t take the time to do this, we may be missing ways that we can help others, help ourselves, and best contribute to the future of the organizations with which we work. So, I am now going to take a stab at making public the type of writing that I would normally keep to myself. Below is my reflection on the three main lessons that I am going to take from this first year in Wheeling.

Of course, some of these lessons are colored by COVID—but even more important, I think, are the way that these lessons express some deeper truths about leadership as a Music Director. These principles certainly helped us to navigate the pandemic in a way of which I am proud—however, leading well during a time of crisis is easier if we are guided by some of these principles. As each of these points will be lengthy, I’ve chosen to create three separate articles, each focusing on one of the points. Here is the first:

LESSON ONE: Have a Vision—Be Clear—Repeat

Before I got to Wheeling, I outlined some goals for my tenure:

  • Commission many new American works and

  • Conduct cycles of the great masterworks

  • Expand educational initiatives and

  • Better the way we connect to underserved communities

  • Increase ticket sales and

  • Generate more contributed revenue

  • Record an album and

  • Take the orchestra to Carnegie Hall

  • Present the world’s great soloists and

  • Collaborate with young, exciting talent

  • Conduct every Harry Potter film

  • And every Star Wars Film

  • And Home Alone

  • And Moana

  • Rewrite Season 8 of Game of Thrones

Okay, you get my point. Almost any conductor is going to have a set of goals that, in the broadest sense, overlaps with most other conductors. The most important lesson that I found (especially with regard to working with my staff, musicians, and board), was to learn how to make difficult decisions and prioritize. This helps to create an organizational vision.

This doesn’t mean that you will not conduct Brahms—but it won’t serve your orchestra well to say, “we play Brahms’ Fourth incredibly well, we have a focus on young American composers like Caroline Shaw, we are doing a Sibelius cycle, and we pledge to play music by an underrepresented composer on every program.” Maybe you actually DO all of these things, but as leaders, we need to develop a short list of top priorities, tell everyone what they are, and then live them out. I think a good number to aim for here is three.

So, I sat down and really thought through all of the options for what would be authentic priorities for me before I applied to the job. Here is where I ended up:

  • The Wheeling Symphony is going to focus on American music, mostly by living composers.

  • The Wheeling Symphony is going to experiment in unexpected ways with concert format, both inside and outside of our hall.

  • The Wheeling Symphony is going to involve more fully our players in artistic planning and in marketing efforts.

Each of these resonated with who I am as an artist. Each of them was something that I focused on during my interview process so that the board and staff knew that these were in alignment with the vision I was expressing ahead of inhabiting the job. Each of these highlights something unique about the WSO. Finally, each of them is easily digestible as a concept by all members of our community—from our most ardent supporters, to people that have never been to our hall. Let’s go through these three points:

The Wheeling Symphony is going to focus on American music, mostly by living composers.

To the first point. I am a young, American music director and I love finding ways to present the music of other young artists, especially Americans. So this goal made sense. How do we embody this? Through the programming.

In our next season (the first that I will have fully programmed), our orchestra will present 41 works. 22 of these pieces are by Americans; 13 by living composers; eight by black composers; and five by female composers. This is our attempt to live out this goal and to present voices that need to be heard.

The Wheeling Symphony is going to experiment in unexpected ways with concert format, both inside and outside of our hall.

For the second goal, I considered the past ten years of my career and what I had loved most about them. While in Washington DC I was on the founding team of projects like Go-Go Symphony (combining orchestra, Go-Go band, street dancers, video projection, etc.), Seamless Symphony (commissioning new works to create seamless segues between movements of major symphonies), Gourmet Symphony (combining culinary and musical experiences), and others of this type. As you can see, I love naming projects ________ Symphony. I’ll come up with better ideas soon...

Yes, I did other, more traditional work—but I felt that this is what set me apart. I like looking at things and imagining how we can make them better in a million tiny ways. For example, at Gourmet Symphony, not only did we serve food and drink, but we also:

  • Placed the orchestra in the middle of the room and sat the audience 360 degrees around the ensemble.

  • In between pieces, the members of the orchestra would sit at tables with our patrons and socialize.

  • We would only program about 45 minutes of music for a 2.5-hour concert, giving ample time for socializing amongst guests.

  • We encouraged the use of phones/social media at all times.

  • We featured collaborations with local chefs and venues. Our orchestra never performed in the same space twice. DC was a character in our story.

Not everything that I did at Gourmet Symphony worked perfectly, nor would it work in every situation. However, we tried lots of things! As a result, I had tangible results and lessons learned that I could bring to a more established organization. At Wheeling, we’re also doing a few things to shake up the concert format:

  • At every masterworks we present a “surprise” element that is not advertised in advance. At one concert we commissioned tango dancers and lighting design to accompany Michael Daugherty’s Red Cape Tango, for example. If we had told the audience this was coming, maybe this idea doesn’t blow anyone’s mind. Instead, imagine people settling in for our season-opening concert when all of a sudden, the lights go out and the stage is enveloped in dynamic color while a spotlight highlights two tango dancers in the back of the hall. Because people didn’t know this was coming, they talked about it afterwards and our concerts became “can’t miss events” where something special would happen (you just didn’t know what). I didn’t invent this type of thinking (see: Fischer, Ivan), but it created a big buzz here because no one had ever seen anything like it in Wheeling.

  • The next concert, fifty people were randomly selected to sit on-stage behind the orchestra. It cost us nothing and people loved it. If folks had known in advance that they were doing this or if we had charged a premium for those tickets, it would have worked but had little lasting impact. Instead, a first-time concert-goer to whom I spoke said he would never miss another concert. Another result was that the timpani player from the Wheeling Symphony Youth Orchestra got to sit next to the timpanist during our show and ask him questions between pieces. These memories last.

  • For the first show of the 2020-21 season, we were going to present our first ever “hybrid” show. This was a departure from our normal Masterworks or Pops series. This show was going to be a bit shorter than normal, about 70 minutes, with no intermission. It was going to feature both pops music and serious but fun classical (Firebird, for example) and feature Time for 3, who appeal to a wide audience and who live happily in both the pop and classical world.

  • COVID-19 forced us to adapt to smaller concerts. So instead of doing chamber-music only, well—here comes a chance to use the lessons that I had learned at Gourmet Symphony: Six-foot tables enforce social distancing and I am a specialist in music written for smaller ensembles. This fall, while many orchestras have shut their doors, we are able to present concerts and provide work for our musicians. And who knows, maybe this becomes part of what we do in a regular season.

  • We are creating a program called WSO Connects where we partner with other local arts organizations to present collaborative concerts outside of our main theater.

The important lesson here is that I used my past experience to guide the creation of unique concert formats for Wheeling. While we do embrace the non-traditional elements, I am most proud of the fact that we never strayed from our main mission of providing the highest quality musical experiences for our audiences and musicians.

The Wheeling Symphony is going to involve more fully our players in artistic planning and in marketing efforts.

I am fortunate in Wheeling to have a visionary colleague in charge of marketing. He and I are committed to featuring our musicians in a variety of ways that some orchestras do not. We are also very lucky at the WSO to have some of the area’s very top musicians in our ranks as most of our musicians also play in the Pittsburgh Ballet and/or Opera. Those other groups are also special, but hey, in Wheeling they finally get to escape the pit!

These musicians are strong players, but even more important, they are deeply committed to the Orchestra. An example of this is that after each concert, we have a free reception that is open to the public and to the musicians. Even though most of our musicians have an hour or more drive home, more than half of the orchestra attends these receptions and meets our audience which creates a wonderful environment.

Seeing this during my audition week was one of the many things that sold me on the WSO! So in order to take advantage of their experience, talent, and ideas, here’s what we are going to do:

  • Next season we have a “players choice” masterworks concert where I programmed the concert using suggestions submitted by the players.

  • Our players are going to speak from the stage and talk about what they love about these pieces.

  • Our marketing and social media will continue to prominently feature the musicians and their stories.

  • We have a WSO-on-the-GO chamber series that is populated completely by our musicians and they choose the repertoire.

  • We have and will continue to present our musicians as concerto soloists. Additionally we will commission projects conceived of by our musicians that also feature them as soloists.

There are more ideas, but those are the key initiatives that I wanted to present here. If we do this well we will empower our musicians to join with our staff and board in promoting our orchestra in a personal way—and artistically, we will be all the better for making use of their expertise.


At the beginning of this article, I talked about having a vision. As you see, I distilled this vision into three main points, then I urged: BE CLEAR and REPEAT.

Your next task is to find a way to articulate that vision clearly and concisely. You may have 15 seconds in the elevator with a potential major donor, 15 minutes at a rotary club meeting, or two hours if you find yourself at a bar with someone who hasn’t been to the orchestra in a while. In each of these settings, your goal needs to be the same—give them a sense of your vision that they can remember so that they can market for you in their own network.

Repeat your goals often and you will certainly find people to believe in them and help you to achieve them.


That is my first big lesson learned from this year at Wheeling. In my next article, I’ll dive in deeply to my second lesson: Have a Code and Let it Guide You.


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