More unsatisfied

I know that what I’m writing here is difficult. I may seem to be attacking orchestra musicians. Which I’m not, not at all. I have the greatest respect for them. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at some difficulties they might have…which I’m hardly the first to mention.
So, continuing from my last post…

I’d mentioned studies and other writing, published in Harmony magazine in 1996, about how satisfied (or not) orchestra musicians were with their work. And I wrote about one of them, a study by Harvard psychologist Richard Hackman and some collaborators, in which orchestra musicians were found to have dramatically powerful internal motivation, but only average job satisfaction. Which seemed, to Richard and (when I read his stuff) to me, like a contradiction. Orchestral musicians have a dual view of their work. They could say, with total honesty, that they focus intensely on the quality of their work. And then they can turn around, and talk (as I’ve heard them do) with almost cynical black humor — or outright cynicism — about how not quite great things are for them. 

There’s more detail — a lot more — in another study, “Stress and Job Satisfaction among Symphony Musicians,” by John Breda and Patrick Kulesa, also published in Harmony. Again something that I think is contradictory shows up, which is that “[r]espondents [orchestral musicians surveyed for the study] reported moderate levels of job satisfaction and a low level of job dissatisfaction.” If satisfaction is only moderate, shouldn’t dissatisfaction be a little more than low? Again, I think I see musicians taking a double view of their work.

But what’s most interesting — given that I started all this by asking whether orchestras play as well as they could (or should) — are the reasons for whatever dissatisfaction the musicians do report:

Specifically, they are generally dissatisfied with their voice in matters affecting the orchestra, and they are unhappy with the job performance of their music directors.
Unhappy with the “job performance” of their music directors? They think their music directors aren’t good enough? Then wouldn’t that mean they don’t think their orchestras play well enough? Because if the conductor isn’t good enough…well, you see what I mean. Again I think the double view comes into play. If I say orchestras don’t play well enough — and, further, that there’s no central way to address this inside an orchestra — some musicians jump on me, and say they work really hard on musical quality, giving all sorts of heartfelt examples. None of which I’d deny.

But then, if we’re to believe this study, they also think, overall, that their conductors aren’t good enough. Which means they themselves think the playing could be better! I might wonder if the very powerlessness that I think exists, about musical quality — that (as I’ve said often enough in these posts) there’s no overt, collective way for musicians to make the playing better — makes at least some musicians unwilling to discuss the question. Because to get into it, they’d have to delve into all kinds of uncomfortable areas. 

Enough from me. Let me (so to speak) turn the floor over to Robert Levine, principal violist of the Milwaukee Symphony and a union official, who with his father Seymour Levine (an academic) wrote a powerful paper  called “Why They’re Not Smiling: Stress and Discontent in the Orchestra Workplace” (also published in Harmony). 

This takes a much more personal view of problems inside orchestras, and amounts to a white-hot critique of orchestras’ internal culture. Coming, let’s note, from a prominent orchestra musician. 

And here we get into something I quoted from John Breda and Patrick Kulesa, but didn’t say anything about, that musicians “are generally dissatisfied with their voice in matters affecting the orchestra.” If we’re to believe Robert and his father, this goes very deep. I’ll silence my own voice now, and simply quote:

A more subtle stress musicians face is difficult even to label, much less to quantify. Instrumentalists generally view whatever they produce on their instruments as flawed in comparison with the ideal they have set for themselves. This comes, at least in part, from a system of instrumental education that views anything less than absolute technical perfection as completely unacceptable. Yet it is also the mindset that an instrumentalist, at any level of proficiency, must maintain in order to improve. But most instrumentalists, however good, are never going to reach perfection in their playing or even reach the level regularly achieved by the soloists who stand in front of professional orchestras.

In few other professions are the practitioners forced to confront their own professional failings so regularly, and this constant awareness of their personal limitations can lead to chronic internal conflict between diminished self-esteem and musicians’ natural desires to think well of themselves….

[T]he disparity between myth and reality in professional orchestras is extreme and serves as the most powerful source of musician stress and counterproductive institutional dynamics.

[One myth the Levines cite is the myth of the omnipotent conductor. Musicians are the first to know that conductors aren’t omnipotent — and might, in some cases, not even be competent — but have to pretend that they buy the myth.]

What happens when a member of the orchestra asks the conductor a question is”revealing. (Virtually every communication from a musician to a conductor in a rehearsal is phrased as a question, even when it is really a statement of fact or belief.) One of the authors once heard the principal clarinetist of a major American orchestra ask the conductor whether he wanted the notes with dots over them “short, or like the brass were playing them?” This rather complex statement masquerading as a question conveyed both the musician’s lack of respect for the brass players in question and scorn for the conductor’s failure to notice the problem. But to fit the myth of the omniscient conductor, the comment had to be phrased as a question, for how could a musician possibly inform an omniscient being? The myth dictates that a musician can only tap into that well of knowledge, not add to it.

Questions from musicians to conductors must be respectfully phrased and, ideally, prefaced with the honorific “Maestro.” (This title may be dropped if the conductor is sufficiently young or doesn’t speak with an accent.) Such questions must not explicitly challenge the conductor’s interpretation of the music or con

ducting and rehearsal technique in any way.

This arrangement makes matters awkward for the orchestral musician who desires to improve the quality of the orchestral product. The musician must not challenge the conductor’s tempi or interpretation; he or she cannot even suggest that there might be a pitch or ensemble problem, much less how the conductor might fix it. Questions are therefore limited to issues of whether the parts agree with the score or how the conductor would like a certain passage bowed. Even the latter has risks, however, as it implies that the conductor didn’t see how it was bowed the first time; certainly no self-respecting omniscient being could have missed something as elementary as whether a passage started up-bow or down-bow.

In fact, the myth makes virtually all communication from musician to conductor impossible. (In one major American orchestra, musicians are discouraged from addressing the music director until he addresses them first. Matters are arranged so that the music director never encounters musicians except on the podium or in private meetings which he calls.) This is not to say such communications don’t happen, of course, but the farther they venture from simple inquiry, the more uncomfortable they are likely to make orchestra members and the more angry the conductor. Challenging the conductor’s omniscience is, quite literally, taboo.

Musicians in a professional orchestra of any significance know quite a bit about music and about what they’re doing. So do many conductors, of course; but generally, individual conductors do not know more than the orchestra in front of them knows collectively. In fact, about certain issues, such as the mechanics of string playing, conductors usually know quite a bit less. Most orchestra musicians would agree that many conductors deal ineptly with technical issues such as pitch and ensemble, and that many conductors do not even recognize such problems when they occur, much less address them. Most orchestra musicians, after all, have extensive chamber music experience, in which pitch and ensemble are prominent on the work agenda.
This is actually the fundamental structure of the orchestral workplace. During rehearsals or concerts, musicians experience a total lack of control over their environment. They do not control when the music starts, when the music ends, or how the music goes. They don’t even have the authority to leave the stage to attend to personal needs. They are, in essence, rats in a maze, at the whim of the god with the baton.

Much of what is inexplicable to observers of professional orchestras can be explained by stress caused by chronic lack of control and musicians’ attempts to deal with it. Musicians’ first line of defense is the classic tactic of avoidance. It is no accident that every professional orchestra of any consequence is unionized and that the resulting collective bargaining agreements under which orchestras labor spell out in
exquisite detail the limits of a conductor’s authority over the musicians. Such agreements attempt to limit the amount of time musicians are exposed to a situation over which they have no control, as well as expressions of musicians’ need to control at least something about the workplace.

There is another, more subtle effect of this chronic lack of control on orchestra musicians: infantilization. Forced to play the roles of children, musicians can behave childishly. Musicians who, when not at work, are perfectly responsible adults, can regress to the level of five-year olds at work, especially when the conductor is even less like the mythic omniscient father figure than is the norm for conductors. Moreover, these musicians tend to view their world, much as a child might, as a mysterious and threatening place. The paranoia that some orchestra musicians exhibit towards managers and conductors, and even towards those of their colleagues who serve on workplace committees, is a consequence of this world view. Yet the subjects of this generalized paranoia are not some anonymous “they” off at corporate headquarters; they are people who, on a daily basis, stand in front of these musicians, answer their questions, and find the money to pay them.

If even half of this is true, then of course orchestras — for all the tremendous skill and devotion that their musicians have — don’t play as well as they could. 

And, of course, they have deep problems with their institutional culture. 
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. John Shibley says


    Your extensive quote from Levine is very revealing, and makes sense to me. Let me add to it from the perspective of someone who has worked in many settings trying to help organizations, their leaders and their members to perform more effectively.

    Musicians are suspended in a very difficult set of work structures. In many ways, they are like “knowledge workers”, a term that emerged in the 1980 (if I’m remembering correctly) in recognition that, in organizations requiring highly skilled employees to succeed, it’s what workers know that leads to competitive advantage. This perspective stands in opposition to an older model that saw workers as extensions of the machines they ran, and managers as the only one’s whose ideas really contributed to success. The conservatory process, plus a brutal natural selection equation, ensures that the people playing in orchestras are deeply, one might say profoundly, skilled and knowledgeable at their jobs. And, as anyone who has worked with high tech or financial wizards knows, what knowledge workers value most is the ability to freely exercise what they know as they do their work.

    Alas, several structural pressures keep orchestra musicians from being treated like this.

    One pressure, obviously, is that the purpose of an orchestra is to play beautifully but coherently, requiring a high degree of creative accommodation between the individual impulses of each highly knowledgeable musician. I’ve seen string quartets achieve this kind of accommodation, but it’s very difficult to see how a large group of workers – and I mean any kind of worker here, not just musicians – could do so when they are excepted to master and present so much complex material with so little time to prepare. It would be like 80 software engineers having to release a new product every week. So, the pace of performances works against this.

    The culture of deference to the maestro contributes to it as well, though one can see this culture as a sensible accommodation to the demands described above: with a lot of people trying to master complex material in a short amount of time, one strategy is to have an autocratic leader telling people what to do. This might lead to job satisfaction if the workers are not skilled, but with knowledge workers, it’s a recipe for frustration. In most situations it would lead to sabotage as the only available path for this frustration to take. That it does not, or does so as benignly as it seems to (your story of the violinist who does not play is a good example), speaks to the commitment to excellence that Levine describes.

    And of course, the labor/management dynamic created by the presence of a union contributes to all this as well, though I think it too simple to say that militant orchestra unions are the cause of it, or even the major cause. It makes more sense to me to see that the unions are the way they are as a result of these other dynamics, though the formality of the contract between labor and management frequently has the unfortunate result of institutionalizing the consequences of frustration instead of alleviating them, and the regular requirements of contract negotiations ensures that, every three years or so, there’s an opportunity for the people leading the orchestra – musician, staff, Board – to get good and pissed off at each other.

    I’m not sure that there is an industry-wide fix for all this – there doesn’t seem to be a simple, repeatable formula for fixing it that has emerged yet. I was encouraged by Jesse Rosen’s speech at the recent League conference though, if only because he seemed to be sharing what he sees plainly, without rancor or blame. We have to start with the whole, complicated, messy, uncomfortable truth, if we’re going to get anywhere.

  2. richard says

    Another reason for the big orchs to sponsor large, robust chamber music series. Let the musicians be musicians.