Orchestra chiefs should not read from Autocue

Orchestra chiefs should not read from Autocue


norman lebrecht

May 19, 2020

Spare a thought for Michelle Miller Burns, president and CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra.

She has gone public with an update to patrons on where things are heading, an initiative which is admirably transparent and commendable.

But she’s clearly reading a board-vetted text from which she cannot deviate. She’s trying to be natural, but she’s stuck with clunky words.

She needs a couple more lessons in presentation.





  • Brian viner says:

    She must of been a kinder garden teacher

    • Pedant says:

      Must *have

      Get it right before you slag someone off?

      • Brian viner says:

        I think she must have been a kinder garden teacher my mistake.
        Too much beer in the morning. The isolation has does this to a person

        • Bill says:


        • Stuart L. says:

          I haven’t come across a kinder (as in kind, kinder, kindest) garden or indeed a ‘kinder garden teacher’ (than whom is she kinder?).

          Perhaps you are seeking the colloquial ‘kinda garden teacher’ with the stress on ‘garden’ though that makes little practical sense.

          But I suspect that you meant to say ‘kindergarten teacher’. In which case I rather agree with Pedant’s comment.

          Of course if you aren’t a native English speaker then all is forgiven. But if you are then I recommend laying off the booze before posting.

      • Paul Dawson says:

        As a fellow pedant, let me point out that your statement is an imperative, rather than an interrogative. A full point would have been appropriate. An exclamation mark would have added emphasis. A question mark is just as wrong as the comment you criticise.

      • Bruce says:

        Also you missed “kindergarten.” One word, spelled with a T.

    • Dana says:

      Do you mean, she must HAVE been a kindergarten teacher?

    • Pamela Brown says:

      Look at it this way…at least, she is optimistic…

  • Paul Dawson says:

    I could only tolerate the early part of this, but – wow! – it was even worse that NL’s script had led me to expect. Someone should have intervened to prevent this going out. It does the poor orchestra no favours at all.

    • Ramesh Nair says:

      My first impression was that her articulation was so precise anyone who was hard of hearing might be able to lip-read her words. My second impression was, could it really be that most of the Minnesota Orchestra subscribers are hard of hearing? But there’s nothing wrong with her text.

      Kudos for her bravery, since the eye does tend to wander and focus on her impressive collection of games : ‘Risk’, ‘Biggle Boggle’, ‘Triple Yahtzee’, ‘Say Anything’ [ Might these boardgames also feature behind UK PM Boris J, should he address the nation from his sitting room?]
      Then her bookshelf features a bio of Nelson Mandela [ virtue signalling? ]; the historical novel ‘A Symphony of Rivals’ by the impressively-named Roma Calatayud Stocks, which has a weird cover that features the Brandenburg Gate with a spectral drawing of Beethoven above it; ‘The Year Before the Flood’ — an account of New Orleans.

  • mary says:

    Why is she wearing a pink chain? Is she like the feminist Mr. T of classical music? (FYI, Mr. T wore gold chains to represent… oh, whatever… it was Mr. T, not W.E.B. Dubois.)

  • Patrick says:

    Seems a bit small to focus on her reading manner. We’re looking at massive unemployment in the arts and entirely shuttered seasons and you’re focusing on how she reads? How odd of you.

    • Brian viner says:

      She means well

    • The View from America says:

      I’m looking beyond her and seeing a couple of board games that might be fun to play after the video update is over.

      Risk or Stratego, anyone?

    • SVM says:

      Contrary to what Patrick says, I would argue that it is absolutely legitimate to scrutinise the “reading manner” of a CEO. If an orchestral player were to play so blandly and with so many awkward gaps between short phrases, he/she would probably be in trouble. If an opera singer were to struggle so badly to deliver his/her lines in performance and fail so abjectly to maintain an effective pacing, he/she would probably be in trouble. If it is right and proper that instrumentalists and singers are held to account for their performance before an audience, why not a CEO? A CEO’s job description involves an element of public performance (albeit of a different type), too, so he/she should be held to account when found wanting in that regard.

      To overlook low standards is an insult to the many talented people who are overlooked (maybe even unemployed) and who may be more deserving of the job.

      • Brian says:

        I worked in open plan offices with 24 staff and a high grade officer in charge
        If one spoke incorrectly on the phone you would get told off. we could not
        Get away with anything. Which is the way to manage people.
        I must say they were nice people

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    She desperately needs media training.

    This is painful to hear and watch.

    I lasted one minute.

  • CA says:

    Exactly right about presentation…..I couldn’t get past her third sentence. Is there a transcript somewhere that we could read?

  • William says:

    I thought her words were very clear and thoughtful. She needs no lessons in presentation. Good luck to this wonderful orchestra!

    • David Rohde says:

      It’s TOO clear and thoughtful. What I mean is that there’s another problem besides her obviously reading a script while pretending not to. Listen to the end of her words. Somebody coached her that “diction” was really important, or maybe she got that idea on her own. But I’m not sitting in the last row of a Broadway theater watching an Arthur Miller play. I’m at a screen watching a person talk into a camera a few feet away. It comes across as infantilizing (and her completely literal approach to consonant diction in American English isn’t quite right for theater either, but that’s another story).

      I truly am not meaning to pick on this individual. Public speaking deficiencies by orchestra executives and other concert presenters can be regularly seen in the holdups before the first downbeat of an evening while somebody begs the captive audience for donations. That’s a whole other story for more normal times than these. The only point here is that this worthy orchestra deserves a better-delivered message than this. They really should try again.

  • Craig says:

    That was painful. Very seldom can someone read from a prompt and appear extemporaneous but this is truly difficult to listen to.

  • Bruce says:

    She sounds like she was told at some point that she talks too fast.* And yes, she’s stuck with a clunky script, which is too bad.

    Changing the playback speed to 1.25x or even 1.5x helps. The awkward pauses remain disproportionately long, however.

    *(reminds me of a story one of my teachers told me. Her teacher — very famous — told her that her vibrato was too slow, so she worked and worked on speeding it up. After she graduated and won an orchestra job, a colleague asked her why she always used such fast vibrato. Apparently the famous teacher never told her when it was fast enough.)

    • David Rohde says:

      Specifically, she is very self-consciously pausing at the end of every sentence. This has to be coming from the same source (either the same coach, or perhaps her own misguided notion from reading) that causes her to over-enunciate the last one or two consonants of so many words in strict accordance with their spelling, which doesn’t even match how real people talk in 100% of the cases. They really should throw this video out and ask her to speak with clarity, yes, but to consider the environment (speaking directly into a camera, not declaiming from a soapbox in the town square) and to just relax. Seriously, the intention is good – perhaps minus the slight slap at theater and opera – and it would help achieve the goal.

    • Pamela Brown says:

      Or, it might have been one of those inside teacher jokes that they like to play on someone they consider a threat…

  • Been There says:

    Perhaps she was hired for her administrative and strategic planning skills, not for her reading-aloud skills. Granted, presentation skills are important for someone in her position, but in the bigger picture, the important thing here is that she is reaching out to her constituents.

    Are all of you who are criticizing her presentation ready to step into her shoes to do her job?

  • Peter McGuire says:

    Michelle Miller Burns is an earnest and thoughtful leader. I feel lucky to work for her. She has qualities of leadership that seem, to me, in short supply. I’ll take those over a slick presentation any day. Having worked for some of the worst, I think we are in caring hands, here in MN.

    • Bruce says:

      DEFINITELY more important than slick presentation. Minnesota Orchestra history has shown where slick-but-heartless leadership leads.

  • Alvaro says:

    This industry is laughable. They appoint a violinist to run an organization, what do you expect?

    Rather than perennially subsidizing these horribly run “organizations” in the names of culture, they should let the market run its course and start over with fewer organizations that are properly managed.

    But if we make a tragedy every time an orchestra closes….

  • Orchspork says:

    MMB is an extremely thoughtful leader and strives for clarity and understanding in what she is saying, which will be viewed by the majority of the donors and regular patrons of this orchestra. Many of them are older and appreciate the clarity.

    It’s unfortunate that Norman and the readers here are so focused on her delivery, and have not mentioned her excellent leadership during what one of the greatest crises for the performing arts in history. Minnesota Orchestra has not had had issues with leadership that were splashed over the headlines and is doing remarkably well compared to many large budget orchestras, all things considering, and MMB’s steadfast commitment to collaboration and transparency with staff, board, and musicians is admirable and effective.

    I’m unclear on why it is worth anyone’s time to nitpick on details like this when the leaders of organizations need all the support they can get as they navigate the next phase of the performing arts.

  • Rolf Erdahl says:

    I am often entertained by your views, and often find them insightful or at least provocatively entertaining, whether I agree or not. This post, however, is possible the most disgraceful and despicable thing you’ve ever written.

    From personal meetings and work with Michelle Miller Burns, and from knowing her dedication and how hard she has been working for the Minnesota Orchestra and the community it serves, your churlish evaluation of her delivery is both misogynistic and a disservice to the art of orchestral music. It’s doubtful you would have made similar comments about a similarly successful man giving a similar delivery of difficult, honest information.

    She’s the real deal dealing with an unreal situation. The Minnesota Orchestra has risen from fire and near death experiences. Michelle Miller Burns has continued to built on the orchestra’s recent spectacular successes and chart creative and meaningful new directions while maintaining the great traditions the Minnesota Orchestra and and classical music exemplify. Ask any musicians or staff member and she receives nearly universal respect and approval.

    Shooting the messenger speaking honest, direct truth to her constituents serves no imaginable positive purpose. Are you auditioning for headliner status in case anyone takes on a sequel to your “Who Killed Classical Music?” This post would merit several chapters on its own.

    Shame on you.

    • David Rohde says:

      I hope that the folks in Minnesota will accept my further comment in the constructive manner in which it’s intended. What becomes clearer in this conversation is that Michelle Miller Burns has a very particular kind of orchestra patron in mind when she’s speaking. One of the giveaways is the reference to “subscribers who love their seats.”

      I made the remark above that I dislike badly delivered pre-concert speeches, although in fact I don’t mind brief remarks about the need for donations to supplement ticket revenues. Smaller American theaters that present plays and musicals do that too, although many of them at least have the moxie to send out an actor or actress who might even be able to crack a joke or two before delivering the message. What I do mind is the not infrequently heard demand that everybody in the audience consider subscribing for the entire next season of concerts or operas before a single note of that evening’s program has been sounded. That matches the predicted behavior of absolutely nobody in the audience who is there for the first time, who should be the most treasured of all the concert attendees.

      The bottom line is that the manner of presentation in this video, especially now that it’s received additional publicity via Norman’s website, subtly but definitely delivers the impression that “classical music” is only for a certain kind of person. I fully recognize the exigencies of the moment and why every part of the script is in there. But in my sincere opinion it should be re-recorded in a far more natural manner, in service of both local needs in Minnesota and the American symphony orchestra community at large.

  • christopher storey says:

    There was nothing wrong with her presentation. This was not meant to be entertainment . It was a thoughtful piece, intended to inform interested parties about the effects on her orchestra of what is probably the greatest crisis that has arisen in the lifetimes of all but the oldest sectors of the population . It may have been too serious for some of those posters who have made moronic observations, but it clearly was not intended for their consumption

  • V.Lind says:

    I read the post and the 37 comments that were posted when I turned to this story before actually watching the statement. I expected something ghastly in form and content. I found neither. I can’t see much fault in the text — it is clear and very comprehensive for a short speech.

    Yes, she is obviously an inexperienced hand at speaking to camera. But it looked real, not slick. And her content was very appropriate. As someone who has been a consultant to four orchestras I can assure you that subscribers can get very tetchy if they do not get their same seats year after year, and she was addressing them specifically to tell them that if distance seating were necessary when concerts in the hall resumed, that might not be possible for everyone. Inviting patrons to consider donating or subscribing is part of her job — the part most CEOs dislike the most. Every orchestra in the world is seeking donations — pick any six and check their websites.

    Her comments about theatre and opera were exactly true. It does take longer to put a play or an opera together than a concert. Musicians turn up to the first rehearsal for a concert knowing exactly what to do, and they are there to fine-tune, except perhaps in a piece of new music, where the conductor’s instructions will be informational. And even there, they probably have his markings before they start practising. Yes, very experienced opera singers can be rushed in at the last minute occasionally and instructed on staging on the run, but that’s not a situation anyone relishes. Theatres usually have understudies at the ready. Both usually rehearse for weeks, not days.

    This lady did a very nice job of delivering her message in a friendly way. I think Minnesotans, whether they work for her or come to see what is in part the fruit of her labours can be well pleased. The votes of confidence from her musicians here attests to that.

    I daresay her communications director could have delivered the speech better, as it would be part of his/her job description to be able to speak to camera comfortably. But she did not shirk her duty as CEO. She was probably armed only with the instructions to smile and speak clearly. She did both, and it is a very nice smile.

    I find the attitudes to her, and to what she said, venomous. That speech could be a template for any other CEO contemplating doing something similar to his audience.

    • David Rohde says:

      Thanks for the comment. I think that to some extent you’re countering arguments that nobody is really making. The text is fine (I’ll get to the theater/opera comparison in a minute) and Norman said at the top that the effort was transparent and commendable. And yes, it made perfect sense to assure subscribers who are sensitive about their location in the hall that the organization would try to protect their seats.

      The problem is that the delivery of the entire rest of the speech is clearly geared to that subgroup, especially in an effort to extract more money from them, and leaves an unfortunate impression about the nature of classical music patronage in the 21st century, pandemic or no pandemic. I’m sorry but you can read it in the delivery and pick up suggestions of what I mean in perhaps ruder comments in this thread than I’m willing to make. The other explanation is that she was misled, or she misled herself, on what constitutes effective spoken communications especially in this kind of paradoxically intimate video environment. But I really now think that there was a strong element of segmenting her market that came across in an unfortunate way.

      The problem with the reference to theater and opera is that it was an incomplete comparison. Yes, the rehearsal process for those genres is longer, but a symphony orchestra usually has a lot more people to fit on stage – a challenge that is now being discussed daily at this website. Especially in light of the pitch to buy a future full-season subscription, something that I can’t imagine any newer fan of the Minnesota Orchestra rationally deciding to do, you’d think this would have to be acknowledged in the context of what she was saying.

      The good news is that what we’re discussing is all a fixable problem – either redo the video or at least do better next time. Certainly no ill will is meant on my part, and I’m aware of the past challenges and achievements of this particular orchestra. I’ll leave off my participation here with this entry. Thanks for the discussion.

      • V.Lind says:

        I did not get the impression of her speaking to any sub-group. Anyone who is even checking the Minnesota Orchestra website will have some interest in it. Her comments seemed to address anyone who would have had reason to be looking in.

  • Fiddlesticks says:

    I don’t know

    About you guys

    But I rather

    Enjoyed listening

    To her

    Carefully worded

    Response to

    The situation

  • Elvira says:

    The tempo !
    Very odd speech
    Probably we have too much time in our hands.