Musicians and the Value of Personal Connections

Jon Eisenberg has a fantastic commentary in MinnPost that is very much worth a read (find it here:  He makes his point eloquently, but I’d like to add something as well.

Jon does an excellent job explaining how that in the wake of the two local orchestra lockouts, about half of Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s musicians have left, as have several key musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra. Sadly, we’ve seen many individuals—including some from the leadership at both orchestras—argue that since finances are in such bad shape, it’s just not possible to keep expensive, veteran players around.  Can’t they just be replaced by younger, unknown musicians at a substantial savings?

My response is: no, cheap replacements actually come at an unexpectedly high price for the organization.

The impact of a general exodus on an ensemble’s artistic quality has been broadly discussed, but I don’t think enough attention has been given to the ramifications of what can happen to an ensemble’s marketing and fundraising prospects as well.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that donors don’t give money to an organization simply because said organization needs money—all things being equal, people donate because an organization has touched them personally.  In today’s hyper-competitive climate, personal connections are critical to a non-profit’s survival; let me explain about just how deeply the musicians factor into this process.

I’ve had a long association with the Minnesota Orchestra that began professionally in 1992.  In that time I had many roles within the organization, but the longest run was being part of the front of house staff (starting as a usher and working my way up through the ranks). In this capacity I came into close contact with the public on a front-line basis, so I’d like to think I know a bit about how patrons view the Orchestra as a whole, and the musicians in particular.

When the public leaves at intermission or at the end of a concert, the very first thing they will say is something to the effect of, “Wasn’t that amazing?” (Or, in honesty, the occasional “Wasn’t that piece awful?”), along with comments is about the soloists if any were there, and the conductor whoever it was.

But immediately thereafter they discuss the musicians. Soloists and conductors are flashy and all, but they come and go; the public knows that the musicians the real face of the performance. Figuratively and literally—they are the ones facing the audience, and the musicians have the audience’s attention. Week in, week out, through all genres, musical style and so forth, the musicians are there. The musicians shape how the audience perceives the music, and even whether or not a piece is worthy of attention. When the performance is done, the lobby buzzes with comments along are on the lines of “Did you see her? I thought she was going to saw that violin in half!” Or, “Did you see him, I thought he was going to chuck the clarinet and just start dancing!”

While this is true for attendees generally, it is particularly the case for our regulars.  Whenever a rotation in the strings occurs, the ushers get asked why their favorite has been moved back—has something happened?! Audience members look for their favorites, and are disappointed if for whatever reason so-and-so is gone that week. For the musicians who do fundraising events, talk backs, hosting, teaching or community outreach, that bond with the public is greater still. There is a sense of ownership, trust, and a connection in the way that is just as important in communicating the meaning of the music as is their virtuoso playing.

Plus, there’s always a discussion about the quality of the performance, which is, of course, directly about the musicians as well. No one ever treats that soaring oboe line, that chilling violin counterpoint as a disembodied sound, the way international critics do in a standard CD review. Audience members know exactly which one of their favorites created that sound. Knowledgeable patrons go further and familiarize themselves with the musicians’ training, and talents—and if they don’t know something, they march right up to the ushers afterwards and ask for details.

Whatever cost savings the management hopes to achieve through the ongoing attrition and departure of musicians, I think the management is incredibly short-sighted to interfere with this connection. The best way to get potential donors to a reception?  Tell them they’ll have exclusive, face-to-face time with a musician.  Want to engage students?  Have a musician start talking.  If you lose these musicians, the loss of these connections will color all subsequent fundraising and marketing projects, and the institutional effort required to build similar, equally strong relationships with their replacements will be Herculean.

Therefore, I don’t think driving away known players and putting in cheap replacements is going to make anyone more likely to buy a ticket, or more open to a making a donation. As I mentioned above, the long-standing mantra about fundraising is that people give you money not because you need it, but because you inspire them.

There are so many other ways to interface with great music already, from simulcasts of the Met at our theaters to downloading a recording from iTunes. And almost all of them are impersonal. What the musicians provide is a way for the community to personally connect with the power of music.  This is of incalculable, long-term value, and I hope the management comes to realize this.



2 thoughts on “Musicians and the Value of Personal Connections

  1. Bruce Coppock is on record saying that the SPCO shouldn’t be in the concert business but rather the audience-growth business (so that they become donors). Well, this isn’t going to help.


  2. Pingback: The Triple Bottom Line—A New Business Model for the Orchestra | Mask of the Flower Prince

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