Resuming my posts on how well orchestras play…
My points today:
- orchestral musicians are deeply committed to their work, but not satisfied with it
- they have trouble resolving this contradiction
- and since their main complaints are about the quality of the conductors they have to play for, they couldn’t possibly believe — in their hearts — that their orchestras play as well as they ought to
What I’m starting to get at here is the inner culture of orchestras. I began to touch on that in my “Four personalities” post, in which one of my Juilliard students talked about what her playing is like when she takes orchestra auditions:…precise, mechanical, robotic. In orchestra auditions it is more important to do nothing wrong than to do anything particularly well. They are basically looking for a reason to eliminate you, and “bad intonation” is a lot more convincing than “plays like an automaton.”
We can decide for ourselves if she thinks orchestras are looking — in practice, now, not in theory — for creative musical artists.And I continued down this path in my “No direction home” post, in which I said that orchestras don’t — as a rule; there are exceptions — really have anyone who’s in full artistic control. They don’t, in other words, have artistic directors, something you’ll find in virtually any other arts organization of any kind, including pop record labels. (If this seems implausible to you, read the post for a full explanation.)
But my most important post so far on orchestral culture was the one I called “Atomized,” in which — building on a comment by a musician in the Cleveland Orchestra — I said that orchestra musicians, by their own admission, can only address the quality of their orchestras’ playing in silence, as individuals, or at best in private, small-group discussions. There’s no way to do it openly.
So…my three points.
There’s a literature about orchestral musicians’ job satisfaction. It dates from the ’90s. If anyone thinks, after reading what follows, that the studies are no longer relevant, please tell me! But from what I’ve found, from contacts with orchestras in recent years, I’d think the studies are as useful now as they were when they were done. They (or summaries of them) were published in Harmony magazine, the publication of the Symphony Orchestra Institute, a very useful organization that’s now defunct, though the magazine is archived on the Polyphonic.org website.
The best-known study was done by Richard Hackman, a psychology professor at Harvard (and someone who loves orchestra concerts very deeply), working with collaborators. There’s a kind of urban legend about his work, that he found orchestra musicians had lower job satisfaction than air traffic controllers, whose work is wildly stressful.
But this isn’t true. Richard and his collaborators didn’t study air traffic controllers. Professional hockey players, in fact, had the lowest job satisfaction of all the occupations studied. Orchestra musicians ranked in the middle, just below federal prison guards. (Musicians in professional string quartets ranked first.)
But a crucial finding of the study, in my view, is that nobody Hackman and his people studied had greater internal motivation. That is, orchestral musicians are on fire to play as well as they can, something reflected in the comments I’ve gotten on these posts. And, believe me, I deeply respect this. But Richard, speaking sympathetically, thought the high motivation to some extent clashed with the not so high job satisfaction. Here’s how he put it in an interview with Paul Judy, the head of the Symphony Orchestra Institute:
…no group we have studied has greater internal motivation than [orchestral musicians]. Yet their overall job satisfaction, and especially their satisfaction with opportunities for continued growth and development, are not pushing the top of the scale. The professional symphony orchestra, it seems, does not provide as rich and rewarding an occupational setting for musicians as one would hope.
So this is part of what I have in mind, when I say (my second point at the start of this post) that musicians have trouble resolving the contradiction between satisfaction and commitment. If they were happier in their jobs, would they play better? Maybe not — Richard and his team found a slight negative correlation between orchestral quality and job satisfaction. Musicians, that is, were very slightly more likely to be dissatisfied in orchestras that played really well!
But that’s under current conditions, which I’ll have more to say about in a moment. Though it’s an astonishing finding. Surely something’s wrong, somewhere, if the better orchestras aren’t the most satisfying to be in. I have to wonder whether, if orchestral culture were more deeply satisfying, whether the negative correlation would disappear. And whether orchestras would play better than they do now.
What strikes me most, though, is a kind of dual thinking that seems to go on, when I post about these things here. I ask whether orchestras play as well as they might. So then I get strong pushback from musicians who insist that they’re ferociously committed to terrific playing, and that they have many ways to influence the quality of their orchestras. Plus fervent objections to my sports analogies, saying that orchestral concerts exist on a far higher level than sports, that what goes on in them is spiritual uplift. This all would reflect the internal motivation that Richard discussed.
But what I don’t hear about is the job satisfaction. That is, I don’t get many full-spectrum responses, in which someone might say, “Listen, we’re not all that happy doing our jobs, but we try as hard as we can to play at the highest level.” I think — and I say this with sympathy and respect — that one reason I’m not likely to get many responses of this kind is that, if I got them, musicians would then have to ask how much better they might play if they were happier doing their jobs. If, for instance, they really had ways, both individually and as a group, to openly, constructively, collectively address the quality of their playing.
This post is getting long. i’ll conti