Back at Vftp Int’l Headquarters, and I’ve had to attend to one of those jobs one absolutely dreads- finishing a long-standing personnel issue at an orchestra that I regularly work with.
There’s no worse part of a conductor’s job than having to be the heavy- no matter how kind one tries to be every day you come to work, one instantly becomes Darth Vadar the moment you have to deal with a difficult player or staff situation. Deciding to discipline or dismiss someone means embarking on a difficult and awkward process, and becoming, at least in the eyes of some, the bad guy.
Fortunately, these situations are exceedingly rare. Most problem colleagues act the way they do because they are unhappy in their position, and people who are unhappy tend to move on of their own choosing if they can afford to.
Worse is the situation when not only does change need to happen, but feedback needs to go with it. This is even rarer. In a litigious age, we tend to live in a world of silent consequences- it’s okay to stop hiring someone, but not to hurt their feelings. Hurting anyone solely to be cruel is never acceptable, never. However, letting large and vulnerable non-profit organizations suffer because we are unable to confront destructive behavior is irresponsible. Sometimes, it is not enough for a problem to go away- the organization needs to make clear its reasons, because some people will take advantage of an orchestra’s reluctance to cause friction.
I’ve always felt that difficult decisions should be dealt with when it is no longer a decision, but a necessary act. “You leave me no choice” is a cliché, but with some reason.
Today, I finally had to deal with one such situation. It is one that should have, in retrospect, been dealt with long ago. Had it been, perhaps such drastic action would not have been warranted. I believe in second chances, but I also have a responsibility to not ignore looming problems simply because dealing with them will be awkward and unpleasant. Now, having waited too long and having let too many actions pass without sufficient consequences, something had to be done.
In the end, I chose to handle this with a letter spelling out in unusually strong terms the nature of the issues at hand because I felt the behavior in question was among the worst I’d ever come accross. I’m sure it made the person extremely, extremely upset, and they came back to me immediately saying the recent problems had actually been caused by a family medical emergency they didn’t previously report to us. I can’t help but feel terrible at the thought of someone else’s family dealing with serious medical issues.
Of course, that is only the latest event, and there are ways of coping with family emergencies that allow us to support people in difficult times, and minimize the negative impact on the organization. In my experience, there are always reasons given for bad behavior that make perfect sense, but at the end of the day, 99% of the people we work with manage to do right by their colleagues even in difficult situations, and a track record is a track record. People get up from hospital beds and come running from loved one’s funerals to get to rehearsals and concerts because they understand they have a responsibility to their colleagues and to themselves.
Nonetheless, it’s left me feeling icky and down. The best non-musical part of being a conductor is being able to help and encourage your colleagues, friends and students and to see the positive results of your actions. When the best you can hope to do is end a negative situation, and in doing so know that nobody is happy about the outcome, well, that’s when you think about going back to playing full time.
c. 2007 Kenneth Woods