I’m lucky enough to be playing with some wonderful orchestras. Why is this lucky? Great players, dedicated conductors. Fun repertoire in beautiful Chicago venues, with very talented soloists. We’re paid well and treated well. Playing in a professional orchestra is one of the things that my whole musical training has prepared me for!

But after years of working intensively with my quartet … well … I’ve been spoiled. I’m often reminded me of the fact that orchestras simply aren’t democratic workplaces.

Turns out I’m not the only person who’s noticed this.

  • The Mellon Foundation issued this report in 1998 about major issues facing American orchestras. The “role of musicians” was identified as one of those issues. This quote says a lot:

Much of what is inexplicable to observers of professional orchestras can be explained by stress caused by chronic lack of control and musicians’ attempts to deal with it. Musicians’ first line of defense is the classic tactic of avoidance. It is no accident that…the collective bargaining agreements under which orchestras labor spell out in exquisite detail the limits of a conductor’s authority over the musicians. Such agreements attempt to limit the amount of time over which musicians have no control, as well as to express their need to control at least something about the workplace. (from “Why They’re Not Smiling: Stress and Discontent in the Orchestral Workplace, by Seymour and Robert Levine)

  • Remember the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra? Turns out their business and organizational model is so revolutionary that someone wrote a book so that corporations could learn from them. And they’ve actually trademarked the “Orpheus Process” and shared it with other orchestras. The first principle of the group? “Put power in the hands of the people doing the work.” (Cool video of Orpheus at work here.

So who wants to co-found a democratically run orchestra with me? You know, in our spare time.