What would it take to change the way orchestras work?

Design going beyond aesthetics, leadership that kills creativity, and pipe dreams waiting to become real

Zach Manzi
7 min readJan 24, 2022
Photo by Mark Williams on Unsplash.

The first time I watched the show Abstract: The Art of Design, a Netflix docuseries featuring accomplished designers from several design disciplines, I was captivated by the episode featuring Ilse Crawford, an English interior designer. It seems that interior design is often known as an aesthetic discipline, but what inspired me about Crawford’s work was her rigorous approach to design. For her, aesthetics are just one piece of the puzzle in serving a greater purpose: the experience of the person who will ultimately inhabit the space. Her team’s process begins with an understanding of who they are designing for, and they revisit that understanding again and again throughout, until they reach well-informed decisions about flow, lighting, colors, materials, and every other detail that contributes to the experience of being in a space.

I watched Abstract while I was pursuing a career as a classical musician and dreamed of a world in which orchestras would work with this level of attention paid to exactly how the details of a concert experience serve the unique needs of the intended audience. Getting to know Crawford’s approach and that of other designers inspired me to eventually pursue a career in design.

Orchestras have functioned in pretty much the same way for a long time, and thus most of them have been producing roughly the same kinds of concerts, in terms of how audiences experience them, which makes it hard to build audiences with rapidly evolving tastes and expectations. Meanwhile, designers have made up the quiet force behind revolutionary innovations of all kinds, especially technological, over the last century. When I started learning the principles behind good design, which began with things like IDEO’s design thinking framework and Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, I thought the frameworks that designers utilize might be of great use to orchestras in creating more successful concerts for their many potential audiences, and that perhaps these frameworks just needed to be translated into terms that are relevant to arts professionals. I started to explore how we could make that translation, which stemmed into many projects that eventually led to the first version of a published design thinking framework for arts professionals called Audience Experience Design (AXD).

My hopes for the field were highest around mid-2018, when I was beginning to see a lot of reception and traction for these ideas, but thereafter, I started to see the support system thinning. It felt like the organizations and leaders supporting this work saw it as important in the abstract but not in reality.

Since posting an article about ending my career in classical music, a lot of people have reached out to me about a variety of topics, one of those being — how can we change the classical music world? I felt like my collaborators and I were on the right track with AXD, but I don’t know that the classical music world was willing to embrace it at the time.

When orchestras around the world shut down in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, it seemed many of us thought maybe it would be a moment for some kind of reckoning. Perhaps out of necessity, a creative team within an orchestra would sit down to problem solve around how they might deepen the connection to their community, not just to get them through the pandemic, but also to prepare for building and sustaining stronger audiences after venues can be safely full again. Maybe we would see truly innovative concert experiences come out of that, but instead it seemed most orchestras did what they could to get by until concert halls would reopen, when we could “go back to normal.”

In the early months of the pandemic, I was going through my own reckoning and had grown tired of the classical music industry’s seeming inability to change, so I began my career transition and watched only from afar. I saw that while my musician friends and colleagues suffered immensely from unemployment and uncertainty about the future, the organizations themselves actually seemed fairly stable, or at least not on the brink of collapse. Toward the end of 2020, I talked to a friend working in a prominent American classical music organization, and they remarked how donations were actually up — the stock market growth had helped quite a bit, and donors were sympathetic toward them. In another organization, much of the staff faced salary cuts that were later corrected because the organization exceeded their fundraising goal for the season. These are anecdotes, but it seemed that many of the well-known organizations were safe.

So here we are, almost two years into a pandemic, not really back to normal, and the question of what it would take to motivate systemic change within orchestras still stands.

One of the biggest turning points in my career as a musician was about a month after the performance of a concert that I produced during my time at the orchestra academy I attended. The artistic director of the academy, who, among the hundreds of hours of preparation for the concert, had met with me for about two hours to tell me his ideas about how the concert should go, summoned me to his office to tell me about his dissatisfaction with the concert. He wasn’t present at it but had seen a video. He was evidently upset, saying that he’d “given me time out of his life,” and that I hadn’t taken notes in our meetings. He told me they place a “sacred trust” in us to produce these concerts. I inferred that I had broken that trust, whatever that meant, and that essentially I didn’t play by his rules. The odd thing about all of it was that the concert had been really successful, in terms of drawing the audience we were looking for and in the quality of responses we saw from audience members as well as musicians during and after the concert. I saw more enthusiasm and life in that concert hall than I’d seen in the many concerts we’d played since I started there a year and a half before. It almost seemed like he didn’t want something to be successful unless he was there and it was done his way.

After that uncomfortable meeting, I went to the president of the academy, who was supportive of the concert and all of the work I had done to that point. I told him that I didn’t think it was right for me to be lectured like this. He told me that while he didn’t agree with the artistic director’s disapproval of the concert, he believed the artistic director had my and all of my fellow musicians’ best interests at heart. While I don’t know that many of us musicians felt that was true, it’s possible the artistic director wasn’t intending to be malicious when he summoned me, although I still believe it’s deeply unfair to do that to a 24-year-old musician who was bringing their most authentic creativity forward. I could tell from that meeting with the president that he was deeply invested in protecting the artistic director and the institution, and that the creativity of me or my colleagues should remain inside the approved box, one that didn’t interfere with the artistic director’s vision.

Organizational ecosystems of orchestras seem to share common characteristics, chief among them this tendency of leaders to steamroll collaboration and creativity. It seems that before even attempting to bring design work into these ecosystems, leaders would need to place community needs above their own egos, board and staff members would need to stop blindly obeying the whims of artistic leaders, and arts organizations at their cores would need to develop creative processes that truly put serving the intended audience first.

One dream project of mine lies at the intersection of design and classical music — gathering a group of artists, fundraisers, producers, marketers, designers, researchers, and other professionals from outside and inside the classical music world to design an orchestra from the ground up. The process would probably start with research on current and prospective audiences in whatever community this takes place and end with a solution that looks like an orchestral organization that is designed to weave itself into the community where it lives.

However, at the moment, for a project like that to have any real impact is a pipe dream — colleagues of mine have facilitated projects of this variety in reputable organizations that ultimately had little impact on the leadership and organizational structure.

The pessimist in me believes this struggle to change is simply endemic to performing arts organizations, but the much larger optimist in me still believes things can change. Among all else, it will take an immense amount of courage from individuals who are willing to stand up against self-preserving leaders and the confidence of leaders to invest in sustainable approaches to building audiences, rather than just cashing out on whatever keeps them afloat from season to season.

Zach Manzi is an alum of Juilliard and New World Symphony, and a former Knight Foundation Fellow. He’s currently a service designer at GoDaddy building marketing services for small businesses.