Operations Job Descriptions: Concert Production

Each orchestra will distribute the work of the Orchestra Operations department in slightly different ways depending on the size of the organization.  All positions in the Operations department have an underlying responsibility to ensure compliance of the Collective Bargaining Agreement while each position usually focuses on one of two categories: concert production or personnel. In this post, we will discuss the positions associated with the concert production category: Director of Operations, Operations Manager, Operations Coordinator or Operations Assistant.

I have experienced two different structures of stage crew: union and staff.  This is an important factor in determining the duties of the Operations staff as it relates to their involvement in concert production.

The stage crew are critical to production of a concert, and therefore need to know several pieces of information in order to do their jobs:

  • Program order including all speaking and equipment moves
  • Lighting and Audio needs of the program
  • Technical schedule that includes piano tunings, equipment load-in and install, sound checks or anything else that needs to be accomplished inside the theater.

With union stage crew, the Operations staff will likely be tasked with finalizing all details before communicating instructions to the stage crew.  Consultation with the stage crew to finalize stage, lighting and audio needs is very common, but the Operations staff often manages the written communication of the final details in a format to the whole production team.  Staff stage crew are often more empowered to finalize all production details on their own and also be the ones to communicate the written or verbal instructions to additional stage crew.

Either way, I have found that the most effective way to keep all the details organized is in what can be called a Production Sheet for each program.  A sample production sheet is included here: production-sheet-template

Interview about Leadership and Music

I, Sonja Winkler, was guest on a podcast recently where I was able to talk a lot about my career with orchestras.  If you are interested, take a listen!

Libsyn Link to Trooper Project Podcast Episode 11 – Sonja Winkler

iTunes Link to Trooper Project Podcast Episode 11 – Sonja Winkler

Lighting and Audio Design for Orchestras

The environment onstage for orchestra musicians includes lighting and audio design, especially now that amplification and special colored lighting enhance almost half of the programs presented.   Therefore, understanding the needs of lighting and audio staff will be an important part of ensuring the success of a concert.  If you can identify possibilities and limitations for a program ahead of time, the probability of a seamless and impactful performance presentation definitely increases.

Stay tuned for some first-hand information about lighting and audio design for orchestras from seasoned professionals in the ‘biz!

A Summary of How to “Lead and Win”

Ten years into my career, I came across a book entitled Extreme Ownership: How Navy Seals Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.  The authors are former Navy Seals that worked together in the most violent city in Iraq during 2006. They met many challenges during that deployment but the team was successful in drastically reducing the violence from insurgents towards the civilian population.  With the lessons they learned about leadership in combat, they started a company called Echelon Front in order to help businesses through leadership challenges.  

The title “Extreme Ownership” refers to a level of commitment each member of a team should have in ensuring the success of a mission. Challenges can be overcome when team members exhibit extreme ownership over their parts of the mission and work together to find solutions to get plans back on track.  When the mission succeeds, the team succeeds; when the mission fails, the leader has failed.  The book identifies two kinds of leaders: effective and ineffective.  The most important quality for a leader to possess in order to be effective is humility, which is the ability to accept that there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.

The book describes four principles that will help leaders and teams navigate challenges:

#1 Simple has to do with the mission of the team and communication.  The mission should be simple.  Communication of plans should be concise and clear.  The role of the leader to is ensure that the information is shared in a meaningful way. The responsibility of the team receiving information is to ask questions until they understand the end goal.

#2 Cover and Move is a tactical term for when one person is shooting while another person is moving to the next position.  For this maneuver to succeed, each person is active in their own role, aware of what the other person is doing and communicates as needed in order to take the next step. In Orchestra Operations, we can’t move onto our next position until we receive accurate information from other departments.  Likewise, other departments can’t move forward in some cases until we meet their needs.  

#3 Prioritize and Execute can be a method for working through the every day to do lists. In order to prioritize, we need to identify what is most critical and in order to execute we need to be active but aware of our surroundings in case we need to adjust.  This can also be an effective method to simplify tasks when there is overwhelming stress: relax, look around, make a call.

#4 Decentralized Command is a term that describes how everyone on the team is a leader in their own right and encourages leading up as well as down the chain of command. Leading up is reporting to your supervisor and asking clarifying questions, being your own best advocate for what you need.  Leading down is sharing clear and concise information to those relying on you for instructions, so that they fully understand the mission. Decentralized Command empowers leaders to take ownership over the problems and solutions in their realm, making complicated missions possible.  Each of us has the ability to lead up and down the chain of command.

After reading the book, I finally have a framework to work through challenges at work and home.  The core concepts are simple to remember but implementation is not always easy. I have found that as I push to excel as a leader, there are deeper nuances to each concept.   I will continue to make mistakes along the way but I believe each experience will only refine my definition of an effective leader.  

I would encourage every student and professional to read or listen to this book.  The stories are exciting to read, application is universal and there is an opportunity for life-long learning!

Learning Customer Service

In my first internship with an orchestra, my supervisor explained that the work of the Operations department is to create an environment where each musician can perform at his or her best.  I never forgot what she told me and after several years, I now understand more fully that the musicians’ environment is not only onstage but backstage and includes the environment around written or verbal communication. A musician’s ability to perform can be aided or hindered based on how well we provide accurate information to musicians/staff, anticipate conflicts and troubleshoot issues as they arise.  Therefore, excellent customer service must be a core value for the Orchestra Operations department.

At a very basic level, good customer service starts with a professional demeanor: maintaining a calm presence, being approachable and following up to messages in a timely fashion (no more than 24 hours).  A more advanced level of customer service begins when you can develop relationships with your “customers”.  For instance, I noticed trust was built with staff or musician colleagues when I was reliable, honest and responsive. Trust opened the door more deeply understanding the needs of my customers and relationships were formed.  I felt more connected to my customer’s success and so I worked hard to secure it.  

Relationships require daily or weekly maintenance through regular dialogue.  When mistakes happen or conflicts arise, lasting solutions can be found if you remember to seek out the perspective of your customers through dialogue.  Set aside enough time to hear everything they have to say and seriously consider their opinions or concerns before making a decision.  Once you’ve made a decision about how to resolve a conflict, provide a follow-up to your customer that gives them insight into your decision making process. The minute I’ve cut someone out of the decision making process in haste, that is the precise point of trust might have been eroded.  Trust will make a stronger team and also a more positive work environment for all.

Conducting a Site Visit

Orchestras often perform the majority of their concerts in a main concert hall and the balance of concerts in the community or on tour.  When a venue is being considered for a performance by an orchestra, the first step is for the Orchestra Operations department to conduct a site visit.  For the site visit, the Operations Manager (or equivalent) should bring a stage manager or the person most knowledgeable about setting up the orchestra and ask to meet with someone at the venue familiar with the facility layout.

Before the site visit, I find it very helpful to develop a checklist of questions to ask.  These can include, but are not limited to:

  1. Where is the loading dock entrance? What size trucks can be accommodated?
  2. Is the pathway from the loading dock to the stage all on the same level? Or are stairs/elevators required on the path?  What is the width of the narrowest doorway?
  3. What are the dimensions of the stage area?  **Some venues have technical packets with drawings. Ask for a copy on your site visit.
  4. What kind of lighting is available over the stage?
  5. Do you have a sound system and someone to run it for our concert?
  6. How much control do you have over the temperature in the theater? *Most orchestras want the temperature to be stable and draft free at 68-72F onstage.
  7. Where are the closest bathrooms to the stage?  Can they be restricted to use only by the musicians/staff of the orchestra?
  8. What large classrooms or dressing rooms are available for the orchestra? Do you have small offices or star dressing rooms for conductor and soloist near the stage?
  9. Can you reserve free parking onsite for the orchestra? (i.e. We expect to need room for a 56 passenger bus and 25 personal cars)
  10. Who will be our main contact on site for the concert day that can help troubleshoot any unanticipated issues?

It is important to remember that not all venues are used to the needs of an orchestra, so try to help them imagine the scope of 80+ musicians and instruments on site and the potential limitations of the schedule.  Bring a digital camera on your site visit so you can refer back to the pictures.

In my experience, modern theaters are well equipped for a symphony orchestra.  School gymnasiums are usually pretty accessible for all of the equipment as long as the load-in area is wide enough for timpani cases and harps.  Stable climate control is going to be a real challenge in high capacity venues (like Royal Albert Hall, indoor stadiums, ice arenas).  Churches are beautiful spaces but often not well equipped for a symphony orchestra.  If you are working to building a stage in a church, be sure to have meetings that include the church talking with the stage company.  Some marbles or stone materials are not resilient to stage risers being built on top.  Church services schedules are also sometimes complicated to work around, especially if you intend to load-in a stage and leave it for a few days.  Be sure to discuss your schedule hour by hour with a church, including what equipment will be where for the duration of the orchestra’s stay in a church.  You don’t want to experience schedule conflicts with choir practices, noon time services and weddings only a few weeks in advance.

All in all, some of my favorite concerts have been outside the home concert hall because of the challenges and rewards of bringing music to a new space.   Site visits should be done as soon as a venue is being considered because the site visit could rule out the possibility of going.  Keep a record of the venue facts in a database so that you can refer back to it with the pictures you took.   Err on the side of respectfully over-explaining the details to the host venue, especially if it’s a first time visit for an orchestra.   In the end, enjoy the tangible reward of hearing the orchestra in a new venue and knowing you had a hand in making it possible.

The Pursuit of World-Class Management Skills

When I started working full-time in Orchestra Operations at the Pittsburgh Symphony, I was an oboist fresh out of music school whom had worked a few basic office jobs.  I dreamed about being an orchestral oboist for much of my life, so it was thrilling to be part of a living, breathing orchestra.  My new office was at the concert hall where the orchestra performed and I was surrounded by music: Mahler, Debussy, Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms.  It seemed I had found the next best career option for a young musician.  

The pace of a concert season is quick and ambitious: new programs every week rehearsed in one, two or three days.  As Operations Coordinator, I learned how to identify production needs of each program, discuss solutions with staff or musicians and communicate confirmed details to the stage crew.  It had been a long time since I started learning something new but weekly repetition of the concert production process helped me to improve quickly. A year’s worth of weekly concerts gave me confidence in day to day work and I was promoted to Operations Manager.  

After the promotion, it wasn’t long before I began struggling with the nuances of being a manager: communication was expected to be accurate and appropriate, solutions to problems were to be anticipated well in advance, creativity was necessary in making on the spot decisions.  I said the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person in the wrong way.  I held the line in situations that needed flexibility and did not deal with new conflicts effortlessly.  Failure is humbling, especially in an environment that demands world-class excellence.  I wanted to quit but instead decided to combat the overwhelming stress with a few simple rules: don’t make the same mistake twice, ask lots of questions and listen to the answers.  

Month by month, I started to build a broader knowledge base and was thankful for the grace I was given by my colleagues.  I started to envision a new and ambitious goal: to become a world-class manager, inspired by the world-class musicians around me.  The standard that musicians hold for themselves is very high.  Their job requires them each to perform at the highest level every day.  Perfection in artistry is accomplished over decades of commitment and maintained through rigorous practice. I was decades behind them in expertise but I became devoted to an accelerated and meaningful training in Orchestra Operations.

I am proud to say I have progressed in many ways as a manager and leader over the last several years through my pursuit of excellence.  There are days where the road to my goal seems longer than before, but those few simple rules keep me teachable and devoted.  If you are a well accomplished musician considering a position in orchestra management, remember to approach the new skills required to be an effective manager with the same commitment and inspiration you do with your musical studies.  Orchestras need managers that are excellent leaders pursuing perfection in the artistry of management.  I can assure you the rewards of working for an orchestra are many and supporting music making is honorable.  Together we can ensure the music making continues for generations to come.    

Calculating Concert Timings

An orchestra’s work rules are governed by a Collective Bargaining Agreement or CBA.  The CBA is a contract between the employing organization and the union group of musicians.  Adherence to the agreed upon rules is essential in day to day operations.  As a member of the Orchestra Operations department, it is your responsibility to understand the agreement and enforce compliance.  All that said, one simple rule stated in a CBA is how long a concert can be.   The length of a concert is usually up to 2 hours 30 minutes, including a 15-20 minute intermission.  Some CBAs have certain designations for a longer length based on the type of concert, such as ballet and opera performances can be up to three hours.  

It is very important to note that the official concert timing starts at the time listed in a weekly calendar created for the musicians as specified in the CBA.  A common “end time” is start of applause after the last note of the program.   The timing is very precise and it is recommended that there be an official digital clock (HH:MM:SS) near the stage to avoid discrepancies.  Because of the precise nature of the timing, the space in between the official scheduled start time and the actual end of the concert must be mapped out in advance.

Below, is a sample run sheet with timings that I find is a helpful tool. In this example, the posted concert time for the musicians is 7:35pm and tuning cannot occur before that time.

7:34pm Pre-recorded hall announcement (1 min)

7:35pm Concertmaster enters / tuning (2 min)

7:37pm Conductor enters (1 min)

7:38pm Rossini, Overture to Barber of Seville (7 min 30 sec)

7:45pm Applause (1 min 30 sec)

7:47pm Piano move – pit lift used (6 min)

7:53pm Orchestra tunes (1 min)

7:54pm Conductor & soloist enter (1 min)

7:55pm Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 2 (37 min)

8:32pm Applause / bows (3 min)

8:35pm Encore (4 min)

8:39pm Intermission (20 min)

8:59pm Orchestra tunes / conductor enters (2 min)

9:01pm Bartok, Concerto for Orchestra (42 min)

9:43pm Applause

Concert timing for this program is calculated from 7:35pm to 9:43pm and equals 2 hours 8 minutes in this case.  This concert did not have a live welcome announcement or any speaking between pieces by conductor. Speaking in a concert can be an unpredictable variable in timings, so budgeting generously in the run sheet is recommended.  Another type of “end time” designation I’ve seen in a CBA is when the concertmaster begins to leave the stage, usually signalling the end of applause, the concert clock stops.  The disadvantage of this type of rule is that applause can be the item that extends the service into overtime.   Many orchestras have moved away from the concertmaster designation.

The program above was created with plenty of time to spare.  If the service was permitted to run 2 hours 30 minutes, then we would have had until 10:04:59 to complete the concert.  At 10:05:00, overtime would have been reached. As a member of the Operations department, you will need to monitor the timing of the concert as it occurs.  If it looks like a concert will run over the allotted time, there are few measures that can be taken such as shortening intermission slightly or prohibiting an encore.  Each of these  has implications that would be better avoided (losing bar sales during intermission, upsetting a soloist or shortchanging the performance).  Unfortunately, sometimes there is not much to be done and the clock runs into overtime.  Overtime is often calculated in 15 minute segments at a small percentage of service rate for the musicians, but can add up quickly.  Even one second into overtime can cost approximately $1,500-3,000 of unbudgeted expense.

Watching the clock and experiencing an unanticipated delay in a concert can be very nerve-wracking.  If you find yourself in that position, seek out the members of the artistic, operations and stage management departments working the concert to discuss options.  I have found it is best not to shortchange or inappropriately rush the performance, as you don’t want the patron to feel either of those.  Do your best planning in advance, learn from mistakes and build in extra time where you can.  The more relaxed the backstage atmosphere can be, the better the environment for everyone.

Production needs of Orchestral Repertoire

Concert production is one of the key responsibilities of the Orchestra Operations department.  The Operations Manager, Personnel Manager and stage crew (lighting, audio and stage management) work together to satisfy the needs onstage for repertoire and musicians, while ensuring the performances will run smoothly and be in compliance with the work rules in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

What production needs does orchestral repertoire have?

Instrumentation is the number one factor in an orchestral program that determines set-up needs onstage.  Instrumentation should be carefully considered in all pre-planning of a concert season.  Maximum instrumentation of a program is a very useful tool in determining the space onstage required for a program.  Differences in instrumentation within a concert program should be looked at closely in order to determine stage changes required during a performance.  The biggest stage changes should be planned for during intermission as you will want to minimize adding to overall concert length.  Creating stage plots for every work in a program is essential in gaining an understanding about stage space.   Work closely with the stage crew if you are the one developing the plots so that they are accurate and to scale.

Some repertoire will require special auxiliary instruments for the musicians of the orchestra to play such as Wagner Tubas, bass oboe, alto flute/bass flute, bassett horns, bass trumpet, any number of percussion instruments, portative organ, concert organ, etc. It will be very important to identify if your orchestra owns or needs to rent/borrow instruments and where you will get the instruments from.  Start this process as soon as a program is confirmed on the schedule in case it might take several months to track down a source.  Asking the musicians who will play the instruments if they have a preferred source is the best first step.  Sources can include commercial vendors, other orchestras, colleges and universities.  Guest artists performing on specialty instruments (such as an Ondes Martenot) often will have their own instrument but the orchestra will need to pay and arrange for shipping.

Electronica is a term used to describe electronic sources of music in a symphonic work.  Electronic sources of music can include CD playback of sound samples, synthesizers with or without custom samples, live sampling through laptops or effects pads (Mason Bates does this when he performs) and many others.   If you see the word electronica in instrumentation, try to talk to the composer or another orchestra that has performed the work to understand specifically what the source was, who played it and if the equipment was provided or rented.   I recommend starting these conversations as soon as the piece is being considered for a program.

Offstage instruments are exactly that – instruments not played on the stage.  Each composer, musician and conductor will have ideas about where instruments should be played from for any given piece.  Be sure to have a conversation with at least the conductor and ideally also the musician, in order to determine where the proposed location is.  Depending on the location, the musician might need an escort (if they have to travel to get to seats in the theater), conductor, audio and video monitors, music stand and light.  You might need to propose alternatives based on any of the factors.  I’ve seen offstage instruments played from stairwells, loading docks, balconies and catwalks.  Most importantly, make sure the musician is comfortable and can perform their best.

It is not unusual anymore to perform a standard orchestral work in a new way by augmenting the presentation with video, slides, special lighting, actors, animals(?!), scenery and beyond.  The sooner you can ask questions (even when an idea starts small), the better.  If you can be a part of the development, noting implications and proposing solutions along the way, the higher the probability that the end result will meet artistic vision, logistical constraints and budget goals.

No two concerts are the same in a symphonic concert season and that is exactly what has kept me engaged for over a decade.  Enjoy the variety but also know that you can apply all of your knowledge to new ideas, building a foundation of analytical, critical thinking and problem solving skills.


Pacing yourself in a Symphonic Concert Season

Professional orchestras tend to structure their seasons to run from September through June, similar to a school year.  Full-time orchestras schedule concerts almost every week during the season with subscription series (Classical and Pops), special programs, education and community concerts.

Below are some example schedules of how weeks might be divided up:

  • Classical subscription: five rehearsals, three concerts
  • Pops subscription: two rehearsals, three concerts
  • Education: one rehearsal, three mornings of back to back concerts
  • Special program: one rehearsal, one concert (often added to a Pops or Education week)

Often in the Collective Bargaining Agreement or CBA there will be restrictions on how many different programs can be rehearsed and performed each week.  There will also be restrictions on how many services (rehearsal or concert is a service) can be scheduled each week.  These restrictions are meant to help management staff maximize the number of concerts while still supporting the musicians ability to perform at their best.

Operations Managers have regular office hours (Monday-Friday) and usually work some of the concerts each week (evenings and weekends).  When working a concert, the Operations Manager is often designated “Manager on Duty”.  This position serves as general support for backstage staff and musicians, in addition to communicating with Front of House about any issues with patrons which might result in delaying or stopping the concert.  “Manager on Duty” is often someone from the Operations or Artistic department and a concert duty schedule can be created so that there is a system of rotation for staff working concerts.  A personnel manager must be present at every rehearsal and concert, so often there will be a Personnel Manager and Assistant Personnel Manager in a full-time orchestra to help cover all the services each week.

The pace can be overwhelming when producing multiple programs in a week.  Therefore, as an Operations Manager, it is of the utmost importance that you find systems of keeping all the program details organized and set deadlines or timelines for each program.   Find out who needs to know what in order for the rehearsals and concerts to run smoothly. Set up weekly production meetings to discuss the most urgent items with Operations, Artistic, Education and Production staff.  Spend time asking lots of questions until you understand fully the needs of each program, and be responsive to the needs and questions of others.  Once the rehearsal(s) start for a program, be present at rehearsals and ready to jump in to address any needs.

When in doubt, take three deep breaths and make one decision at a time.  Always remember to make time to listen to the music!