top of page

Lessons from Year One as MD: Part 2 - The Code

Lesson 2: Have a Code and Let it Guide You

1. Introduction

In part one of this exploration, I laid out the first of three important lessons that I learned during my first year as Music Director of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra. The first was “Have a Vision—Be Clear—Repeat.” In that article, linked here, we talked about the importance of prioritizing our goals so that we can clearly identify them to ourselves, to our organization, and to our audiences. Let us now explore the second big lesson: Having a Code.


A New Reality

One of the many political shifts that occur when one first becomes a professional Music Director is that we may find ourselves moving from a relatively low position on the authority chain (perhaps as the assistant at a major orchestra) to the person who makes very difficult and impactful final decisions.

Often these decisions lie in areas that we have not confronted before: personnel matters, collective bargaining, million-dollar budgets, negotiation with guest artists, large-scale commissioning, internal staffing, auditions, tenure, and a host of others. These are not areas for which most school programs prepare us—and at a typical small- or medium-sized orchestra, there may not be another staff member who has dealt with these decisions previously (from an artistic perspective).

So, when I began my tenure here at the WSO, I quickly realized the potential to become overwhelmed by these new considerations. In order to succeed, I had to let go of one approach, and adopt another.


Letting Go

I am a social being. It is one of the main reasons that I shifted my aspiration from being a performer on clarinet to becoming a conductor. I love working with people, being part of a team, and helping to decide organizational direction.

As younger conductors seeking to create a network and to succeed in our jobs, we are driven to be “like-able.” As we assist established conductors, we are asked to provide support of all types and to say “yes” to any requests. When we deal with artistic administrators, we aim to craft projects that fit the exact specifications handed to us. And because so many opportunities are a result of networking, we are trained to be pleasers.

Once we become Music Directors, however, we owe a tremendous obligation to our orchestras. Therefore, the betterment of the organization must be our primary consideration, over any personal benefit, within our decision-making matrix. This means that we will be making decisions that will potentially come as bad news to our staff, our board, our players, and other colleagues. This is to be expected, but it is also difficult. The only way that I managed to handle this shift was by accepting this reality, letting go of my former approach, and moving ahead to part two of this process.


II. Formulating and Adopting a Code

When you assume leadership of an orchestra, authenticity will certainly be key. That said, I argue that you must then use your understanding of self to decide what type of leadership style you want to implement. Pick a style that feels true to yourself as a person but, in addition, that you sense your organization needs at this time. A good exercise is to list virtues and priorities in which you believe. Here is how such a list might look for me (in no particular order).

I am a leader who cares about:

  • Empathy

  • Wisdom

  • Vision

  • Innovation

  • Open-mindedness

  • Creativity

  • Excellence

  • Reliability

  • Consistency

  • Compassion

  • Strength

  • Flexibility

  • Collegiality

  • Accountability

Now, yes, those are all buzzwords, but they become “buzzy” for a reason. They are traits that all of us possess in some measure, but among which we also need to create a priority order for ourselves. In some ways, trying to display all of these traits equally will lead to confusion of action.

So, let’s pick the five most important elements of our leadership style and rank them. Here is how I might make my own list.

I am a leader whose priorities are:

  • Empathy

  • Vision

  • Creativity

  • Excellence

  • Reliability

That was really hard for me to do! You’ll see, for example, that I decided to eliminate “flexibility,” but I kept “reliability.” I retained “empathy” and omitted “strength.” Try this for yourself, and then let’s visit a scenario and see our code in action.


III. A Model Scenario

Scenario: You are the Music Director, and a guest conductor is visiting for a week of performances. You are not in town to observe this work. On Thursday evening, your Executive Director calls and says, “We may have a problem. At rehearsal this morning, the guest conductor made a very negative comment about the playing of the Principal Kazoo. The player called me and said that he/she refuses to play at the concerts.” *

* Please note: I am using a hypothetical to illustrate my process, as I would not want to present a situation that I have actually faced. These types of sensitive situations do arise, so even if your orchestra does not have a kazoo section, please keep reading.

Because this issue involves a player and a guest conductor, I must get involved, since those components are artistic. There is also an element of personnel management here, as well as a potential labor issue. So, where do we start? We might be thinking:

“Never before have I faced a situation of this type. I never read a book about how to handle this situation, and I certainly never confronted this type of issue in my master’s program.”

Since we may now face situations of this type on a regular basis, we must develop a personal process. Let’s use our code.


IV. Applying Our Code

What actions can we now consider in response to our hypothetical situation? If we want to be a “strong” leader, we might simply say, “Decisions about guest conductors are made by the Music Director. Thank you, however, for letting me know your concerns.”

Instead of “strong,” however, the style I created in the above exercise revolves around “empathy,” “excellence,” and “reliability.” If I am going to embody those traits, here is the pathway I might choose:

1. In order to be empathetic, I require a complete understanding of what occurred. I may request a written account of the incident from the kazoo player as well as from the Personnel Manager (if he/she were present at the rehearsal).

2. During this exploration of the incident, it would be critical to ascertain whether the comments were exclusively about the musician’s playing or if there were other, extra-musical elements involved.

3. My reaction would certainly be different depending on whether the comments were personally driven or simply a sharply delivered musical criticism. If a priority for our organization is indeed “excellence,” then players may need to accept criticism during rehearsal—but we need to ensure that feedback of this type is always delivered with respect, by us or by guest conductors.

4. If the player truly intends not to participate in the concerts, then we would need to instruct the Personnel Manager to find a substitute and consult the collective bargaining agreement to see if it offers language regarding pay and service obligation that governs this type of situation. Usually, the symphony legal counsel and ED would help with this work, but, as MD, we also need an intimate, working knowledge of the agreement.

5. Next, resolving the question in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement is of vital importance. Doing so will reinforce our trait of “reliability.” The rules are there to help both parties in situations of this type. Perhaps the player is allowed to skip the performances, but payment is withheld. Perhaps we are able to encourage the player to continue with the week but also assure him/her that we will address the issue of how we solicit feedback on guest conductors going forward.

6. Now, a final, larger question needs to be asked in order to complete the process with “empathy”: Why did the incident cause such a large issue? Perhaps the players do not feel that they are able to provide honest feedback about guest conductors because there is not a mechanism in place to do so. Perhaps reactions during a guest-conductor week may be tempered if the players know that there is a true feedback loop.

Many regional orchestras, which may not have frequent guest conductors, do not have conductor surveys. So, if we want to be empathetic leaders, we may consider implementing a survey system. In that way, the Music Director will be made aware of the players’ feelings about guest conductors, which can help to shape future decisions.

An important disclaimer: if in the process of items 1-3 it is determined that the guest conductor said something that was unacceptable and that he/she needs to be replaced, then we would move in that direction immediately.


V. Conclusion

The situation described above is one that we may never face, but I believe that going through this process as an exercise is important. Doing so will help us to define, for ourselves, our leadership style. Additionally, working through difficult situations, even ones we may never face, will help us to prepare for the unknown. Let us be thoughtful about our unique personal code, be strong enough to follow it, and be great leaders at our institutions!


Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page