Most of us view music as entertainment or a hobby, but for Spokane Symphony executive director Jeff vom Saal, it’s a way of life.
“I’ve always enjoyed music,” he says. “As a young person, I liked it and was good at it and just kept gravitating toward it.”
What started as a desire to be a professional trumpet player eventually led to a career in managing and leading musical organizations.
“I realized there was this whole other area where I could apply my knowledge and love of music,” he says. “And I really love what I do now, this is totally me.”
Originally from upstate New York, vom Saal trained as a musician, first learning trumpet at age 4 and eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in trumpet performance from the New England Conservatory of Music in 2001.
He says it wasn’t until after college that he became interested in a career in managing musical organizations, starting with the Metrowest Youth Symphony Orchestra, in Framingham, Mass.
“I learned a lot from that experience about both leadership and management of a musical organization,” he says.
From there, vom Saal went on to serve as executive director of the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra, in North Dakota, the Quad City Symphony, in Davenport, Iowa, and the Marin Symphony Association in northern California.
This year is vom Saal’s second as the executive director for the Spokane Symphony.
The symphony is a nonprofit that owns and operates its venue, The Fox, a downtown Spokane historic theater that reopened in 2007 after a major restoration.
“Spokane is unusual in that the symphony owns and operates a theater. It’s a big enterprise, and we want to make it great,” he says. “I love this work, and I love the community here. It’s a place that’s ripe for this kind of work, with many supportive and thoughtful people.”
Vom Saal describes his role as that of a synthesizer between the organization’s staff, its board, and the orchestra, keeping everything running smoothly.
A synthesizer is an electronic musical instrument, typically operated by a keyboard, that produces a variety of sounds.
“Our goal is to be a premier provider of art and entertainment, so a lot of it is prioritizing to make good things happen,” he says. “We’re not just a symphony, so the things we do need to reflect what the community aspires to be.”
Since starting as executive director, vom Saal, 39, has reduced the Symphony’s budget deficit, and the organization is expected to reach a break-even point by 2020.
Under his leadership, Spokane Symphony also has added new board members, booked more shows, and created more new community partnerships.
“Much of what I’ve done is just basic organization structure and crafting a narrative of opportunity,” he says. “That means knowing who we are and what our values are, understanding what we are doing well or not so well, and looking at new things we could be embracing.”
Vom Saal says aspiring leaders should be open, authentic, hardworking, and above all caring.
“Being a leader isn’t just about knowing how to manage people; it’s just as important to have emotional intelligence,” he says. “Leadership is about understanding the people around you, caring about them, and believing in them.”
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