Back in October 2005 I wrote the following: “We still have enemies . . . If you have had a sense that there has been progress, I believe you are right. There are some enlightened managers in the field, but very few. We are still beset by managers that have very little financial knowledge and some education in the arts, but few have the imagination or artistic understanding to make the correct decisions for the future of our profession.” I went on to talk about the language barrier between the financial/managerial/business side of symphony institutions and the artistic/preparation/performing side. When we talk to each other, each side has different assumptions of what is being said. When musicians say, “We want to be the best of the best,” we mean that we want the orchestra to have the finest performers available. To us this means paying whatever it takes to obtain new players and to keep the players we already have. I believe that managers instead ask how to achieve the most excellence for the least amount. Neither position is incorrect at face value. Getting to an agreement that fully services both sides, however, seems to re-create the war between the Hatfields and the McCoys.
How can we break this continual logjam? I believe the only way is through communication. (Where have we heard that before?) Over and over again, everyone, including wives and little children, ask, “Can’t you just get along, be nice, be reasonable, and come to an understanding?” How many times have negotiating committees been asked this question? It never seems to work. Why?
Primarily it may be because both parties don’t come to the table ready to listen without an agenda. In some of the seminars that have been offered, the technique is called “active listening.” During heated negotiations, some ideas are rejected even before the other side has completed their explanation. That is a different kind of active. It is not listening. Of course, if both sides don’t listen, then everything is a battle. But for argument’s sake, let’s assume that each side does actively listen. What’s the next step? Here is where, I believe, the vortex of Sturm und Drang lives and devours everyone not willing to learn and to endure the tedium that is sometimes a product of active listening.
When we speak, every image created in our story is replayed in the mind of the listener in the listeners’ own language. These images and intellectual understanding reflect the assumptions we carry with us everyday. For an illustration, think about a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim talking about religion, faith, prayer, food, and ultimate sacrifice. Each hears the other in the tongue of his own father. Nothing is ever settled. How to break this circle is the trial we all have to face. We must check out what is being said at every important juncture and discuss the implications of the proposal so that everyone understands exactly what is meant, what is implied, and what outcome is expected. During the entire time of this process, each side must actively listen and trust that the other side is trying to understand and truly wants to “get to yes.”
If just these two techniques, and a great serving of trust, were agreed to at the beginning of talks, I believe that the process would be a little easier.
But what of the way we treat our fellow colleagues? We see management personnel sometimes doing a very poor job, but never do we see the conductor or CEO come to us and complain about the performance of that staff member. Yet after individuals have complained to a music director or management about their colleagues (and in some cases asked that they be dismissed), we believe we can still go into collective bargaining and demand bigger checks and better conditions for everyone. If collective bargaining means anything it means solidarity! We have worked hard, each of us, to win an audition and have a career. We have won because we were a stone wall against the oppressions of egomaniacal conductors who wanted to fire musicians on the spot, without cause or due process. What is different if a musician asks management to go after a musician? We become the egomaniac, the artistic police; and someday each of us will be facing a younger player.
Musicians also need to find a way to talk among ourselves that is not adversarial, but rather instructive and helpful. There is no need to be judgmental, just fair and honest. We need to be able to hear about ourselves fairly and honestly. We cannot stand alone, and 100 musicians can’t have sweetheart deals with management. We work as an ensemble, and we must live as an ensemble. Great ensembles are bonded together, understanding that everyone is in the collective and everyone is in each part; each individual is the most important part.