It Only Appears A Mockery of Reality

If you look around at all the negotiations between the boards of symphony orchestras and their musicians and wonder how it can all go bad so quickly, some entries in which Drew McManus recounted mock negotiation exercises he conducted might give some insight.

While I was looking back at old posts for topics to revisit while I moved jobs, I came across an entry that reminded me about the exercises Drew had run. It all seemed so timely that I knew I had to call attention back to them.

Drew recounted his experiences running mock negotiations with Andrew Taylor’s graduate students at UW-Madison in two parts.

The first part was pretty fascinating to read about as the students immediately identify problems with the accuracy of the financials they, as the musicians negotiating committee, were given by the orchestra management.

“students seemed to expect that this was all some mistake and they would receive the “correct” figures at some point. In several cases, students claimed that an organization’s figures simply couldn’t be this messed up but I helped them along with relating a number of real life examples so they could begin to establish a useable frame of reference.”

Upon realizing that Drew hadn’t misunderstood the “mock” part of the exercise to mean he mocked them with absurd scenarios, those playing the part of the musician negotiation committee begin to get very angry. They accused the management of incompetence in the face of what Drew notes are no-win proposals orchestra musicians are often faced with.

Drew had previously run the same exercise with music students at the Eastman School of Music. What happens next may be illustrative of the difference in outlooks between music students and management students.

Instead of coming back to the table with a counteroffer,

With a certain sense of smug satisfaction, they informed management that they believe the organization is being mismanaged and unless they were presented with a better offer, they were going to break away from SimOrchestra and form their own, musician run, ensemble. In a sense, they were going to take their ball and go home.

… I then inquired if they put together a counter-offer that would provide the board with a better idea of what the musicians found acceptable. They informed me that they did not have such an offer and, furthermore, they refused to craft a counter-offer and reiterated that they felt confident that they could create an organization that had an annual budget equal in size, compared to what the board was currently offering them all while creating a better artistic product than is currently produced.

That pretty much brought the exercise to a close. Drew discusses the debrief in the second entry on the exercise. The students were eager to learn how they, as managers of the future, could avoid the mistakes and problems they perceived in the management’s offer, including the error filled financial statements.

Another student was curious how musicians could come back with a counter-offer at all given that the management’s initial offer was so egregious. They said it would be extremely frustrating to present a counter-offer that management would perhaps perceive as ridiculous as the musicians found management’s offer. “So what happens then, do we just keep going back and forth until we meet in the middle?” the student asked.

Unfortunately, the answer is both yes and no. Nevertheless, this question opened the door to another core component of the mock negotiation session: the environment of collective bargaining agreement negotiations isn’t black and white. Instead, there’s an inherent political dynamic which increases proportionally based on the severity of the negotiating atmosphere.


Based on conversations with some of the students later that afternoon and the next day, I observed that they were beginning to understand that, as the managers of tomorrow, they need to be prepared to enter into an administrative world that is neither perfect nor cut and dry. They also learned that they can’t rely exclusively on their academic management skills to get them through the woodshed experiences all organizations face at some point in their development.

Drew also wrote up a comparison between the UW-Madison session and the Eastman School of Music sessions for those who are curious.

As I went back to re-read these these entries in the context of all the contentious contract negotiations that have occurred in the intervening seven years, I wonder if administration and musicians both found themselves in situations as impossible, if not more, than the scenario presented to the students.

Even in the face of an unfair labor practice complaint that Drew notes would have resulted from the musicians walking away from the table as the students did, I am surprised we haven’t seen at least one group of musicians stand up and decide to form their own new organization.

The fact that they haven’t may be a testament to the difficult operating environment orchestras face and a recognition that it isn’t so simple to avoid the ridiculous set of circumstances with which the students were presented.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


1 thought on “It Only Appears A Mockery of Reality”

  1. We do this routinely in our courses at the CCM Arts Management Graduate Program, both for our Intro for majors and for our intro for non-majors. We use Melanie Beene’s Autopsy of an Orchestra case study (and are delighted that GIA recently republished & updated it). We pick the point at which we (the professors) think that “this orchestra could have been saved) and do a 2-3 session set of negotiation simulations with the professor as counsel to both sides. It works really well & it’s amazing how much the students absorb from the experience. I will add that the negotiations exercise comes at the end of a semester of having explored the case study with every functional topic, including creating a set of financials and taking a stab at a very high-level set of strategic goals. For the strategic piece, we limit them to one artistic, one financial and one community goal and then have them create a budget for the upcoming year (the first year under the “new” contract based on the previous financials and the stated goals). Having come from the orchestra world, I think it’s critical that all of our students understand the issues from both sides of the table.


Leave a Comment