What leadership model(s) or governance structure is most suitable for collective decision-making in small music ensembles, such as the Brattle Street Chamber Players? How can such a model be implemented?
What are the virtues and challenges of collective decision making in the context of small arts organizations?
My research involved interviews with current members of the Brattle Street Chamber Players, alumni, professional musicians, and student leaders from other college ensembles. The primary aim for each category was as follows:
- Current members are most intimately aware of how BSCP is run in the present, and provides an introspective and reflective lens to the research. Some more senior members are more familiar with Brattle practices of the past compared to newer members, so even within this empirical interview group there was interesting variation in perspective.
- Alumni are a living historical record of how BSCP has developed over the years and what members past have considered in terms of leadership structures and governance structures.
- Professional musicians are able to give information about how conductorless ensembles operate in the professional world and give insight into how leadership is organized and executed at the highest levels of musicianship.
- Student leaders from other collegiate student groups gives external insight into how other collegiate contexts create environments for similarly structures arts groups and how such groups operate.
Below is a full list of interviewees in addition to information about their current role and relationship to BSCP:
Bobae Johnson, Graduate Student/Alum and Former Board Member
Diana Wang, Arts Consultant/Alum and Former Board Member
John Lim, Schoolteacher/Alum and Former Board Member
Sarah Darling, Professional Violist in A Far Cry
Audrey Chen, Professional Cellist/Alum and Former Board Member
Martine Thomas, Professional Violist/Alum and Former Board Member
Hunter Komuro, President of UC Jazz, a student run jazz group
Michelle Chen, Leader of Berkeley The Music Connection, a musical outreach and mentorship network
Stephen Yang, President of Celli@Berkeley, an all cello conductorless ensemble
Joshua Cai, Current BSCP Member
Matthew Ho, Current BSCP Member
Nathan Le, Graduate Student/Alum
Lucy Frucht, Current BSCP Member
Hana Lampson, Current BSCP Member
Ethan Cobb, Current BSCP Member
Katherine Zhu, Current BSCP Member
Nate Steele, Current BSCP Member
Willie Swett, Current BSCP Member
Enako Matsumoto, Current BSCP Member
Cecilia Yao, Arts Administrator/Alum
Notable quotations from interview data:
"Maneuverability of a string quartet with the horsepower of an orchestra." - Sarah Darling
The takeaway from this is that the ultimate mission of a group based on collective decision making is realize the best of both worlds in terms empowering everyone to contribute while still staying agile and efficient.
"Brattle Board is not a position of power, it's a position of commitment." - Ethan Cobb
This was powerful because it indicates a perspective on leadership that embodies the BSCP. We want to encourage everyone to feel their own power as musicians. Being on Board does not give an individual in the group particular power over others, its really demonstration of commitment to the process and to the ensemble.
Collective decision making for a group like the Brattle Street Chamber Players can most effectively be realized through a mixed leadership approach. That is, utilizing a multi-person board structure that has both assigned responsibilities but also room for flexibility and adaptability.
Brattle members, past and present, realize and appreciate the value in participating in Brattle from a developmental perspective as an instrumentalist, musician, leader, and person. The group synergy is something that is replicated in the professional world as well, both within and outside of music. Members realize how much power each musician has in creating and recreating the identity of Brattle year over year. This is a key virtue. As Sarah Darling said: “It is critical that musicians feel their own power.”
The challenges faced by the BSCP are shared among other similar organizations, and primarily revolve around lack of sustained engagement/commitment and unclear expectations as well as individual apathy that has an outsized influence on the environment of the group.
Musicians in the Brattle Street Chamber Players have the shared experience of empowerment by example. That is, members of the ensemble join the group at first with lower levels of confidence in contributing during rehearsals and a general unfamiliarity with a conductorless structure. As they participate in more concert cycles they find themselves naturally taking on bigger roles as they develop as musicians. They then, in turn, feel the importance of doing so to make a good example for younger members.
Brattle has not created an environment of leadership transparency where members are aware of how decisions outside of rehearsal are made. Members with different levels of experience in the ensemble have different levels of awareness of what goes on behind the scenes.
Numerous members interviewed expressed unfamiliarity with the structure of leadership for the BSCP regarding season planning, logistics, and rehearsal workflow, indicating a rift between members and Board. BSCP can be more intentional in making items like this clearer to members. Recent members, in particular, experienced this lack unfamiliarity with “how things work” due to a lack of institutional knowledge.
A benevolent leader is perhaps an efficient way to lead an ensemble, but does necessarily give members the opportunity to develop as musicians and as individuals. During some periods of the ensemble’s history, a single leader led the group. This was due to the lack of cohesive cohorts of senior members. Benevolent leaders can be very efficient and lead to an overall good outcome, but it takes away a part of the experiential aspect of being a member of the Brattle Street Chamber Players. Instead we want to always allow the group to realize the vision of more than one individual, no matter how experienced that individual is.
We want to strive to ensure that administrative and musical endeavors are disentangled, allowing for more focused rehearsals and more effective administration.
Below are the guiding principles of collective decision making for small ensembles that I took away from the findings:
Organization transparency: creating a context where it is clear to all Players how decisions are made what the leadership structure is
Member autonomy: granting all Players the level of trust necessary for them to contribute to crafting the identity of the ensemble and the realization the mission of the ensemble
Group synergy: forging and environment where Players are able to learn from one another in a frictionless and inclusive manner
Sustained Engagement: providing a value proposition to Players that motivates them to engage fully in the rehearsal process
Empowerment by Example: recognizing that it takes time for musicians to adjust to the Brattle model and develop the confidence and musical maturity to contribute during rehearsals, and thereby recognizing the importance of more experienced members setting an example in and out of rehearsals
Norm Setting: understanding how essential it is for the expectations, both musically and administratively, to be set early on through clear communication, equipping new members and returning members with the tools to be set up for success.
Create a semesterly rehearsal plan that involves a more structured approach to driving rehearsals and incorporating member contributions. With the right balance, more structure will actually lead to more creativity and participation as opposed to stifle it. This could several forms (inspired by Crier’s Code, Orpheus and other resources) :
- Assign a note taker, time-keeper, and rule enforcer (who ensures members adhere to rehearsal norms)
- Rotating principals
- Only principals can initiate a stop in the playing, and following that only one more comment can come from the group
- Controls the possibility of energetic people crowding out other people’s input
- Rehearsals leaders assigned to take the lead in particular rehearsals
- Tutti spots
- A predetermined opportunity that allows non leaders to bring suggestions during the rehearsals
Formally (re)introduce and schedule outside-rehearsal sessions. (Details contained in the Leadership Guide)
- Listening parties
- Repertoire decision making sessions
Introduce a new member orientation. People join the Brattle Street Chamber Players coming in with diverse musical experiences and expectations of what the ensemble will entail. Norm setting at the beginning of an individual’s time with the group will make it clear what is expected and reduce the burden on leadership later on.
A detailed Leadership Guide is below. This guide has already been incorporated into a transition meeting between current Board and next season's Board.
Below is a framework based on stages that draws from these recommendations: