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Is It Time to Performance-Manage the Performance?

Classical musicWe have made significant advances in managing performance in education and healthcare. Yet the world of classical music has been left almost entirely to its own devices and remains in chaos. Can performance management help us create order and drive responsible decisions and actions?

by Andrey Pavlov

In the summer I always try to make a few trips to the BBC Proms, the world’s oldest and probably most spectacular classical music festival. So last night I was sitting in the Albert Hall listening to a Prom and was suddenly struck by the realization that there was nothing – not a thing! – that could guarantee to me the quality of the concert. The soloists were appearing on the stage one after another, played their instruments, delivered the performance, and then simply disappeared through the backstage door. In front of them, however, lay a gigantic amphitheatre of the Royal Albert Hall, whose audience had no assurance of the value of what was being done on the stage, no guarantee of the quality, and no recourse against the performers in case the latter failed to satisfy them.

The Issue

How could this be? Each of us sitting in the audience bought a ticket and therefore should have reasonably expected at least the minimum level of performance quality to be guaranteed. But this is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. In today’s highly commercial world, classical music cannot survive without public money, and the Proms for once benefit from sizeable government subsidies. Last year, Roger Wright, the outgoing director of the Proms, was very careful to note how important to the survival of the festival was the £5 million that came from the BBC licence fee [1]. The Proms are of course just one of many recipients of public money. The Royal Opera House, for example, was receiving over £27 million from the central government at the turn of the decade, and although the recent budget cuts must have affected their budgets too, the figure today is not likely to be significantly smaller [2].

Classical music, therefore, is a good that is partly purchased by the customers and partly funded by the public, and yet no one is accountable for its delivery! The audience sitting in the plush concert halls all over the country are implicitly asked to trust the skill and judgment of the performer and to give up the assurance that the performance will fully meet their expectation and provide value for money. It seems to me that this is a big ask. In allowing the artists to be guided by such nebulous and mercurial forces as inspiration, sense of musicianship and talent, we might just be giving them too much credit and excessive power. After all, in many similar areas, we have successfully progressed beyond the woolly notion of “trust” and have substituted it with more robust and more auditable accountability systems.

For example, in our schools, we have long given up relying on the judgment of teachers and schools’ heads in many critical matters related to education. We have recognized that such an important asset in each person’s life as education cannot be relegated to a mass of specialists without clear subordination to a central authority. That is why, while we allow our schools some discretion in their operational matters, such critical aspects of education as the formulation of goals, the development of the curriculum, and even the structure of the lessons are reserved for the central body that has the most relevant knowledge and skills and the greatest understanding of the learners’ needs. Moreover, reflecting the importance of the process, we have given this body the power to define accountability frameworks, develop performance measures, and administer punishment to those units that fail to achieve the centrally defined threshold levels of performance.

In a similar manner, we also centralised the decision making in healthcare, ensuring that those involved in the delivery of care would not be tempted to substitute their discretion and judgment for what had been rationally determined as a universal standard of care. Even in Higher Education, that last bastion of unrestrained exploration and chaotic production processes, we are slowly turning the tide of irresponsible theorizing and making steady progress towards output, accountability and control. Central authorities that are not compromised by the day-to-day interaction with faculty are now defining the acceptable thresholds for both the quality and the volume of academic research. Moreover, these authorities are also gradually moving towards introducing a set of standardized metrics for teaching quality to ensure that faculty are accountable for the learning of their students.

We regulate areas such as healthcare and education because we understand that there is no other way. Someone needs to be responsible for these essential assets, and it can’t be the people who are actually involved in their delivery. In the world that moves faster than ever before and therefore leaves no room for error, who can guarantee to the public that, left to themselves, teachers will be motivated to teach, doctors and nurses to provide care, and professors to push the boundaries of the known? And even if they were motivated, who can trust them to possess the expertise and skills that the public needs? And even if we stretch the point and assume that the specialists were both trained and motivated, can we really allow them to have unmediated contact with the customer? In other words, someone needs to hold them accountable for the quality of their work, and it certainly won’t be the customer.

Bizarrely, while we have reached this understanding in healthcare and education, classical music remains in the state of anarchy. Take accountability for example. I am not a professional musician, and so I can’t judge the quality of a pianist’s or a singer’s performance. The skill gap between me and the person on the stage is enormous, and I can never be sure that I’m getting the quality I pay for and expect. In fact, I am also more than a little uncomfortable with being put in a position where I have to judge the quality of the performance for myself. And if there is no independent assurance of quality, there is no accountability. Similarly, there is the motivation issue. At the moment, there is no system that could guarantee that the 22-year-old pianist I saw last night was actually motivated to put any serious effort into his performance. Yes, he received a fixed fee for the concert. Other than that, however, I could see no explicit incentive for him to throw himself into the music and deliver a quality performance. Finally, the pianist presented his interpretation of the concerto he was playing and inevitably had to make numerous judgments and decisions, yet no one could guarantee to me that he had the expertise required to do it. My impression was that I was simply expected to trust it. So there I was, sitting in the red velvet auditorium of the Royal Albert Hall being sold something that I could not judge or dispute, delivered by a person with unconfirmed skills and no clear incentive to do a good job.

The Solution

This is unacceptable. While we have largely succeeded in moderating individual judgment and discretion in such complex and important areas as healthcare and education, in classical music we are still left at the whim of the performer. Luckily, the experience we have accumulated in these other areas makes it relatively easy for us to address the shortcomings in “performance-managing” the stage performance. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. Building on the best practice in performance management, I would like to propose a three-pronged strategy for ensuring quality and accountability in classical music performance. This strategy involves: a) establishing a Performance Standards Board responsible for defining the acceptable standards of performance and providing professional certification; b) developing a robust Accountability Framework for monitoring compliance and enabling corrective action; and c) introducing a Performance Incentive Scheme for individual musicians. I will briefly explain each of these three elements.

Performance Standards Board

First, a Performance Standards Board comprised of a number of sector experts must be established. As I mentioned above, the public cannot be expected to have the specialised knowledge in classical music that is necessary to judge accurately the skills of the musician and the quality of the performance. Such a judgment therefore needs to be made independently. Moreover, as classical music events involve a great number of symbols and rituals (e.g., taking bows, shaking hands with the conductor, taking curtain calls), we need an appropriate authority to regulate and preserve these traditions. As musicians cannot be reasonably expected to have an interest in the long-term view, a central authority must oversee this aspect of performance. The Performance Standards Board will therefore have a dual function: first, certifying every musician allowed to step on the stage as capable of providing at least the minimum performance standards; and second, documenting and maintaining the standard procedures for executing a bona fide classical music event. In order to avoid potential conflicts of interest, service on the Performance Standards Board must be limited to people not explicitly involved in practicing music. These might include music theorists, historians, or elected officials.

Accountability Framework and Metrics

Second, in order to monitor the consistency and quality of performance, a robust Accountability Framework must be developed. Such a framework would include metrics, or Key Performance Indicators, that would provide data on musicians’ performance to the venues hiring them as well as to the Performance Standards Board. Again, this task can be made easier by following the existing best practices in performance measurement. For example, the principle behind the most commonly used performance measurement framework, the Balanced Scorecard, states that the set of indicators must balance different interest groups and is usually organized into four categories. This can readily be transferred to classical music performance. The Accountability Framework for classical music must involve:

  1. Technical measures. These must include measures of
    1. the performer’s technical skill (e.g., the number of notes played per second; the duration of sound sung without taking a breath);
    2. requisite skill variety (e.g., the number of body functions employed, ranging from one for singers to two for violinists, three for clarinettists, and four for organists);
    3. the stress put on instruments (e.g., volume in decibels, length of the piece in minutes);
    4. contribution to the overall performance (e.g., share of notes played by a musician in a symphony).
  2. Financial measures. These must reflect the cost management and revenue generation potential of each performance. The measures may include:
    1. Revenue (cost) in dollars per note played;
    2. Revenue (cost) in dollars per minute played;
    3. Revenue (cost) in dollars per person involved.
  3. Customer measures. These must take into account the lack of ability on the part of general public to evaluate the performance professionally and may involve the subjectively scored Audience-Reported Outcome Measures of Amusement (AROMAs).
  4. Standards and Traditions measures. These must include metrics ensuring compliance with the Performance Standards Board requirements and the preservation of historic traditions. This extensive category of measures may include:
    1. The length of the conductor’s baton (cm);
    2. The ratio of the length of the piece to the maximum number of curtain calls allowed;
    3. The duration of curtain calls (min);
    4. The volume of applause (decibels) requiring an encore piece to be performed;
    5. The order of entering onto or leaving the stage (by function).

Performance Incentive Scheme

Third, in order to ensure the necessary motivation, an appropriate Performance Incentive Scheme must be put in place. For example, if musicians are compensated on the basis of notes per second, they will be more likely to actually use their technical brilliance in concert as well as to develop this skill in the long term. Likewise, such incentives will ensure that the musicians won’t hide behind simple pieces, keeping the more sophisticated music away from the public. Similarly, by tying incentives to AROMAs, it is possible to transfer choice and power back to the audience, ensuring that the musicians play what the general public likes rather than what musicians prefer. A good Performance Incentive Scheme will thus allow blind trust and artistic judgment to be superseded by clarity, accountability, and control.

Strategic Alignment and Its Benefits

The three-pronged strategy I outlined above will bring accountability to the area that has long evaded public scrutiny. However, the benefits of an integrated performance management system inherent in this strategy reach beyond simply bringing order into a messy and uncontrolled sector. By linking performance standards, metrics, and incentives, we will be able to align the actions of individual musicians with the needs of the concert-goers, the priorities of the funding bodies, and the interests of the society at large. For example, during periods of economic slowdown and financial austerity, this system would encourage decisions that maximise the return on the time and money we invest. For example, it would favour performing slow short pieces quietly played by a small number of musicians, such as John Cage’s 4’33” [3], rather than putting undue strain on instruments and voices by playing long monumental symphonies such as Beethoven’s 9th [4].

This will benefit everyone. On one hand, this strategy will help eliminate the unsettling randomness in the repertories of musicians and concert halls around the world, strengthen the role of general knowledge and global needs, and encourage good governance by divorcing delivery from control. On the other hand, it will provide vital information to the performers themselves, communicating to them the most pressing priorities and helping them to increase their impact by making choices that are truly aligned with the needs of their audiences. Likewise, it will give the musicians the necessary motivation to perform and to invest at least an adequate amount of effort in their work.

And the benefits don’t end here. Recent advances in data analytics will allow us to mine the data provided by the Accountability Framework metrics and identify hidden patterns that will enable breakthrough improvements in the practice that has remained stagnant for centuries. For example, data analytics could identify the elements of the music performance that do not have a direct impact on AROMAs and that can therefore be automated, replaced with more efficient alternatives, or even omitted. For instance, instead of several instruments playing the same melodic line, the sound of one instrument could be amplified, dramatically driving up productivity without any noticeable effect on customer experience. Under the guidance of qualified experts, we will finally be able to replace subjective evaluation with hard data, making the performance more consistent, stable, and predictable.

Today, leaning on decades of research and experience, we are perfectly poised to deploy our management skills to the world of classical music … and God help us if we do.


  1. Pentreath, R. 2014. “Roger Wright’s Proms Farewell” Classical-music.com, 18 July.
  2. —— 2010. “Tony Hall: Taking High Culture to the Mass MarketThe Independent, 12 Aug.
  3. John Cage’s 4’33” performed by William Marx.
  4. The finale of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony performed at the BBC Proms on 27 Jul 2012, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra & National Youth Choir of Great Britain, cond. D. Barenboim.

Dr Andrey Pavlov is a Lecturer at the Centre for Business Performance, Cranfield School of Management and the author of Measurement Madness: Recognizing and Avoiding the Pitfalls of Performance Measurement co-written with Visiting Fellows Dr Dina Gray and Dr Pietro Micheli and published in 2014 by Wiley.



2 thoughts on “Is It Time to Performance-Manage the Performance?

  1. It is funny isn’t it that performance isn’t simply a sum of its parts. We can measure every single element but what happens when we bring it all together? It is the interaction between the elements that matters, how individuals adapt to what others do in the context of the performance which makes it work or fail. And we can practice or rehearse all that, but that is as far a we can go!

    Posted by Mike Bourne | August 13, 2015, 3:00 pm
    • Mike, true! And I think that when we are possessed by the control mentality, what we do is try to solve the coordination and mutual adjustment problem that you mentioned by throwing in an extra set of KPIs. Performance can’t be brought into existence by a set of metrics – I completely agree with you.

      Posted by Andrey Pavlov | August 13, 2015, 10:57 pm

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