Edward Klorman on Brahms’ Clarinet Sonatas

The following post is by Edward Klorman.

The two sonatas of Brahms’s op. 120 enjoy a central position in the viola repertoire. As these two pieces were originally conceived for clarinet—and later transcribed for viola—every violist must come to terms with the differences between the two versions and make his or her own decisions about which text to follow in performance.

To that end, I wish to recommend an excellent article by the American/German violist James Creitz entitled The Brahms Sonatas, Op. 120 for Viola and Their Textual Challenges. Creitz’s article provides a detailed account of the circumstances that led to the creation of the published viola version, which Brahms created at Simrock’s urging in accordance with the longstanding tradition of issuing clarinet works in alternate versions for violin or viola. [If you haven’t seen the Creitz article, I recommend you read it now, before finishing this blog post.]

That the viola version was created for an amateur market may explain some of the choices Brahms made particularly with respect to register, and may invite some modern violists to consider restoring the original clarinet versions. As Creitz notes, the considerable haste with which Brahms prepared the viola version is evident from the original manuscript of the viola part, written out by copyist William Kupfer, on which Brahms quickly wrote out the minor corrections and alterations that now appear in Urtext editions of the viola version. This manuscript, which is in the collection of the Brahms Archive in Hamburg, can be viewed at this link Brahms op 120 viola part (Brahms Archiv), and is worth serious study by all violists.

But while violists continue to fiercely debate which version is “best” or most “authentic,” it’s likely Brahms’s wouldn’t have taken sides in this conflict; he more likely would have encouraged players to find their own way. This is borne out in a number of anecdotes recounted in the volume Performing Brahms: Early Evidence of Performance Style, edited by Bernard D. Sherman and Michael Musgrave. I’ll quote just two examples:

* When the violist Alwin von Beckerath wrote to Brahms to ask the proper metronome marking for the finale to his Second String Quartet (and to settle a dispute with Becherath’s first violinist), Brahms’s provided this sarcastic reply: “In your case … I can quite easily start you on a subscription for metronome markings You pay me a tidy sum and each week I deliver to you—different numbers; for with normal people, they cannot remain valid for more than a week! Incidentally, you are right, and the first violin as well!” (letter to Alwin von Beckerath, January 1884, quoted in Performing Brahms, 21).

* Shortly before the premiere of his Third Quartet, Brahms wrote the following to Joseph Joachim: “In the difficult passages, particularly in the first movement, would you alter a few notes for me? To me, fingerings [written in the players’ parts] are always just evidence that something is rotten in the violin scoring. But a few open strings here and there, they delight my eye and calm my spirit” (letter to Joseph Joachim, 18 October 1876, quoted in Performing Brahms, 26).

While I wouldn’t encourage anyone to “alter a few notes” in Brahms’s scores today, this latter anecdote does reveal his deep concern that his music be idiomatic and playable, a consideration that surely figured into his arrangement of the op. 120 sonatas for domestic use by amateur violists. In the former story, Brahms’s refusal to provide a metronome marking—a common thread throughout his correspondence—betrays his value on a certain flexibility, freedom, and personal touch in performance over a doggedly literal adherence to a single “correct” performance.

Fanny Davies wrote that Brahms told performers “Do it how you like, but do it beautifully” (“Machen Sie es wie Sie wollen, machen Sie es nur schön”; quoted in Performing Brahms, 176). May this wise words continue to inspire beautiful performances of Brahms’s music for centuries to come!

Learning Difficult Repertoire by Molly Carr

The following post is by Molly Carr.

1) To SIMPLIFY everything to the point where all elements are guaranteed to work every time.
2) To MAKE DECISIONS about everything possible, so nothing is left to “chance” or “hope” – and to discover what to think about at every moment, so your brain is allowed NO room to panic
3) ACT LIKE AN ATHLETE – use your time in the practice room for finding how to accomplish perfection with the LEAST amount of work possible (AKA… eliminate anything unnecessary in your body motions for complete body efficiency and relaxed coordination).  And doing this by using your brain to teach your body the motions one step at a time. If the bite you took is too big to digest, break it into smaller portions that you can understand and hold on to permanently.

Breaking it down to the very basics – THREE LARGE PLANES OF MOTION
A. How do you make sound? Moving your bow horizontally. (so eliminate any extra motions besides the necessary basic motion of back and forth)
B. How do you make pitch? Dropping your fingers in specific “notches” on the fingerboard. Each note has an exact location, and your arm moves up and down the fingerboard dropping fingers into these exactly located notches. Think type-writer motion to, again, eliminate any extraneous motions as you move up and down the fingerboard in a straight line.
C. 7 basic planes of balance. Four strings, with an additional three options of double-stop balance between strings.

-intonation (where is the “exact location” of each note?/how will you get there?)
-left hand balance
-shifts (old bow? new bow? old finger? new finger? new plane[string]?)
-amount of bow needed for these shifts/needed for phrasing/needed for dynamics/etc
-closeness of bow to bridge (quality of sound?/shifts?/higher positions of left hand on fingerboard?/phrasing – tension, release)
-balance of both hands on 7 planes (where do I change planes?)

A. intonation ONLY
– practice with NO TEMPO
– practice with NO ATTENTION TO BOW
– don’t play a single note unless you KNOW it will be in the right place before you play it
B. Incorporating bow decisions
– exact amounts (from all your decisions in #2)
– exact balance planes/where you change between the 7 planes
-all still with NO TEMPO – only as fast as your brain can digest all three of the large planes of motion
-7x in a row without missing anything
C. incorporating rhythm.
– with metronome SLOWLY. SLOWLY. SLOWLY.
– speed up in increments, the old traditional way – a few notches on the metronome at a time.
-NEVER faster than you can control everything – you should always feel like everything is still “slow” to you, even in a fast tempo.
-no panicking.
-rely on the beat. It’s your friend. SIT ON IT. Don’t let it push you
– NOTHING CHANGES AS YOU GET FASTER. All of the decisions you made stay put.


Introducing David Lau!


What’s your name?

David Thomas Lau

Where are you from?

I am from Oregon. I grew up on a hazelnut farm surrounded by forests about 40 minutes away from the Pacific ocean. Spent a year living at Interlochen for high School before moving to NYC to study at Juilliard afterwhich I moved to the small Hanseatic town of Lübeck, Germany near Hamburg. Three years ago I moved to Leipzig where I currently reside.

How did you come to the viola?

I had always wanted to play the violin since as long as I can remember, but as my parents had no musical connections and we lived in the middle of nowhere I just had to wait until an oppurtunity presented itself. When I was 11 I learned that the next school district over had a strings program and because our farm had property in both districts I told my parents I was switching schools to learn the violin. On the first day of class we got to try all the different string instruments. After trying bass and the Cello I tried the viola, the teacher told me I had nice sound on it so I took the viola. What really happened was that she needed violas in the orchestra and I pretty much thought it was the same thing.

Are you a Juilliard student?  Were you?  Or do you now work as part of the studio?

I studied at Juilliard with Heidi and Hsin-Yun for my Bachelors 2002-2006.

Tell us about one of your favorite performances?

Last year I played all the Beethoven symphonies over five days in the Musikverein in Vienna with the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Before then I had only played two of them and had never played in Vienna before. It was a great experience.

If you could perform any viola piece, what would it be?

Schnittke Viola Concerto. I love it! Always have always will.

If you could play any non-viola piece, what would it be?

Ravel Tzigane or sing the soprano part in the last movement of Mahler 4.

Who made your viola and how did you get to be the one playing it?

Daniel Mason from Chicago. I got it when I was 14 from the violin shop I worked weekends at in Portland. He said I needed something bigger and it was cheap so I took it. We tweeked it in the shop on weekends and now it sounds fantastic.

Do you have any secret skills?

Getting pretty good these days at the singing saw and overtone singing.

You are forced by the United States Government to not practice for a day.  What do you do with yourself?

Head to Berlin and go dancing

Introducing Vicki Powell!


What’s your name?

My name is Vicki Powell. I also go by Ping (my Chinese name) which when combined with my twin sister’s name, An, is [Ping-An] Peace.

Where are you from?

I was born in Chicago, but grew up in the beautiful city of Madison, WI, the breeding ground of many wonderful violists. There must be something in the water…

How did you come to the viola?

I started playing the violin when I was four years old. I later joined the Eleve Artet string quartet, which consisted of three violinists and one cellist. We took turns playing the viola part for several years, but eventually realized how silly and time-consuming it was to bring three violins and three violas on stage. I volunteered to be the permanent quartet violist, and began studying with Sally Chisholm, violist of the Pro Arte Quartet. I credit my passion for [chamber] music and my entire career as a violist to the ten incredible years I spent with that quartet.

Are you a Juilliard student?  Were you?  Or do you now work as part of the studio?

I was a student at Juilliard from 2010-2012, where I studied with Misha Amory. I am currently living with Molly Carr, and we are embarking on the exciting journey of playing through all of the etude books in our apartment. I suppose that means I am still a student of Juilliard in some capacity.

Tell us about one of your favorite performances?

I probably shouldn’t be saying this on a blog heavily dominated by Juilliard folk, but my most memorable performance was playing Prokofiev Symphony No. 5 with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Otto Werner Mueller. I have so much respect for Maestro Mueller, and he knew exactly how to mold the Curtis Symphony into the exhilarating creature that it is.

If you could perform any viola piece, what would it be?

Schumann’s Marchenbilder was the first piece I ever played for viola, and I will always hold it most dear to my heart. There is something so magnificent about how Schumann was able to capture such fanciful beauty, melancholy, and brilliance in four short movements. The last movement in particular conveys, through sheer simplicity, an unbelievable depth of sadness with a glimmer hope, which never fails to bring a tear to my eye.

If you could play any non-viola piece, what would it be?

I want to play Mahler 5. Over and over and over and over again.

Who made your viola and how did you get to be the one playing it?

My viola was made by Stefan Valcuha, and was completed in July of 2012. Stefan knew I had been looking for a small but powerful viola, and took inspiration from a Gofriller with those very characteristics. He brought my baby out to me while I was in Marlboro, a week after it was strung up. It was love at first sight, and I will forever be thankful for the Valcuha genius!

Do you have any secret skills?

It’s not such a secret, nor is it a particularly desirable skill, but apparently I’m pretty good at terrifying people with my “Vicki stare”. I apologize to anyone that has crossed paths with my gaze… I’m currently working on the “Vicki smile”

You are forced by the United States Government to not practice for a day.  What do you do with yourself?

Laze about in the sun. And eat good food.

Do you have a website?


Vicki Powell on Preparing Orchestral Excerpts

The following post is by Vicki Powell.

A few things to keep in mind while preparing orchestra excerpts:
1) Articulation is everything. (Hint: always start from the string)
2) Vibrate with the phrase
3) Listen to [entire] recordings (know the context)!!!
4) and play along with them too.
5) The metronome is your best friend. A few notes on using the metronome:
– Slow tempos are always helpful
– Speed up the metronome in increments
– Set the metronome to different subdivisions (i.e. 8ths, 16ths, triplets)
– Displace the metronome tick to land on different subdivisions of the beat
– play with musical intention even when using the metronome (something to keep in mind particularly during slow work)

6) Always be in control of the sound
– Never go beyond what your instrument can handle when approaching fortissimo (the sound should never be scratchy)
– Alternately, pianissimos and pianos should always retain a certain degree of concentration and clarity

7) Are you sure you’re in tune? Practice multiple ways:
– Against open strings
– Find a buddy to play a drone
– Be aware of how close your half steps are

8) Plan your bow!
– Work backwards in order to figure out where you need to be in the bow to successfully execute your desired articulation
– Figure out your phrasing, and assign your bow division accordingly
– Oftentimes it is not necessary to use the entire bow

9) Master your sautillé
10) Excerpts are music too!

So you have been invited to give a master class – by Kathryn Steely

The following post is by Kathryn Steely.

I wrote the following piece waaay back in 1990 as part of a pedagogy independent study project while I was a student in Heidi’s studio at the Cleveland Institute.  Of course, it reflects her wonderful philosophy and these ideas have informed my teaching in group settings ever since. 

Master Class Skills

The purpose of the master class is the giving and receiving of information in an atmosphere that promotes learning rather than emphasizing presentation of works. Both presenter and performer have responsibilities in making the class a time for growth, both for presenter and performer, but for the audience as well.


For the presenter:

  • Always be aware of the staging aspects in order to include the audience in the lesson. This may include some rearranging of music stands, etc. so that the presenter does not find herself with back to the audience.


A presentation should include the following:

  • Give genuine, positive feedback to the performer and show appreciation for the gift that has been given.

  • Pick two to three areas to work on, depending on time available, and present these at the outset.

  • Proceed by isolating the problem, examining why it occurs, and exploring one or two ways to make improvement.


Additional comments for the presenter:

  • Give limited try-out time for suggestions – don’t get hung up on one issue.

  • Make every effort to help the performer understand what you are trying to present.  As a last resort, let them work on the idea on their own time.

  • Consider emphasizing different aspects of playing with different performers. This allows for a variety of topics and presents a well-rounded class. This also serves to keep everyone interested.

  • Don’t fall into the trap of talking too much. Be clear and concise in the presentation of ideas.  Excess verbal activity only serves to “muddy the waters”.

  • Take care to speak slowly and clearly – no mumbling!

  • Bring a healthy amount of energy to the presentation. Show that the give and take of information is immensely important, not only to you but to everyone in the room.


For the performer:

  • As a performer in the master class setting, it is important to consider how you can be helpful in making the teaching setting work. Too often the emphasis is only on how the performer played at the outset, which is NOT the purpose of the class.

  • Be open to considering new ideas presented.  Try them out in earnest.

In summary, a master class should be a positive learning experience for everyone in the room.  Hopefully everyone leaves with a few new ideas to try in their playing and in their teaching!

Studio Thoughts on Walton and Rochberg

Today we have part one of a series in which Molly Carr poses questions to members of the studio about their repertoire.  In this installment, we cover the Walton Concerto and the Rochberg Sonata.


Jessica ChangCaterina Longhi, and Jocelin Pan on the Rochberg Sonata:

1) How long have you played this piece? Have you performed it? Multiple times?

JC: I started working on this piece in October 2012– and at Heidi’s suggestion, began with the second movement. I have performed it once in its entirety, and the 2nd/3rd movements on an ACHT recital.

CL: I’ve been playing this piece since last summer. I learned it initially for my graduate school auditions, and after playing it for 3 auditions I am now about to perform it on my graduation recital.

JP: I worked on the piece for about 10 months. I used it for graduate school auditions and played it on my senior recital.


2) What do you like about the piece?

JC: I admire the piece for its architecture and struggle. The way that thematic fragments link the three movements is fascinating, and there’s hardly ever a sense of complacency or throwing in the towel.

CL: The authenticity of its emotion. Before this piece, Rochberg was a highly-acclaimed serial composer who after the death of his son to brain cancer, started writing tonal music saying that non-tonal music just didn’t express enough for him anymore. I like how the movements sum up the stages of grief, moving from anger and despair to acceptance and reminiscence.

JP: I love the emotional range of the piece. Rochberg repeats material in each movement, but uses it in very contrasting contexts.


3) What do you find is most challenging about the piece – (musically and/or technically and/or other…)?

JC: One technical challenge for me, particularly in the first movement, is the large shifts and leaps– and getting them to both have a good sound and be in tune.

CL: Tapping into a part of me that can only sympathize with the profound pain Rochberg experienced. I struggle to get across the range of emotions that the music portrays.

JP: I find the intervallic leaps in the melodies very difficult to connect technically and musically.  I found it challenging to sing through the line and still create a emotionally intense atmosphere.  Also, those double stops in the first movement are terrifying!


4) Can you describe one way you worked/practiced to overcome this challenge?

JC: I try to sing the interval in my head and work out my bow distribution for the shift before I play the passage.

CL: Breathing and trying to think within the moment, but at the same time constantly going back to what the movement or section represents in Rochberg’s grand scheme.

JP: With the melodies, I practiced shaping them first with only my left hand, focusing on vibrato and connected shifting.  I then did it only with bow speed, pressure, and contact point.


5) How did you prepare in the days leading up to the performance? If you performed the piece multiple times, was this preparation different for each performance? – Explain…

JC: I had two dress rehearsals– one in a classroom and one in the actual performance space. I also worked on the shifts that scared me the most at a slow tempo.

CL: Leading up to playing this piece, I would go thru stages of practicing. First I started with just securing the intervals, especially in the beginning, just because they aren’t comfortable sounding or easy. Then I would practice breathing in preparation of different sections to make sure that in the performance or audition I would make it clear what my intention was.

JP: The main focus for me was to KEEP CALM! In order to do all the large shifts up and down, my left arm had to be relaxed and free.


6) Tell us about the performance experience – would you offer any advice on what one should focus/not focus on while performing the piece?

JC: During the performance, it was most helpful to me to think about the timing of each phrase, rather than all the technical details within each. That is, large scale emotional picture and timing over shifts, double stops, and bow technicalities.

CL: I know that I wished i focused more on my breathing and gestures in the actual performances. I ended up getting caught up in playing the notes and forgetting all the musical gestures I praticed that really make the piece.

JP: I would suggest trusting your ears!  Sing ahead mentally and let all the practicing you have done guide your hands.  Keep your ears open!


7) Any additional thoughts, tips/tricks, or advice for learning/practicing/loving/performing/struggling through/etc this piece that you would like to offer your readers?

JC: It was helpful for me to consider Rochberg’s closeness to our lifetimes. Having gone to school in Philadelphia, where Rochberg taught and lived extensively, I felt drawn into the sonata instantly, and am looking forward to performing it again soon!

CL: Running the whole sonata for stamina a couple times before a performance is important for this sonata I think. It’s not that long, but i requires so much mental and physical effort especially just getting thru the first movement! Also I know this is morbid, but sitting and thinking about WHY Rochberg wrote this piece, and how big the impact his son’s death was on him really puts it in a whole new place in my head at least.


Stephanie Block on the Walton Concerto

1) How long have you played this piece? Have you performed it? Multiple times?

SB: I began this piece at the beginning of my junior year of high school, and competed/auditioned with it several times throughout junior and senior year. This year, I am still playing it for various auditions and recently performed it with my youth orchestra back in Chicago. It certainly has run quite its course in the past few years!


2) What do you like about the piece?

SB: I like that the whole setup of the concerto isn’t always what you would expect. The second movement is the fast and lively one, and the first and third movements have so much changing substance through various tempos. I like how the third movement brings back previous themes and beautifully wraps up the entire concerto.


3) What do you find is most challenging about the piece – (musically and/or technically and/or other…)?

SB: What is challenging about this piece is not hacking through it, making it sound effortless. The first movement is all about gliding through uninterrupted musical lines, the second about keeping control and leading the phrases in the right direction, and the third about tying everything together in a graceful manner, creating a story. My biggest challenge is learning not to rush through the second movement! It’s supposed to sound majestic and joyful, not anxious…


4) Can you describe one way you worked/practiced to overcome this challenge?

SB: LOTS AND LOTS OF SLOW PRACTICE. Everyone says this but doesn’t do it nearly as much as they should. Also, practicing the various runs and octaves and sections is important. The string crossings in the last ten or so lines are tricky, so work through those especially slowly.


5) How did you prepare in the days leading up to the performance? If you performed the piece multiple times, was this preparation different for each performance? – Explain…

SB: My most important performance of the concerto this year was when I performed it with Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra’s Encore Chamber Orchestra. In past experiences with playing it, I sort of knew how to prepare, but most of the time I was just focusing on the first movement, not so much the second and the third. For this particular performance I played the second and third movement and really took into account that I knew this piece pretty much backwards and forwards – there was just small tweaking that needed to be done. I took everything in the smallest sections in order to really nail every passage and every note.


6) Tell us about the performance experience – would you offer any advice on what one should focus/not focus on while performing the piece?

SB: William Walton is a British composer, and it was often in British tradition to mask one’s feelings with a layer of dignity. Walton’s music is not brash or uneasy, its emotion takes more time to figure out. Playing a concerto like this requires grace, but visible passion. Be sure to balance both. Also, focus on the musical lines of almost any long phrase – it’s sure to lead into another very important part of the musical story.


7) Any additional thoughts, tips/tricks, or advice for learning/practicing/loving/performing/struggling through/etc this piece that you would like to offer your readers?

SB: A concerto like this can take time to really understand and play like a true musician, even if it isn’t as technically difficult as Bartok or Hindemith concertos. Do research on Walton and learn about him! It will help create the mood of this piece. Never let anxiety, fear, or anger come across in this piece, because that’s not the right feeling you want to get.

Heidi Castleman on Body Balance


* The universe is dynamic.     (cf. Static = dead)

* Balance is everything.

* Flexible but not limp.

* Rhythm is the way musical energy moves


I. Skeleton

Using the ground as support, stack the following in a column above the arches, relaxing all joints: ankles, knees, hips, rib cage, shoulders, head.

Collarbone and shoulder blades are movable (across rib cage); therefore, arms hang.

An aligned, balanced posture is easier for some body types than for others. Physical fitness always helps. Finding a good stance is as important as finding an instrument that fits you and is responsive. Consider spacing of feet. (Possibly compare to playing kneeling sitting on heels.)


II. Breathing

Good posture/ Relax abdomen

Inhale through nose/Diaphragm expands (rolls down), filling lungs

Fill lungs to full capacity/ Notice how collarbone shelf opens, neck relaxes and head joint is released/ Filling left lung is particularly important.


Introducing Kathryn Steely!


What’s your name?

My name is Kathryn Steely – I sometimes go by my full name Kathryn Schmidt Steely.

Where are you from?

I grew up in a small town in central Kansas and am the first professional musician in my music-loving family.

How did you come to the viola?

I admit – I didn’t start on the viola, but I got there as quickly as I could!  I started playing violin in third grade.  I remember walking to school one day and deciding, along with two of my friends, that we would play the violin in school, just to be different since all of our other friends wanted to play the flute.  I played violin from that point on, including playing in the youth orchestras for six years in Wichita,  about 30 minutes away.  I had another good friend who happened to play the viola and we would switch now and then to try out our solo pieces on the other’s instrument. She was fascinated by the quickness and higher, thinner sound of the violin and I absolutely loved the richness of the lower voice when playing her viola.  I always thought that the violin concertos I was playing sounded much better on viola!  I started taking lessons on viola once I started my undergrad degree and won a position with a regional orchestra on viola during my sophomore year.  That was pretty much it.  I loved being in the center of the harmony, conversing between upper and lower parts, and really enjoyed exploring sound from the middle as opposed to the top down. I sold my violin at that point and never looked back!

Are you a Juilliard student?  Were you?  Or do you now work as part of the studio?

I have never been a Juilliard student but have had a long relationship with Heidi Castleman.  I studied with Heidi at the Cleveland Institute of Music and was able to do a wonderful pedagogy independent study with her during that time, something that has shaped my teaching in profound ways ever since.  I am honored the ACHT studio has invited me to participate in the studio blog!  I keep myself busy as the viola professor at Baylor University and will become president of the American Viola Society in 2014.

Tell us about one of your favorite performances?

While a number of favorite performances come to mind, the all-time favorite occurred in a somewhat unusual situation.  It happened in the context of a faculty search for a collaborative piano faculty member. I was playing 2nd movement of Franck Sonata (on viola, of course…) and Clarke Morpheus along with one of the candidates.  We had just enough time to run the movements prior to the interview recital, and when we went on stage, everything clicked in a very special and surprising way, especially because we did not know each other at all. Even though this performance was for very few people, I have never been more “in the zone” or had better communication with a collaborative partner.  We both had utter and complete freedom of flexibility and nuance.  It was a truly beautiful musical conversation!

If you could perform any viola piece, what would it be?

I love chamber music and that is very much my focus at present.  Recently I have played a fair amount of flute, viola, harp repertoire and I would love to return to the Bax Elegaic Trio with my current group. I have not played late Beethoven quartets in a long time though and so that is on my to do list as well.

If you could play any non-viola piece, what would it be?

I have been thinking about playing the Bach 2nd Partita.  The Chaconne in particular is such a profound and moving work and, since the instrument I am currently playing on has a shorter string length, playing this movement is now possible whereas with my previous instrument, my hand was just not large enough to accommodate some of those chords elegantly.  I suppose this is another case in which violin repertoire just sounds better to me on the viola!

Who made your viola and how did you get to be the one playing it?

I am currently playing on a viola made by Alan and Sarah Balmforth which I have had since 2009.  The instrument has sloping shoulders; making high positions easily accessible.  It also has relatively wide lower bouts and I have been really happy with the C string.  It has been fun to get to know this instrument over the past few years and I think we are growing well together as team.

You are forced by the United States Government to not practice for a day.  What do you do with yourself?

Maybe spend time reworking my herb garden layout?  Learn to make really good curry flavored ganache for chocolate truffles?


The Unique Management Model of the LPO by Katie Carrington

The following post is by Katie Carrington.

It’s hard to stay optimistic about the present orchestral climate in the US. A cursory glance at the orchestras of Minnesota, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Jacksonville, and now San Francisco shows management and musicians at bitter odds. Many editorials and articles have covered these disputes: what went wrong, who’s to blame, etc. It seems that when a traditionally run orchestra runs into difficulties, the only answer is bankruptcy. Is this just inevitable given the economic climate? Or is there something else that could be done? What managerial models will we have in the future? Is the current one broken or simply out of alignment? Is there a way to avoid pitting musician against management?

This past fall, my husband and I both joined the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra’s viola section. The LPO bills itself as “the only musician-owned-and-operated orchestra in the United States”. It was formed in 1991 by musicians from the defunct New Orleans Symphony. The musicians at that time set up the orchestra with no outside help and wrote their own bylaws. The LPO currently maintains a professional staff but still has very heavy musician involvement (the LPO Board has 11 musician trustees). In essence, it is as if the traditional management and musician relationship has been flipped. It is my belief that the LPO model could show a path to a more viable orchestra management model.

To gain more insight into the workings and history of the Orchestra, I spoke with Bruce Owen – a violist, Valborg Gross – another violist, Doug Renau – a trumpet player, Elizabeth Overweg – a violinist, and James Boyd – Interim Managing Director of the LPO. The questions I asked were designed to elicit thoughts on the differences they see between the LPO model and more traditional one, and what they feel could transfer to other orchestras.

When asked about the chief difference between the LPO model and a traditional one, the overwhelming answer was the level of communication between staff and musicians. Mr. Boyd, who has experience of the traditional model from his time at the Tucson Symphony, the Salem Chamber Orchestra, and Opera Western Reserve, remarked that the “normal” level of communication needed in a traditional management model was not even close to the amount needed with the LPO setup. Indeed, Mr. Boyd holds regular hours at a local coffee shop specifically to meet with musicians, which is where I interviewed him. Musicians and staff have open conversations about the orchestra and feel that the LPO management model is more conducive to free communication than its alternatives. He also notes that in the musician-run model, the CEO would be unable to maintain secrecy about the running of the orchestra. I believe it is a real credit to the LPO that it has maintained a direct line of communication between musicians and CEO, even as it has changed and added more staff.

Another point that was mentioned as unique to the LPO is the complete financial transparency. All Board meetings are open and any musician is permitted to meet with the Director of Finance and ask about where money is being spent. In fact, the financial meetings show up on the musicians’ schedules for any who want to attend. I feel that this is a huge boon to the orchestra, as many of the issues other orchestras are having seem to be in part because of financial secrecy.

I also asked which features of the LPO model might be able to transfer to other orchestras. Again, the financial transparency came up. Mr. Boyd mentioned that many orchestras have to wait until the 990’s come out to begin negotiations and planning. How much easier might things be if both parties were in frequent communications about finances? It seems that many musicians committees have been blind-sided by financial reports of which they had no warning. Another aspect that was mentioned was the willingness of the staff to share in salary cuts when they were deemed necessary. Much of the bitterness in the current labor disputes have to do with the discrepancy between musician salary cuts and staff salary cuts. All the musicians and Mr. Boyd agreed that the open communication that the LPO model fosters is something that would benefit all orchestras. It seems to me that the more staff and orchestra interact in open communication and not across a negotiating table, the more orchestras as whole can avoid labor disputes.

One example of how the LPO model was able to deal with issues more efficiently than a traditional model occurred last spring when the leave policy was being changed (the new policy is more strict). Mr. Boyd notes that it was fascinating to see an orchestra change its own operating rules, as this is something that typically would be done by management, with the orchestra left to wonder what the ulterior motive might be. It’s something that could have been a bone of contention on the negotiating table, but instead was solved by the orchestra policing itself.

The LPO model doesn’t always work perfectly, but it shows a different way for staff and musicians to interact other than as adversaries. The widespread tumult in the orchestral landscape today shows that the old models and ways of running an orchestra are lacking. Perhaps the open communication and financial transparency that the LPO bylaws foster can be a start to a renaissance in artistic administration.

For more information on how orchestra bylaws can affect longevity, see http://etd.fcla.edu/CF/CFE0001371/Loomis_Anita_L_200612_MA.pdf