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June 18, 2007

Also RE: "Is Retro good?"

by Molly Sheridan

I've seen classical musicians forcibly dressed up in ways they did not want to be, and it was not pretty. I also had the opportunity to ask an orchestra executive once to estimate the percentage of the musicians in his orchestra he suspected actually wanted to be on stage on any given evening. He shot back, somewhat proud of the difficulty of his job, "Maybe 25%." Ack! $60 to watch miserable people? Sadly, the studies that have been done on orchestra musicians job satisfaction seem to indicate this situation is frightenly wide spread.

Yes, we keep talking about how miserable orchestra musicians can get, how crushed down their creativity, and then we talk about how bored they look on stage and how that alienates the audience, and then we do...what? Before we just start trying to make up experiences we hope the public will be seduced by, let's start with the people on stage. If orchestras suddenly had no outside funding (and no funding to risk) and the musicians where only banding together because playing the great orchestral repertoire was their passion, how would they want to perform it? Would they even want to? Now, assuming suddenly that the musicians are all independently wealthy and can rent whatever space and music and technology they need, what would a concert look and sound like? If it's a vision the organization feels excited by and invested in, wouldn't that be a vision they could sell, onstage and off, more effectively than any marketing department?

I hear that even funding that is expressly for this sort of creative exercise doesn't really work out correctly when you're dealing with already overworked individuals. So, yes, maybe it's all naïve fantasy, but how I wish we could really see what happens if it truly did.

Posted by msheridan at June 18, 2007 8:15 AM


While it's certainly true that orchestra musicians do not, for the most part, get to choose their attire for the concert hall, and while it is also true that their jobs become, to some (presumably large) extent, drudgery (just like most jobs), it's oftentimes hard to see our way out of the thicket.

Some have suggested a slight tweak to the orchestral wardrobe -- say, updating it from 1850 to something closer to 1880, or even 1900. But bringing whalebone into the concert hall might not quite solve the problem of low morale.

That's where Molly's fresh and brilliant idea hits us full in the face, like pie:

Rather than ask that foundations and corporations dole out funding to arts groups merely to keep them in tuxes and sheet music or whatever, Molly (if I read her correctly) is suggesting something bolder:

Give the money directly to the musicians. And not just a little bit, either. Not just enough for some new clothes. Enough, in essence, to make them all "independently wealthy."

Even if it only means Prada and Armani instead of whatever was the haute orchestral couture in the 19th century.

Posted by: klinger at June 18, 2007 10:29 AM

Those are very interesting thoughts, Molly. In the mid 1980s, the Symphony Orchestra Project at Harvard under Prof. Richard Hackman found that the only profession among their surveyed groups that had lower job satisfaction than orchestra musicians were prison guards. If I remember right, even beer truck drivers were happier.

I have had a LOT of contact with orchestra musicians, and I can tell you the study is true. The work is boring, stressful, and repetitive, and worse, it is deeply authoritarian and hierarchical.

Strangely, I have also noticed that the large majority of full-time orchestra musicians don't often make other kinds of music, even if they have the free time or money to do so. Orchestras seem to sap the desire for creativity almost completely out of them. In fact, many creative musicians avoid orchestras like a plague, but they usually have few alternatives for making a living.

There are always a small few in an orchestra who really do want to make other kinds of music, and they seem to find ways to do so. Most of it is chamber music and very traditional - string quartets, and brass and woodwind quintets are common examples. Some of the first chairs aspire to solo work, but are usually frustrated by the lack of invitations. Only the tiniest number deeply involve themselves with new music, or even new methods of presenting traditional music.

Even in Europe, public funding of music is of little help because almost all of the money goes to orchestras and operas (I would say 99%), though there are a small number of performers who make good livings doing just new music. This is possible because Europe has many more new music festivals and they are better funded.

I advocate for better public arts funding, but from a more personal perspective as a composer, I refuse to even write for orchestras, and rather wish they would just fall off the planet. I know that is very ironic, but that is art. It seems that to strengthen the new, we must strengthen the old.

William Osborne

Posted by: William Osborne at June 18, 2007 11:57 AM

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