Have you ever noticed how defensive we can become about our widget? We are so focused on our view of the world (our widget) that it becomes easy to assume that the piece of pie we see is the whole picture. This concept is never clearer to me than in my work in non-profit organizations. Being involved with a number of such entities, it strikes me that figuring out how the parts of the whole fit together is the biggest hurdle we face. One intriguing aspect of most non-profits is that people from all walks of life are involved in every level of the organization. In my particular case, a symphony orchestra, we have the artists themselves, a staff and a board of volunteers. Each has an independent and crucial part to play in the whole. As Music Director, my job is to straddle all three perspectives and create balance.
For instance, musicians generally just want to play concerts. Sounds simple, but in actual fact it’s quite multi-faceted. We prefer to play pieces that challenge and engage us, constantly striving to create a deeper understanding of the art form. Simultaneously we demand a full house, plenty of concerts, a good salary and all of the backstage amenities required to perform at our peak. On the surface, all of these things are reasonable.
Those most affected by repertoire choices (after the audience of course) are the marketing and development folks. How do they inspire people to donate to our cause? How do they sell our “product”? We, the artists, tend to have a slight allergy to this second question, as our art form is reduced to a word that could just as easily describe a screw driver, or dish-washing liquid! However, the honest truth is that from their perspective we are a product and an experience. Some of our products/experiences are more sellable than others. A balance has to be struck to keep people coming through the doors.
Thirdly, we have finance. I am in awe of people who understand liabilities, assets, and deferred income. It’s impressive. Because they are so close to where the rubber meets the road, they are keenly aware when applying the brakes is needed to stop a head on collision with debt or worse, a complete financial meltdown. Their lens sees everything from the vantage point of the “bottom line.” Many an artist has been undone by the dreaded bottom line!
Each of these areas is represented on the administrative staff by paid professionals. Simultaneously, a group of dedicated volunteers choose to be on the board of directors because of their love of the art form, and their particular expertise in any of the above listed areas. These volunteers take time out of their busy lives once or twice a month, or more, to oversee the workings of the organization and make sure that everyone is on their game. While usually not active in the work itself (this is how it’s “supposed” to be, anyway), they are ultimately responsible to the patrons and creditors of the organization. Each person has something to lose, and faces that challenge in a different way.
In the middle of all of these factions is the music director. We strive each day to complete the picture of all these moving parts, prioritize them, and ultimately make decisions or recommendations as to the best direction forward. We are constantly juggling of all of those widgets to make the whole. This balancing act can be fraught with peril. Creating an imbalance in one direction or the other can topple the entire organization. Get the balance right and everyone leaves happy and the organization succeeds. The margin of error from success to failure is surprisingly thin and fragile, yet for the sake of music we constantly teeter. We constantly seek out the broadest view possible from which a decision can be made to achieve our goals. It is messy and oddly invigorating. When it succeeds it is amazing, and when it fails it is exhausting. No matter what the outcome, the same truth becomes evident. Step one is to understand how our widget fits into the whole. When we start there, we then open the door to a clarity that allows us to succeed and thrive. I wouldn’t trade my position for anything, as I reach towards an understanding of the broader picture and engage in one of the most wonderful arts forms ever created – music!
From Robert Franz’s blog Building Bridges with Music. CLICK HERE to read more of his posts.