This story first appeared in the Fall 2022 edition of The Score.
It is mind-boggling to me to understand how I got to where I am in life and what prepared me to become the Executive Director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. When I look at how the odds were stacked up against me, I am amazed to be here right now. Let’s start at the beginning. I was born on April 7, 1964 in the inner city of Louisville, Kentucky, the sixth child out of seven. No family member in generations had ever been musically inclined. It was a different time back then. My father was a laborer at a factory and my mom was a homemaker. We were (and still are) a close-knit family. All seven kids were born in a 10-year period. We are not a family of means but a family full of love and discipline. My parents taught us about God, respect and manners, responsibility, the importance of family, and hard work. Both parents were also our biggest cheerleaders but would knock us off our high horse whenever needed.
My first exposure to the arts came as a fourth grader. I was one of thousands of fourth graders bused to hear The Louisville Orchestra performing a Making Music concert (the equivalent to the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Young People’s Concert). I remember hearing a symphony orchestra for the first time and being transported. Two young violinists, who were probably a similar age as me, served as the soloists for the concert. While they were performing, I remember thinking that there was no reason why I shouldn’t be able to perform great music, too. The seed was planted and all I needed was the plan.
The day after the school concert, I walked into the band room and told the band director I wanted to join the band. He asked me what instrument I wanted to play. I pointed to a black cylindrical instrument that I remembered hearing at the concert. He told me it was the clarinet. A clarinetist was born that day. I quickly excelled in band and fell in love with music. As a fifth grader, I desired to learn more and more. I did my research and saw that the University of Louisville had a preparatory department and gave scholarships for private lessons. I needed the scholarship to be able to take lessons. The night before the audition, I realized that I left the music for the audition in my school locker…and the school was closed and locked! Most people would have cancelled the audition, but I didn’t. I went into the audition on Saturday morning and played for 30 minutes without music. It worked. I was offered a scholarship to private lessons throughout high school.
In the sixth grade, I was selected to the Jefferson County Pep Band and we performed on the White House grounds. During my high school years, I attended the Youth Performing Arts School and was able to excel in music. As an eleventh grader, I was able to perform in the University of Louisville Band, since my school was a few short blocks from the School of Music. Fortunately, I also did well in academics. I had very strong math and science skills and was being recruited by engineering firms. My parents foresaw that I was going to be the only child to go to college and graduate. In my senior year of high school, I told my parents that I was going to college. They were so happy! Then I shared that I was going to major in music. Let’s just say that they were NOT happy with that news! In their eyes, I was to be an engineer. Music was not a legitimate career in their eyes. As with everything else in my life, I had to produce a plan to achieve my goals. I had to convince my parents that I should be able to major in music, especially since they were not paying any portion of my college. Fortunately, I won that conversation! Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, I had to develop a tough skin. As an African American living in the inner city, whose loves were symphonic music, books, the arts, and school, I was teased constantly from all around me. There were days I felt like no one liked or understood me and I thought something must be wrong with me. I felt disowned by my own community and not welcomed by other communities. Despite all these challenges and many tears, I was still determined to pursue music, as I could not imagine a life without it.
Fast forward, I attended and graduated from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) with a bachelor’s degree in music performance in 1987 and a master’s degree in music performance in 1989. I had a wonderful time during college, got to perform as a clarinetist with my excellent ensembles, and even got to tour London and Paris with the CCM Philharmonic. I also became knowledgeable of the reality of how difficult it would be to become a clarinetist in a major symphony orchestra. As with all other challenges in my life, I learned to create and execute a Plan B. My Plan B was to become an arts administrator. During the second year of my graduate degree, I did research and heard of the Orchestra Management Fellowship Program from what was then called the American Symphony Orchestra League (now the League of American Orchestras). I knew it would be a long shot to be selected because I didn’t have an MBA or an Arts Administration degree, but it didn’t stop me from applying. I was one of eight selected to become an Orchestra Management Fellow in the 1989-1990 season. As a Fellow, I would be assigned to several orchestras and gain experience in all aspects of orchestra management.
You would think my life would be easy moving forward, but it was just the opposite. I was assigned to the New York Philharmonic for four months, the Florida West Coast Symphony for four months and the Houston Symphony for four months. I remember hearing from orchestra officials that I would fail and they were waiting for me to prove that I was not cut out to be an arts administrator. While that year was very challenging, never did my desire to become an arts administrator waver.
Over the past 32 years, I have had an exciting professional career in arts management. I have worked with orchestras of different budget sizes and scopes, in different parts of the country and in different capacities. I have experienced the highs of leading orchestras from the brink of destruction, creating exciting concerts and programs, reversing downward trends and being an active member of communities. I have also experienced many lows. I have had orchestra representatives tell me that I am not the “right type” for their orchestra, headhunters refusing to consider me for positions despite my being highly qualified, being regularly mistaken as the security guy, and feeling alone and not accepted. I have been employed by major, regional and smaller orchestras across the country over the past 32 years. I have worked with amazing classical, pops and educational guest artists, participated in many live and studio recordings, served on the teams for international, U.S. and regional tours, and expanded the base of symphony patrons within the communities they serve.
I am a truly blessed and happy man! At 58, I know who I am. I know what I am excellent at and what I am capable of doing. I know what cities would be a good fit for me to reside in and what cities I need to avoid. I know how to say no. Strangely enough, I was offered a job with another arts organization a month before Madison, but I declined the job because the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) was the job that felt right to me and worth waiting for. The MSO is an excellent arts organization. It was an easy choice for me to want to become the Executive Director of this orchestra. The artistic level is extraordinarily high. The MSO’s performance home, Overture Center for the Arts, rivals many performing arts centers in major cities. The MSO has wide community support and respect. It is not alive because of one or two donors but because the community loves it and supports it. The MSO has a strong financial structure and has the capacity to grow and become an even more active part of Madison, Dane County and even the state of Wisconsin.
Even with all these superlatives, the MSO has challenges. COVID-19 has negatively affected us. We, like most arts organizations across the country, need to rebuild and grow our audience. We need to go out into the community more and make sure the entire community knows we are here for them. We need to plan ahead for how best to celebrate some significant anniversaries in the coming years. We need to continually cultivate our patron base. The reality is that we lose donors and ticket buyers every year due to major changes in people’s lives. We must continually work to add patrons. There is nothing better for an orchestra than to experience full houses and audiences wanting more. I also want to ensure that the Madison Symphony Orchestra is here to serve all people of different ages, colors, backgrounds, socio-economic levels and musical tastes.
The 2022–2023 Season of the Madison Symphony Orchestra opened in late September with a bang! With an orchestra and chorus and five guest artists, all conducted by John DeMain, the audience experienced approximately 200 quality musicians onstage making the music of Mozart and Beethoven come alive. There will be seven additional subscription concerts during the season (one Friday-Saturday-Sunday performance weekend per month between October and May, with the exception of March), a single Beyond the Score® performance in March, a growing and dynamic Overture Concert Organ series, and numerous education and community programs for audiences of all ages. It will be a wonderful season! I hope you enjoy it and that you will be part of the Madison Symphony Orchestra family for years to come. I look forward to greeting many of you at the concerts and other events in the months ahead.
– Robert A. Reed