Orchestral Management

Phil Boughton

Orchestra Manager, Welsh National Opera

 When I am asked what it is like being an Orchestra Manager I always reply that it is never dull.

When talking to members of the orchestra I explain that I see the role of an Orchestra Manager being to make it as easy as possible for a player to walk in, sit down and play to the best of their ability.

This can take a myriad of different contributing factors and means that I rarely know what each day is going to bring. Fortunately, this is something that I thrive upon and the range and variety of things I find myself doing is enough to keep anyone from becoming jaded.

The job is divided into many areas but really they all fall into two categories:

Forward planning and reactive management.

In theory, the more forward planning you have done should mean that the event runs more smoothly on the day.

Dealing with the things that crop up on or close to the day is the reactive part of the job and this is the problem solving part of the job that every Orchestra Manager has stories and nightmares about.

A few years ago we had an opera performance in Birmingham starting at 19.15 and at half past six I got a phone call from a principal player saying he'd left his instruments on the drive of his house and he didn't know what to do.

I didn't know either but a few seconds later I was on the phone to local players I had numbers for to see if they were working and if we could borrow their instruments. Having drawn a blank, next I called the Birmingham Conservatoire to see if there was anyone practising that I could speak to. Fortunately we found someone who, for a ticket to the opera, was willing to forego his practice for a night and lend my player his instruments. Crisis averted; the show started on time and all was well. A taxi fare and a complimentary ticket were the solution that time!

You have to remain calm in situations like this because as Orchestra Manager you are the principal point of contact for the contract orchestra members and almost the sole point of contact for any extra musicians with the company. If you are seen to panic, that sense of panic pervades and soon you have lot more issues to deal with. Indeed, the image of a swan is very apt as you often find yourself being calm and serene on the surface but paddling like crazy underneath.

As well being patient, you need to be a good mediator and negotiator, often being called upon to solve conflicts and quell disagreements. Explaining to a conductor why he cannot have a desk of violins just in front of an anvil and beside the 4th horn may seem common sense, but in order for them to feel their artistic integrity isn't being compromised, you have to tread very carefully to get the outcome you need to achieve. Equally, you may have to explain to a violin player, why they need to be quite so close to the anvil as well as being beside the horn and what steps they need to take to minimise their noise exposure during the course of the performance.

You have to keep abreast of a whole range of policies, terms and conditions and agreements so that at any moment you can solve a potential dispute with the correct rationale or contractual point to keep things on track.

Having an encyclopaedic or photographic memory is a real benefit at times like that but if you're not blessed with either, or when it fails you, having the correct documentation close to hand is a good alternative.

Fundamentally an Orchestra Manager is a personnel manager for musicians being subject to four weeks notice of their schedule can be unsettling for the players. Communication is crucial to ensuring that this is minimised but even with as much notice of a schedule, you find yourself dealing with personal matters for many of your players. As I write this I have three hernias, two repetitive strain injuries, one maternity leave, one adoption leave and three dependant relatives. Each of these situations needs to be managed to give the most appropriate support to the player and also ensure that the orchestra doesn't suffer as a result of changes in personnel. Having come up with credible solutions to all these situations you then have to explain them all to the music director or conductor who may not necessarily understand why a player has to miss their rehearsal for an emergency dental appointment or why the funeral couldn't be arranged for a time when the orchestra aren't working.

I studied music at Edinburgh University and although a trombonist wanted to get an academic degree before the performance qualifications I gained as a postgraduate at the Royal College of Music in London. As a result of and in order to fund my extended studying, throughout my training I worked in the management of arts organisations and venues that served to give me a great understanding of what it takes to put on and organise events.

This coupled with my experiences as a player mean that I know exactly what it takes to set up, run and play in concerts and performances which I feel is of great importance when managing players that do this day after day.

The fact that the orchestra know that I have sat where they sit and therefore know the kind of issues they face means that they know I am not asking them to do something I'm not willing to do myself. Indeed, this is a trait of my management that I take pride in. Whether it is helping to drive, load or unload the orchestra truck, park a car because someone is running late, conduct a stage band or play a thunder sheet because the proper person is stuck in traffic or play a whole show (on trombone) when someone has broken down on the way to Plymouth I won't shy away from doing whatever it takes to make sure that the show goes on!