April 10, 2007


The Red Sox finally open at home today, inspiring this tangential, wow-that's-ridiculous-but-this-is-a-blog-so-why-not question:

What if orchestras were run more like baseball teams?

Collectively, that is—what if baseball’s system for identifying, signing, and grooming talent were adapted for symphony orchestras? In baseball, there’s two paths to the major leagues. If a scout thinks you’re unusually talented, you’re drafted by a major league team out of school (usually college, but sometimes high school), after which you hone your craft on a series of minor league farm teams owned by the major league organization, hopefully getting to the point where you’re called up to the big show. If you’re not drafted, you can audition your way onto an unaffiliated minor league team, and try and work your way up the ladder from there.

Notice how similar this is to the current breakdown of orchestras in the United States, at least structurally. There’s conservatory and college ensembles, there’s smaller, regional orchestras, and then there’s the big city “major league” groups. And, for the most part, that’s the career path, with one crucial difference: for an orchestral player, there’s a blind audition at every step of the way. In actuality, most players in major orchestras have regional experience, and all of them, I would guess, have college degrees and/or stints in advanced training programs on their résumés—the experience, on paper, looks a lot like the college-minors-majors setup. But what if that progression were more formalized?

Just last week, I was getting some comedic mileage out of the Virginia Beach Symphony’s attempt to generate more marketing impact by changing their name to “Symphonicity”—I still think the name’s a mistake, but that shouldn’t distract from the fact that regional orchestras like Virginia Beach have a constant financial wolf at the door. An MLB farm-team model would make explicit what big orchestras take for granted: that the talent pool they’re able to draw from is largely dependent on the existence of mid-level, local, what would be in effect double-A and triple-A orchestras. It’s in a major’s interest to ensure that such smaller-scale ensembles stay in business—first of all, the current résumé-screened blind-audition process would otherwise be even more of a crapshoot than it already is: without enough "minor league" positions out there to give applicants an imprimatur of orchestral experience, the chances of landing someone who sails through excerpts like a dream but has no idea how to play in a large ensemble goes up. More important are the long-range consequences: if smaller groups go belly-up, then the talent needed to keep the tradition alive and viable is more economically likely to abandon music before it even gets a chance to be heard.

A large-market orchestra financing a small-market one seems rather goofy on the face of it, but keep in mind that a couple of them are already spending money in similar ways, in the form of advanced training programs. To name a couple, the Boston Symphony has the Tanglewood Music Center, which fields a full orchestra; Ravinia, the Chicago Symphony's summer home, has the Steans Institute—which doesn't. (Other organizations, like San Francisco and Chicago, sponsor orchestras at the pre-college and pre-professional levels.) There's even programs that seem like distant echoes of an athletic draft, finding individual young musical talent and using the organization's resources and reputation to offer encouragement and practical experience—see, for example, Chicago's Diversity Fellowship Program, an interesting try at increasing minority representation and visibility in the orchestra world without sacrificing the integrity of blind auditions.

Is making the step from those sorts of programs to full-scale farm-team orchestras highly unlikely? You bet. But as smaller groups face increasing danger of folding up shop, it's possible that, a couple generations down the line, industry groups like the American Symphony Orchestra League will turn to collective fundraising to keep the base of the pyramid healthy. (Again, not unlike Major League Baseball—I mean, if Steinbrenner's willing to go along with revenue sharing, anything's possible.)

Just so long as we don't have to sing the National Anthem before every concert. I'm all for reasonable patriotism, but remember Karl Muck.

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