Inside the Metaphor Business

Minicourses on leadership from Orpheus — a conductorless orchestra.

In July 1998, Harvey Seifter became executive director of Orpheus. (Julian Fifer, its founder, left in May 1999 to start a company and to write a book.) Seifter believes that the group's work with business audiences has just begun to take shape. Given the huge market for ideas, inspirational leadership training, and conference entertainment with a message, Seifter figures that the group can sell minicourses on the Orpheus process to those people who are eager for a fresh perspective. "Rarely in the nonprofit world do you discover an entirely new revenue source," he says.

Here's what he's got in mind. Rather than go on grueling international tours a few times each year, Orpheus could go into temporary "residence" at companies or cultural institutions, as it is now doing at Baruch High School and at Zicklin School of Business, in New York City. The group would stay for a week, rehearsing in front of a live audience that would get a chance to ask questions. In addition, a quartet or octet of Orpheus members could appear at business conferences every so often to spread the gospel.

There's an obvious benefit to the plan: The revenue that it would generate could help the group operate more efficiently. Members of Orpheus currently have to participate in only 35% of all performances, and even that requirement isn't rigorously enforced. But in a competitive market, Orpheus can't yet pay its musicians enough to demand that they give up their other freelance work. If Orpheus can make more money, it can pay its musicians more and demand more of their time.

The plan does have some risks. There is no guarantee that adding new sources of revenue would allow Orpheus to boost pay to the point that the musicians would be willing to turn down other projects. "It has taken more than 20 years to develop my career," says bassoonist Frank Morelli, who teaches at three schools, plays in a number of orchestras, and also has his own chamber group. "If I start giving up jobs, they won't simply be handed back to me on a silver platter. All of us have to be very careful to protect our ability to remain active in our careers."

The other concern is that the musicians won't be interested in becoming part-time business consultants. Although Orpheus is notable for its lack of prima donnas, members of the group tend to refer to such consultant work as "dog shows," where they're trotted out to amuse a bunch of rich folks. "Artistically, we don't have a strong desire to do this sort of thing," says cellist Melissa Meell. "But we're old enough to understand why it might be interesting for us and for people who are in the crowd, as well as financially rewarding. It can be a teaching process, and we all like to teach."

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