Remembering Your “Why”

My father recently found an archival audio recording of my Masters degree recital.  You can listen to it here and read some of my thoughts below, if you’d like.

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Life has spun an unexpected journey in many ways since I performed that recital.  As I listened to the program on my commute earlier today, it occurred to me that the recital represented life lessons I’ve learned more deeply and reminded me of my true inspirations.  It is so easy in the grind of life to forget your “Why” or what drives you to achieve, serve and contribute.  I suggest doing whatever you can to remember your “Why” each day, each month, each year.  My path has changed many times, forcing me to adapt, but even at each turn there are some things that I realize now have been steadfast:

1. No Single Label – This 50 minute recital program had music spanning over 200 years and representing five different countries.  More so, the character of each piece expressed something very different but no one piece expressed everything.   I have realized as I’ve grown older that the quality of my life is the combination of many roles I play, but no one role defines me completely.   Each person is equally multi-faceted and that is why building relationship requires work to see and value all parts of that person.

2. Discipline is Freedom – The works on this recital program were not easy.  They took months of preparation on my part and I mapped out on a calendar how exactly I was going to learn the music in the prescribed time.  (I even had to learn how to make a completely different reed for the Xenakis that could play the multi-phonics and super high F-sharp.)  As I listen to the performances now, the atmosphere of each piece sounds so free even though I remember all the methodical work I put in.  Freedom comes from the hard work we put in to life.

3. No Regrets – I can hear a note crack or at times not even come out during this recital.  These are usually at points where I was risking trying to play too loud or too soft.  Every time there was a disruption, I kept going – almost like it didn’t happen.   Hearing the boldness in my playing to the point of risk was something that made me smile.  At the time of this recital (2004) and at the time of this post (2018), I had gone through some very difficult times in my personal life.  My reaction then was the same as it is now: get back up, be bold and work hard towards a new goal. Always commit 100%, don’t regret – learn and move forward.  There was something rather comforting knowing that part of me hasn’t changed even after all these years, and I am inspired by my 25 year-old self.

4. Collaboration and Community – Both this recital and my Bachelors degree recital included several musicians.  It strikes me now that I have always loved to collaborate with others.  I am energized by their contributions and life is more meaningful together.  As I’ve grown older, I have had to be intentional about keeping a community around me.  That community energizes and inspires me.  That community has also held me upright in challenging times.  Life is more meaningful together.

There was something altogether magical about listening to my old recital.  I don’t say that to be vain or pat myself on the back.  It was a strong connection and reminder of a very vibrant version of myself.  I am sure that life will continue to bring unexpected turns, each twist requiring me to respond.  I will stumble, I will fall.  But I will also try to remember the “Why” I adopted many years ago: work hard, express deeply to truly connect, gather together and serve those around you.







Engage Your Team with Questions, Not Answers

This article was originally published on Echelon Front’s Platoon Hut website.

For the last year I’ve been leading a weekly planning meeting of key staff who work to produce concerts at the Nashville Symphony.  Each concert or event has many details requiring coordination from several departments, and so the weekly meeting is valuable time together. Ever since I started leading the meeting, I struggled to find ways to engage staff more in discussion. I tried modifying the agenda, preparing more thoroughly and keeping myself informed of what was happening on the frontlines as much as possible so I could drive conversation.  Nothing I did was getting the full results I wanted from the group, which was to empower more effective discussion and maximize our valuable time together.

Recently, I was away at a week long conference, and missed a week’s worth of concerts.  I came to the weekly meeting feeling a bit concerned how disconnected I was from the office but curious how the concerts went.  Instead of me reporting out and driving the conversation like I always did, I asked lots of questions of the group: how did they feel it went? What worked? What should we remember for next time?   I didn’t have any of the answers and relied on them to fill in the blanks.

After the meeting was over, I was impressed with how the group really stepped up and engaged more fully in the conversation.  They offered up insightful feedback and the meeting was very helpful. What made the difference? And then it hit me – perhaps they didn’t speak up as much in the past because they didn’t need to – I did all the talking.  By being so concerned with staying connected to the details, I probably stifled the conversation because I thought I needed to have all the answers. Instead, I took a chance, let go and got out of the way. I used curiosity and inquiry to find out from them what really happened.  It worked, and I realized my team was ready to take ownership, I just needed give them the room to do so.

How To Train for Personal Crisis

This article was originally published on Echelon Front’s Platoon Hut website.

At some point in your life, you will deal with a personal crisis: death of a loved one, serious medical diagnosis, divorce, job loss. These extreme times can be incredibly stressful, disorienting and crippling. We cannot anticipate when we will be hit, but we can train now and be better equipped to navigate those challenges.  

There are four commitments you can make now to prepare for an unforeseen crisis. Strengthening these now will provide you with the foundation you need later:

  • Work hard to become an effective leader.  Have a relentless attitude about learning to implement the 4 Laws of Combat (Cover and Move, Simple, Prioritize & Execute, Decentralized Command).  Never be satisfied that you have it all figured out and pursue improvement every day. A crisis is the wrong time to start preparing. Prepare now and you will have the tools to begin getting back on your feet once the storm hits.
  • Build relationship with everyone you meet. Each day, you will have opportunities to build trust or break it. Commit to building relationship with everyone you meet. When we build relationship, we become better parents, spouses, friends and coworkers. When the crisis hits, those people will be there for you.
  • Practice gratitude. Be thankful for what you have. When relationship, health, possession, or job is taken from you, you will see how sacrifice and loss can still lead to opportunity. You will find light in the darkness.
  • Always have a mission.  As leaders, practice setting and achieving goals both big and small. When crisis hits, our new mission can be very apparent: survival. As we emerge from crisis we will likely need to define a new mission. When you have already practiced setting and achieving goals, identifying even the smallest new mission will be impact your ability to stand up, move forward and make the most of your new life.   



Take your hands off the keyboard: A Guide to Effective Listening

In a recent evaluation, I was told I needed to improve my listening skills. I spent considerable time stewing over the criticism before I realized I needed to step back, detach and consider what effective listening looked like if I was going to make any meaningful change.   After some research, I found some “simple but not easy” concepts: effective listening does not involve talking or thinking about what I am going to say next.  It does involve me contributing a present and clear mindset plus an openness to wherever the conversation might lead. Now, I needed a chance to implement.

A few days later, a colleague showed up at my office when I was halfway through typing a critical email. She asked if I had a moment to talk, she walked in and sat down as I finished typing a sentence.  As simple as it might seem, it finally occurred to me that I needed to take my hands off the computer keyboard and put them on my lap.  I turned my attention fully to her, shut my mouth and listened with curiosity to what she wanted to discuss.  The result was a meaningful conversation that helped to deepen our working relationship.

Leaders are expected to drive the progress of their team. I strive to stay organized under pressure in order get lots of work done.  However, I realize now that effective listening requires a readiness to press pause.  When someone comes to talk to you, physically disconnect from what you were in the middle of if you have to, and give them your full attention.  They will trust approaching you, and you will accomplish more together.


This article is a direct result of my work in the League of American Orchestras’ Emerging Leaders Program and was published January 29, 2018 on Echelon Front’s website as a contribution to their discussion forum Platoon Hut

The role of the Communications Department in an Orchestra

An interview with Nashville Symphony’s Vice President of Communications, Jonathan Marx

What is the primary goal of the Communications department?

The objectives of any Communications department will vary at least a little, depending on the institutional ecosystem in which it operates. But from my vantage point, our job at the Nashville Symphony is to promote visibility and awareness of the institution, with the goal of driving public participation, brand loyalty, revenue, community engagement, donations and any and all other forms of support (but not necessarily in that order — our priorities are constantly shifting, converging and overlapping).

How do we do that? By effectively telling the story of the institution through all tools at our disposal: digital media, written communication, oral communication, graphics, photography, video, PR, media coverage and any- and everything else we can think of.

What is easy about sharing the story of an orchestra?

The orchestra is such a large and multifaceted entity, and the art form is so rich — sonically, aesthetically, historically — that there are numerous opportunities to explore storytelling.  With so many members of the ensemble, and so many guest artists, we have a large and constantly evolving source of storytellers, each with their own unique ideas and intentions. If, to cite Gustav Mahler, a symphony must be like the world and “contain everything,” then the possibilities for storytelling truly are endless (at least in conceptual terms), particularly if we are willing to be open and creative to new ideas and approaches.

What is challenging about sharing the story of an orchestra?

In some ways, the vastness of possibility can be a challenge, mostly because we have limited resources and time, particularly with so many concerts and institutional initiatives to promote. For me, the biggest conceptual challenge is how to convey the ways in which orchestral music can be interesting and compelling to everyone, whether they are familiar with the art form or not. Most frequently, this translates into the challenge of helping our Marketing team drive ticket sales, particularly when we are operating in a marketplace where there are so many entertainment options.

Another challenge is negotiating some of the complexities and dynamics revolving around the labor-vs.-management relationship that characterizes professional American orchestras. There are times when we’re not always clear about the ways in which our strategies and tactics may be at odds with the goals and viewpoints of the artists themselves, which is a humbling experience, as our goal of course is to promote their artistry. At the same time, I really welcome hearing diverse thoughts and opinions from members of the ensemble, as it reminds me, once again, of the breadth and variety of opinions and ideas that shape our world. And so the orchestra once again becomes a metaphor for complexities we navigate in everyday life, ideally making the work we do that much more relevant and rewarding.

How can the Orchestra Operations department contribute towards the goals of the Communications department?

By helping us interpret, understand and navigate all of the complexities of keeping an orchestra functionally healthy. And by providing us insights and information that wouldn’t be readily evident to us because we either lack depth of knowledge, or we may simply be overlooking compelling ideas and opportunities due to our divided attention.

Relationship between Orchestra Operations and other Departments

Stay tuned for a series of articles that will share the relationship between Orchestra Operations and other departments of a professional orchestra including: Communications & Public Relations, Marketing, Development, Artistic and Education/Community Engagement.  These relationships are strongest when there is a shared awareness of the specific work, goals and deadlines between departments. Building trust and respect within those relationships is crucial to achieving high level work while cultivating a positive work environment.

How to Produce Image Magnification (IMAG) for Orchestral Performances

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Image Magnification (IMAG) is a great way to enhance a symphonic orchestra performance.  IMAG is directed live video content shown during a concert that showcases the musicians performing and allows the audience to see up close images of the performers.  Because of the size of the ensemble and the complexity of the music, IMAG of an orchestra requires a huge amount of planning and qualified resources.   The result is a dynamic, interactive and engaging performance for audience of all ages.

How do you start planning for IMAG?

First, realize that IMAG is not cheap if your organization doesn’t already have appropriate equipment and camera operators.  Most orchestras don’t have this in-house, so you will need to find a video production company that can produce the IMAG for you.  Production, equipment and labor could cost somewhere around $10,000-$20,000 for one performance of IMAG depending on what in-house equipment you do have.

Next, research video production companies in your area and interview them about how much live concert performance experience they have.  Have they worked with orchestras before? Do their video directors read music? Do their camera operators feel comfortable identifying instruments of the orchestra quickly?  Ask for samples of their work to get a sense of their style of camera work.  You will want a video director and camera operators who have a natural sense of musical performance.  With orchestral performance, the audience wants to see what they are hearing and the video content should always enhance instead of distract (not too jarring or too quickly transitioning from one camera shot to the next).

It is ideal to have an approved budget and confirm a video production company at least 30-60 days in advance of your performance.

Identify A Score Reader

Score preparation is crucial to creating a prepared and excellent performance of IMAG. As an Operations Manager, you will need to properly identify who will prepare the scores and call the cues in performance.  The Score Reader must be able to read orchestral scores during a performance and give verbal cues to the video director, so a staff conductor is an ideal choice if one is available.   Often, the Score Reader can also be a member of the Artistic or Operation departments.  Preparation time can easily take 1-2 hours per piece on the program, so make sure that person (which could very well be you!) understands the time commitment of preparation and being available for all services.

How do I prepare scores for an IMAG performance?

There are four main steps that you need to start with before you meet with the video director:

1. Request copies of all the scores for the program from your library department, so that you can write in for camera cues.

2. Watch examples of orchestra performances on YouTube or other video outlets (Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall, etc.) and get a sense of pacing for shots.  This will be very helpful as you start to mark scores.

3. When you are ready to mark scores, block off some uninterrupted time to listen to the music and mark in preliminary cues.  Gather some simple supplies to mark (I like pencil and post-its,  LOTS of post-its).

4. Some simple guidelines for marking cues:

  • Something always needs to be on the screen, from start to finish.
  • A good default is conductor because he or she is always moving!
  • Mark primarily what your ear is drawn to as a listener, in order to enhance listening
  • Try to highlight all instrument families throughout the work if it makes sense to do so
  • Be sure to capture the beginnings of solos
  • When the whole orchestra is playing, a wide shot of the orchestra can be used
  • Start listening to the work and add post-its in the score with an identifying word of what you want to hear at that exact point “cellos” “2nd violins” “oboe solo”, etc.
  • Keep in mind that the pacing of shots should not be too quick or too slow, but for the first pass through marking the scores just mark what you find interesting.  (You will need to revise the markings a few times!)

Once you have worked through the scores with a first draft of cues, then you will meet with the video director to discuss next steps about communication of the cues during performance.    Set up a meeting and plan to bring a stage plot of the program with principal players and sections labeled.  This meeting should happen 2-4 weeks before performance.

At the meeting, find out about how you can assist the video director with calling cues in the music.  The video director will be communicating with the camera operators, so there will need to be clear and concise language between you and the video director.  The video booth is a very active place during a performance! As the score reader, you will be on headset so you can talk to the video director, but keep in mind that is also the channel for the video director to talk to the camera operators.  Don’t talk conversationally on the headset during performance, cues only – short and sweet!  Examples of language the score reader may use are: “start the piece with cellos” “standby for oboe solo” “oboe solo GO!” “next up 1st violins” “everyone plays to the end”

The last very important factor in preparing a score before you get to rehearsal and performance, is backing up the post-it cues to the place where you actually need to call the cue in preparation for the camera shot. In order to determine how much you back-up the cue, talk with the video director to see how much notice he or she needs.  I have found that 6-8 seconds is about the time needed to acquire a new shot (varies depending on handheld versus robotic cameras). That timing can, of course, translate to a different number of bars depending on time signature and tempo.

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Now You are Ready for Rehearsal and Performance

Give the video director a copy of the rehearsal and performance schedule.  He or she might want to sit in on music only rehearsals, in advance of the dress rehearsal with cameras.  Block your calendar to be available for full rehearsals and performances associated with IMAG, so that you are focused on your role as score reader.

Be prepared to revise, remove or add cues as you work through rehearsal.  Like any performance, you will need to be confident but agile as anything can happen! Most importantly, stay calm, assist the video director and have fun.  IMAG is an exciting enhancement to any performance and the audience will love it!

An Interview with Mitch Hansen about Lighting Design for Orchestras

Mitch Hansen joined the Nashville Symphony in 2008, having previously worked for a number of production companies and venues in the area. He is an alumni of MTSU and has lived in Middle Tennessee since 2004.


What specific duties or tasks are a Lighting Director responsible for in producing an orchestra concert?

  1. Make sure the musicians can see their music
  2. Make sure musicians can see the conductor
  3. Make sure the audience can see the musicians.

Note: Not all of the orchestra needs to be visible all of the time, but, all of the orchestra that CAN be seen from the audience’s perspective SHOULD be able to be seen. This means that you don’t always have to light them perfectly even from all angles, if priorities 1 & 2 are met.

What documents or information does a Lighting Director need when preparing for an orchestra program?

Every theater or hall has some sort of technical documents, usually:

  1. A line-set drawing
  2. A lighting and stage plot
  3. A patch sheet

If you’re lucky, they will also have an inventory (assuming they HAVE inventory). If you’re REALLY lucky, they will share said info with you in a timely manner. Some houses treat these like nuclear codes, other houses post them on their websites as public info (albeit buried more often than not).

These documents will tell you:

  1. where you can hang lights
  2. what lights are usually hung where to hit what
  3. how to control said lights
  4. what extra options you may have.

Each show will require a different approach (yes, even standard classical repertoire), although often they start from the same origin.

Under what circumstances should an Operations Manager consult the Lighting Director before making a decision?

When making decisions that require changes to the stage, the personnel onstage, the timeframe in which the LD has to set up/program/teardown, it’s ALWAYS courteous and professional to let the LD know in as much advance warning as possible. When asking for artistic elements (specific cues, effects, etc), it’s best to confer with the LD to ensure the idea is feasible, as well as can be accomplished with the tools and time provided. This also lets the LD know that these items are considered priorities, and the other elements of the show may come secondary to them.

How much time should be scheduled in the hall for the work of the lighting department on a weekly basis?

This is largely a function of time and scope. Ideally, the Lighting Department should have as much time as they NEED to do everything they want. I’ve never seen such a luxury in practice. More often, there should be at least 1 dark day in the room for maintenance, and 1 day off for the crew. Beyond that, every 10 minutes of show requires 1 hour of programming (on average). 90 mins, 9 hours. Depending on the complexity of the show, familiarity with the console, severity of load in, and general condition of the equipment (and crew), this can go either way. I try and schedule no less than 4 hours for both load in, and load out. If load in takes 4 hours, typically load out takes 2.

If the orchestra is performing a classical concert outside the home hall, what basic language should be in the rider communicated to the offsite venue regarding lighting needs for the orchestra?

Make sure that the orchestra can see their music and the conductor. Try and keep the lights from shining in the musicians’ eyes from their line of sight to the conductor. Make sure there is a minimum lighting standard, including qualified and capable electricians to load in, program, and run the show. When in doubt, make sure the ENTIRE stage can be illuminated with WHITE light from both ABOVE and in FRONT (toward the audience) of the stage.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

  • Establish a priority for every show: Is this the orchestras show, the visiting artists show, or the video crew taping it for later. This will help streamline answering questions that may arise.
  • Just because you CAN use older gear, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Spend some money to look modern and stay relevant when it suits the act. Likewise, not every show needs moving projectors and pixel mapping. Less isn’t more (that’s why it’s called LESS), but less CAN be more TASTEFUL.
  • Lights are like cars: they consume expendable materials, they take time to maintain after use, and they eventually wear out. Plan, and budget, ahead to stay in smooth operations.
  • Always remember that the production crew is the first to arrive and will leave well after everyone else’s day is over.  They work diligently on a narrow timeline on long days in order to accomplish a massively complex undertaking, within a system with infinite variables. This job has immense pressure to succeed behind it; the show MUST go on. So, be nice to them, be patient with them, tell them they did a good job (when they do)… and make sure to include them in the headcounts for catering.

Audio Engineering for Orchestras by Mark Dahlen

Mark Dahlen is currently an audio engineer for the Nashville Symphony, and also mixes symphony rock shows around the country. A history of two decades in the industry, including a long stent in the international touring world with rock/pop/country and world music artists.


As an audio engineer, I have had the experience of working both directly with orchestras and also with touring artists performing with orchestras. While they needs of both are similar, there are differences in approach. The main goal of my job is to reproduce or assist in sound reinforcement of the orchestra so that all patrons throughout the venue have a pleasant experience and enjoy the performance.

From a very basic standpoint, audio engineers want information about the performance. The venue, its layout and equipment. What are the acoustic features, or lack thereof, in the space? A proper onsite visit is important in determining what approach will be appropriate.

Some of the first questions I would ask after understanding the space is: what is the instrumentation of the orchestra? And how is it laid out? A stage plot diagram, usually created by the stage manager, showing the setup is most helpful in understanding how the orchestra will react sonically in the room and how microphones should be placed. An audio engineer will create an input list with all the necessary microphone allocation for the performance. Depending on the setup and the repertoire, different instruments will bleed through other microphones. For example, If you have the brass section behind the strings, which happens often, and you use overhead microphones on the strings, you will most definitely get a lot of brass in those microphones. Given the nature of the repertoire and the other instruments on stage, it may not be an insurmountable issue to work around. In other situations, especially in a collaboration with a pops type performance where louder stage sound levels are possible, different micing techniques may be appropriate.

It is important that the audio personnel are given day schedules and show flow information: rehearsal and show times, top of show speakers, guest artist entrances, solos etc.

When working with orchestras or artists, it is important to make sure the on stage experience is working well for them. Monitor speakers, sound baffling and isolation might be required. Operations managers are often the liaison between these conversations, but direct musician to audio engineer conversations can be helpful in creating a positive two-way relationship.

There are times when abnormal aspects of performances arise, such as live broadcasts, additional guest performers, stage moves, seating on stage, and additional guest technical requirements. Anytime new details emerge, the production staff should be made aware as soon as possible so that they can give input on production related obstacles and solutions. Keep in mind that audio personnel may be booking equipment through outside vendors and may have input on purchasing or renting items. Having regular conversations about upcoming performances with the production personnel will help ensure a smooth show day.

In the end, we are all on the same team, and we want to produce the best possible show. The best compliments you can receive as an audio engineer, are no comments at all.  The audience is so caught up in the performance, that they don’t even notice the sonic experience as a separate aspect. Hearing people walking out saying, “that was just amazing” is a very satisfying thing to hear.