If you’ve been following the news in the classical music world, you’ve probably heard the laundry list of orchestras going on strike or facing lock-outs (Chicago Lyric, Chicago Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, etc.). Add to that the dwindling ticket sales and disappearing audiences, and you have a right mess. But in between the arguments circling around which side is to blame (the “costly musicians” or the “ineffective administration” there was an exciting (and much more productive) announcement that came out of San Francisco last week about the launch of the Center for Innovative Leadership at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music:
This new program will be dedicated to training people (from conservatory students to board members of established organizations) in the art of Arts Administration. The program aims to help heal the wounds, but also to talk about how the landscapes of audience development and retention are changing, and how arts organizations can better adapt.
Enter Arts Leadership Guru Aubrey Bergauer. A highly trained tuba player herself, Aubrey has made it her mission to change the way people run orchestras. She has an uncanny ability to see through the mess and figure out what needs changing (and what doesn’t!)
Straight off the heels of her announcement that she would be leaving her highly successful tenure as Executive Director of the California Symphony in order to make a bigger impact, comes the news that she will head up this initiative at the San Francisco Conservatory.
Her tagline is: Changing the Narrative. And she is doing that in some pretty impressive ways.
TFTL: What was your musical upbringing? Were your parents’ musicians? How did you get started?
AB: I remember my dad always playing records of all kinds of music, from Neil Young to Igor Stravinsky…I have memories of dancing around the living room as a kid to both America and Firebird! While dad is still a super audiophile, neither of my parents were musicians beyond their high school marching band.
I was interested in joining band too, and right before middle school, I went to sign up for what I thought was the coolest instrument ever: the saxophone. The band director took one look at me and said my mouth wasn’t right (translation: too many kids signed up for this already) and said I should go talk to the brass teacher. By the time I got to the brass table, I was nearly sobbing because all my dreams were crushed and my life was obviously over…and the brass teacher asked if I wanted to play the tuba. “Sure, whatever,” I said, choking back tears. Fast forward to learning to play, and I realized that I actually really liked playing the bass line. And I liked, even more, beating all the boys and breaking the stereotype of what a tuba player should look like—I was a little girl who had to sit on phone books to reach the mouthpiece!
TFTL: When and why did you decide to go into arts administration? How did you pivot from on-stage performing to the more behind-the-scenes work?
AB: Pretty quickly I became serious about playing my instrument, practicing a lot, and taking lessons, and the summer after 8th grade I won the audition to be the tuba player in the Houston Youth Symphony. Two years later, when I was a sophomore in high school, the orchestra went through an executive director change, and one day before rehearsal they introduced this new person to the group. That was the moment I realized that there was a job managing the orchestra, and I knew right then it was the job I wanted.
When applying for college, I decided it was important to pursue degrees in performance and in business. I would need both, I figured, to understand what’s required of the people making the music as well as what’s required of the people making the money to pay for it all.
TFTL: Did you always have a clear picture of what you wanted that career to look like?
AB: Yes, to a fault. The good part of that clear picture is that since age 16 I’ve wanted to run a major symphony orchestra and have been laser-focused on pursuing that goal. The trouble is that for part of that time, I think I had a narrow view of what the path “should” look like to get there (i.e. only working for orchestras or opera companies). Now I can say that every time I’ve taken a step that was outside of working in a traditional orchestra management role (i.e. when I worked for the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival or more recently when I left the California Symphony), it opened my eyes and grew me in a way that made me such a better leader and well-rounded contributor to the industry.
TFTL: By leaving the California Symphony and going into consulting, you are able to make a much larger impact. What would you say your main mission is? What legacy do you hope to leave to the classical music world?
AB: My mission is to change the narrative, meaning it’s ok to challenge the status quo when we’re not satisfied with it and question an existing paradigm in order to produce better results. For me, it’s not just strictly about classical music; rather, classical music is my chosen vehicle to change a lot of narratives, including championing social justice, gender equality, and inclusivity. And what’s so interesting and amazing to me about that is that through widening that lens (not being so narrowly focused as I said above), it has, in turn, led to accomplishments that really defy some of the negative trends of the industry.
Over the last two years, all of this really came into focus for me. Talk about clarity. I had been telling myself that *the path* in this industry was to go be executive director at a bigger orchestra. But as I was being approached for those jobs, something about it wasn’t sitting quite right; it didn’t feel like I was maximizing what I had to offer (i.e. do the same thing I had just done at the California Symphony). Simultaneously over that same time period, I was absolutely loving the calls I was getting for advice and for speaking engagements. It lifted me up whenever I was thinking about the big issues affecting the industry. Eventually last December this all started coming together in my head, and I decided I needed to move on from the California Symphony and do something making an impact beyond one organization (so going to do the same role at a bigger orchestra was not going to be the move).
When the announcement went out in June that this was the leap I was making, it was like the floodgates opened. So many people and non-profits of all budget sizes, across all artistic disciplines (as well as some non-arts organizations), in all corners of the U.S. and beyond, have reached out, including several top tier organizations which demonstrates that a lot of people in this industry are ready for change. In addition to the consulting work, the final piece of this next step is the work just announced with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, that I’ll be launching the Center for Innovative Leadership to train all facets of the arts management pipeline, from students to board members.
I hope my legacy is that I’ve helped to ignite this change that so many want and need. To show that we don’t have to accept a doom-and-gloom future for classical music; to acknowledge that it is a hard business, but there is a path forward if we are willing to adapt.
TFTL: I get a lot of requests from high school and conservatory students to give them a taste of what life in different career paths really looks like. What does that look like for you now?
AB: I love that you are getting those requests! A big purpose of the Center for Innovative Leadership is to help students understand the full spectrum of career options available to them. We need our talent off stage to match the talent on stage. Classical music needs more gifted musicians who choose to use their talents in an administrative capacity—a decision that’s not perceived as a back-up plan, or something they “fell into” later in life, but rather a proactive career pursuit that serves the art form just as well as exceptional playing.
This is where my own path and experience come full circle. Usually, when I tell someone I’ve wanted to run a major orchestra since I was 16 years old, they think it’s funny because nobody else really has that answer. But that’s kind of crazy when you think about it. People choose all kinds of professions in high school, and the arts need innovative, pioneering leaders just like science, or medicine, or public policy, or any other career. And of course not everyone cements their future in high school—that’s ok too—but opening up these jobs as options to be considered can be game-changing for our industry going forward.
TFTL: What do you think it takes to “make it” in today’s classical music world?
AB: Courage and vulnerability and resilience. I’ve been really into researcher and author Brené Brown this year, and she writes and talks about how courage and vulnerability go hand in hand. Orchestras need Brown’s breed of courageous leaders: our challenges are difficult and complex, it never gets cheaper to have 70, 80 or 90 people on stage performing at the highest levels, philanthropic trends have evolved, relationships with musicians are generally strained, and audiences (and how to market to them) have changed as well. These challenges call for bold leadership, not reactionary or same-as-before type solutions.
Simultaneously, as leaders, we have to be vulnerable because we don’t know all the answers, and we must let down walls if we are ever going to have better relationships with musicians so it’s not so us-versus-them all the time. We have some serious challenges that need to be addressed in our union contracts, and the only way all of us at the table will perceive ourselves as on the same team working towards the same goals instead of opposing sides is if we are all willing to get vulnerable. It’s scary, I know. That’s the point and why it takes courage. Similarly with the work on EDI (equity, diversity, inclusion) in this industry. It has to come from a place of vulnerability to say that I don’t know the best way forward but I acknowledge my white privilege and unintentional biases, as well as a place of courage to do the cognitive work to change that and embrace that we must figure out how to be more inclusive in our work on stage and off if we have any chance of relevance in the coming decades.
All of that is why we need resilience too. I think this is big stuff. I think we have to try and test new things. I think we have to be willing to have missteps (fine, failures) on a small scale as we are piloting different ideas. Resilience is how we work through that.
TFTL: There is often a lot of tension between the performing musicians and the management side of arts organizations. Especially during contract negotiations. What do you think are some of the common misperceptions happening on either/both sides?
AB: The biggest misconception is that there is a limited pie to go around and that we only need to be thinking about how to fund the art on stage. I think we often talk about how underpaid musicians are, but the reality is that administrative staff is usually underpaid as well. That’s a problem, especially in critical revenue-generating roles, because those are the positions in which we absolutely should be investing to attract and retain superstar talent so that we’re filling our concert halls and growing the donor base. Because when those things happen, the pie gets bigger for all of us. But instead what’s happening is we keep cutting or squeezing, and it’s a starvation cycle that is killing us.
The other big misconception in my mind is that we’re on opposing sides…and when we think there’s a limited pie to go around it absolutely sets it up that way. This goes back to needing vulnerability from all of us to say that we also have things to talk about besides money that are going to have a big effect on the work we do—streaming and media in particular. If we’re looking at it through the lens of who concedes and who wins instead of “how do we make this better for all of us,” we will never get to the agreements we all need and want.
TFTL: Who were some of your role models as a young musician? What about now? As someone who is “busting through the norms”, do you find it difficult to find mentors?
AB: David Kirk (principal tuba in Houston), who ended being my teacher at Rice, but I first met him that first year I started playing…probably still sitting on phone books. I think he is a student of all music not just the tuba, and he teaches that way too. Also Sam Pilafian—loved that jazzy tuba playing (filled that saxophone void perhaps?!). Today in the field it’s Deborah Borda. And I really love looking outside classical music for role models.
I think it’s very difficult to find mentors. Mentorship is not as hardwired into our industry as it is in other for-profit industries. I’ve tried to always read everything I can and think through how I would approach or handle any given situation I’m reading about. There’s a lot of information and advice out there in absence of tons of mentorship opportunities.
TFTL: What is your favorite thing about attending a classical music concert these days?
AB: Always the music. That’s what we do best and have done best for centuries.
TFTL: What 5 things are always in your carry-on when you’re traveling?
My Kindle, laptop, phone, charger, and CHAPSTICK (seriously, chapstick is on me at all times…so addicted)
TFTL: Where can people find you? (website, IG, FB, Twitter, etc.) and what is the best way for people to show their support for what you are doing?
@aubreybergauer on all channels (Twitter, IG, LinkedIn, YouTube, Medium blog, and my “Changing the Narrative” Facebook page)
I also have a website: www.aubreybergauer.com