Why classical music organizations should pay attention to the Tim Tebow Era

Posted on October 15, 2011


Dear classical music organizations (especially struggling ones):

I know this is an apples to oranges comparison overall, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the comparison is irrelevant: we should be watching the Tim Tebow Era with the Denver Broncos- an era that officially began this week- EXTREMELY closely.

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s use this analogy:

quarterback:football team:: conductor/artistic director: classical music organization.

Right out of the gate, let’s get one thing straight: no one in classical music will ever approach Tim Tebow’s popularity, so I’m not suggesting that music organizations go out and hire conductors or artistic directors who are popular. That would be like telling you to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But what Tim Tebow may or may not be as a football player- Christian faith and Tebow fanatics aside- has everything to do with the type of people that we may or may not choose to put in positions of artistic leadership and/or authority in our classical music organizations.

To some degree, we are all slaves to prototypes. We watch the Peyton Mannings, the Tom Bradys, and even the Michael Vicks (arguably a prototypical running QB) and we all believe that any QB worth their salt should be like them. Those guys come to define quarterbacking in our minds. And when history, culture, or popular ideas (true or bogus) shape our idea of what the prototypical QB should be, it’s easy to forget something as simple as the fact that a quarterback really just has to find a way to move the ball ten yards in three or four consecutive tries, and to do that over and over again. Style and systems are overrated. What matters in the end in the NFL is what works, and if Tim Tebow can “move the chains” in the NFL and have maybe one or two plays each game that draw on his so-called intangibles, he’ll be a successful starting quarterback. Whether or not he can do that on a regular basis remains to be seen.

People are hesitant to rely on intangibles over skill. This is true in any line of work, and it’s a very reasonable hesitation to have. If I run a construction company where my employees operate dangerous machinery every day, I’m less concerned about their intangibles and more concerned about their ability to operate the machinery safely and properly. But maybe music and sports don’t always work that way. Maybe, once every few years, or maybe only once or twice in a generation, on the biggest stage, an athlete’s or a musician’s so-called intangibles/passion/instincts are so profoundly off-the-charts that they actually compensate for some of the skill set that they lack. Maybe some of those intangibles aren’t intangibles at all: they’ve just never been quantified before. Or maybe- JUST maybe- we’ll finally have to admit that there is indeed more than one way to skin a cat, and each organization simply needs to figure out which way works best for them in their community.

People like Derek Jeter and Mark Sanchez belong in New York City. Peyton Manning is perfect for the midwest. Troy Polamalu and almost everyone in Pittsburgh Steeler history represent everything we think about when we think about Pittsburgh. Nolan Ryan epitomized Texas. Someone with the combination of skill, talent, and flair of Gustavo Dudamel belongs in Hollywood. But what about your community? Maybe to keep classical music going in your neck of the woods, you need someone whose degrees are from Julliard and Eastman. Maybe you need Riccardo Muti or another legendary name from the classical music world on the podium. Or maybe you need someone who no one has ever heard of from a Division III school in the middle of nowhere that has an off-the-charts intangible/passion/instinct package but lacks a few skills or degrees that most conductors or artistic directors stereotypically have and needs a little work on his/her mechanics. Sure, it might take a little swallowing of the pride, but remember: success in your business is subjective, so long as you can at least move the chains.

Look: you would know better than me what you need. But here’s what I do know: classical music, like the NFL, is a copycat league. As you hire and fire, don’t be so busy trying to fit the classical music mold that history, culture and popular talk (true or bogus) has imposed on you that you miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime.



P.S. Bronco Nation- if Tebow turns out to be legit, you all owe Josh McDaniels a thank you note before you die.

P.S.S. You too, Merril Hoge.