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Career Overview: Personnel Directors handle human resources for the orchestra, hiring musicians and ensuring their working conditions are up to par.
Career Salary Range: $26,000 to $65,000+
Become a Personnel Director
An orchestra’s Personnel Director handles human resources for the organization, hiring Section Members and ensuring their working conditions are up to par. For Martin Webster, the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s Personnel Manager, a “typical day includes monitoring rosters for three to four upcoming concert sets, hiring substitutes to replace contracted players who opt out of any given series, [and] keeping rosters up to date to coordinate with the Orchestra Librarian and Director of Artistic Operations.” His span of job duties also includes “answering many musician emails relating to schedules, keeping up with current language in collective bargaining agreements (CBA) to ensure smooth general operation, making hotel reservations for out-of-town musicians who sub with the orchestra, processing payrolls, and attending meetings. [I spend time] creating printed materials related to orchestra services and backstage hall operations, checking with Conductor(s) and Section Principals on personnel matters, and organizing auditions to fill vacancies in the orchestra. At certain times of year, [I’m] compiling and checking individual contracts for orchestra musicians, creating and sending these contracts by US mail, receiving and processing them and creating starting rosters for each concert set in the upcoming season. We employ a system of string rotation that involves quite a bit of work to equalize final work offers to all rotating string players.”
He adds, “At the Portland Symphony, we have a close-knit Operations team, which is of inestimable help every day. This team consists of the Director of Artistic Operations, the Orchestra Librarian, the Concert Manager and the Orchestra Personnel Manager. If any one of these people is out of commission, we all feel it.”
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Many Personnel Managers are trained musicians who have performed with an orchestra for years before moving into an administrative staff position. Others began their personnel careers volunteering or working part-time, often with college or community orchestras. Assistant Orchestra Personnel Manager roles can sometimes be found with major orchestras; these roles allow newer members of the personnel workforce to learn the ropes before someday working their way up to a Personnel Manager/Director position.
Education & Training
“I would say you’d want to have been an accomplished player of some orchestral instrument who has played in professional orchestras for at least five years” before applying to a Personnel Manager position, Webster says. Since most personnel employees come from a performance background, it makes sense to study music in college and work toward a Performance degree. He continues, “The more you know about the orchestra repertoire, the better! Listening to orchestra music a lot is essential. Attend as many orchestra concerts (of every kind) as you can. A very high level of musical literacy is also [important] to allow you to check/read scores instantly.
It’s essential that you have computer skills so that you’re comfortable with (at the very least) email, Word, and Excel. My orchestra uses OPAS for many personnel matters; it’s been fun to learn that software. The ability to write clearly in English is also essential—the more economy of language, the better.”
He adds, “I haven’t done this, but I imagine a couple of basic management courses would be useful, too.”
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Experience & Skills
“As stated, I consider significant experience as an orchestral musician an essential pre-requisite. The pressures of playing in a professional orchestra are huge and varied; I can’t think of any way to understand them if you haven’t done it yourself,” Webster tells us. “A clear sense of yourself is essential. A lot of input comes your way, especially during rehearsals and concerts, with a lot of varied emotional content behind it, and you need to be able to get right to what the ‘real’ question is very, very quickly.”
The ideal Personnel Manager is, Webster says, “someone with a love of the orchestra world who is willing to expend a lot of energy working to make things as good as they can be for the musicians. You need to know yourself well enough that you don’t take things personally and don’t feel the need to display a lot of temperament. The urge to use the position for personal gain must also be completely eradicated! The job is to administer the CBA as impartially and fairly (and humbly) as you are able.”
Like many orchestra “office” positions, Personnel Directors must sometimes work when the musicians work, meaning they’ll often be found at the performance hall on evenings and weekends. Webster explains, “I am generally in the main office for several hours each weekday and usually take my contracting info home with me each evening. On weekends when we don’t have concerts, I do my best to keep the work to a minimum, though sometimes that’s impossible. Around concert weekends I consider myself to be on call twenty-four hours a day.”
There are several routes into a career as a Personnel Manager. Webster explains his trajectory, saying “I began learning this trade at a summer music festival where I had already spent many summers as a player and knew everyone. Having had that job qualified me for the job with an orchestra I was playing in during the year. Twenty years on that job taught me enough to move to my current position.
Other colleagues actually began doing this in college, managing their school orchestra or chorus. One might also be a volunteer Personnel Manager for a small community orchestra. Many — possibly even most — orchestras seem to find Personnel Managers from within the ranks of their own musicians. Carl Schiebler is an obvious exception to this rule, as he moved from St. Louis to the NY Philharmonic.
I think an interesting sidelight is that some part-time Personnel Managers end up adding other part-time jobs within an organization and some people are Personnel Managers of more than one orchestra at a time—a tiring and risky proposition, probably possible only in a few large cities.”
Personnel Managers receive a regular salary with benefits such as health insurance and paid time off. The amount of money they’ll take home depends on the size, budget, and prestige of the orchestra.
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
The League of American Orchestras is a trusted resource for many orchestra professionals, thanks to its advocacy programs, regular conferences, and learning/leadership development initiatives.
In regards to social media resources, Webster adds, “There is an online closed group, membership by invitation, to which many orchestra Personnel Managers belong. I haven’t found any lower-powered online groups, but they may be out there.”
- “Acquire the broadest possible musical education.
- Work with directors of college orchestra or wind ensemble programs
to learn as much as possible about the administration of the orchestra
wind ensemble at your school.
- Volunteer with the local professional orchestra and ask if you can
shadow the Personnel Manager.
- Take orchestra auditions yourself.
- Play in professional orchestras.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Find ways to meet and talk with current Personnel Managers in your area. If you’re in a professional orchestra at any level, talk to your Personnel Manager and let him/her/them know you’re interested in the field.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“I think the worst mistake you can make is to believe you are above the
CBA, or the sublists, or whatever forms of governance are in place.
Abusing the position is the best way to fail to move forward.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Do you enjoy the job?
Talk about a leading question, eh? Yes, I enjoy it very much. I was a performer for twenty years and I know how much of a difference a careful Personnel Manager can make to orchestra players. I feel like this job calls on all my life experiences and musical experience and I enjoy its challenges.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“Why did you pursue this line of work?
I started doing it with the vague idea of making my old orchestra ‘better.’ Over the years that concept matured a lot. Now I see it as a way to help musicians play their best so that the art form I believe in can prosper and reach audiences with the greatest possible impact.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Fairness. (Alternately: organization!)”
Martin Webster is the Personnel Manager for Maine’s Portland Symphony Orchestra.