Not so satisfied

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
But first, a look back:
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 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.
(This interview is the only source for Richard’s findings that you can find on the web, without special access. RIchard and his collaborators published their findings in the Musical Quarterly, but you need access to the Oxford University Press scholarly journals to read what they wrote.)

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.

If, that is, they weren’t atomized. 
This post is getting long. i’ll conti

nue it. 

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Gary King says

    The observation that orchestra musicians are highly motivated, but have low satisfaction with the orchestras in which they play, reminds me of my experience as a scientist in a pharmaceutical company. My colleagues and I loved what we did – designing and conducting experiments – but we had very low opinions of the company that employed us, and the executives who ran it. This was only my second job after completing a Ph.D., and I realize, now, that this company had exceptionally bad management. However, I have frequently heard of similar attitudes, even at better-managed firms. I think that what you have called “atomization” was a significant reason that highly motivated people had low job satisfaction. If the creative and talented people (musicians, or scientists) are not free to speak their minds, and contribute to the direction of the enterprise, then this is bound to foster alienation, cynicism, and dissatisfaction.

  2. Gene says

    One of the most interesting things about the Harvard study is the contrast in job satisfaction between orchestra musicians and members of string quartets. It’s my understanding that even with typically much lower salaries the quartet players are much more satisfied than their orchestral counterparts. I think that the reason for this apparent paradox has to do with artistic ownership: the internal dynamics of an orchestra call for the musicians to obediently execute the conductor’s “vision” for the music, while in a quartet the interpretation is negotiated among the four players. It’s no wonder that many orchestral string players love to play chamber music for the sheer pleasure of it.

  3. Steve Ledbetter says

    Greg, it is possible for many people to get access to the Musical Quarterly article you cite without having access to a university library. MQ and other scholarly music journals are available online on JSTOR. Anyone with a card for a library that subscribes to the site can read anything on it, from any web connection. The main trick is finding which libraries subscribe. I, for example, as a Massachusetts resident, can get a card for the Boston Public Library; with my card number I access JSTOR and other electronic resources to which the BPL subscribes through the library’s own site. I suspect most other states have at least one such library open to any resident.

  4. says

    I think a part of the issue may be that at least some orchestral musicians think of what they do as a craft rather than as an art. By this, I mean that they regard their job beginning and ending with technical mastery of their instrument so that they can produce whatever sound the conductor requires of them. They don’t concern themselves much with interpretation or other artistic matters, they leave that to the conductor, whoever he or she might be that day.

    So although, as you mentioned in the previous article, musicians make artistic decisions with every note they play, to a great extent this realisation is hidden from them. They think in terms of following a craft, not of creating art. The artistic bit is left to the conductor.

    Now, if the players regard themselves as mere ciphers of the controlling mind and interpretation of the conductor, it becomes difficult for them to even conceive that there are artistic decisions for them to make, still less that these are matters that they might talk about. And so they don’t., and it doesn’t occur to them to seek forums and mechanisms by which they can talk about it.

  5. Kevin James says

    one of my favorite, saddest, truest jokes:

    “How do you get a musician to bitch and moan?

    GIve them a gig.

    How do you get a musician to bitch and moan more?

    Give them a better gig.”

    Greg – I think what the study, the unions, conductors, orchestra management, and perhaps the musicians themselves often miss in this equation is the correlation and contradiction between expectations and satisfaction. Most of the musicians are trained in our (or other countries’) finest conservatories with the skills to almost literally do anything on their instruments, and to do it with individuality and panache. While in the conservatory they play music in the orchestra that is primarily intended to both inspire them and push them on to new levels of musical and technical accomplishment. This is what they are taught an orchestra should be. They have to compete to get into that orchestra and they have to compete to keep their seat.

    However, most of those who end up in professional orchestras do so by choice, opting out of the far more competitive arena of solo or chamber careers, seeking stability of both lifestyle and income. The disconnect happens then on two extraordinarily harsh levels – first, the professional orchestra is perhaps the only non-competitive job setting with such truly astronomical standards in today’s world. I think your professional sports analogies are very appropriate – imagine what it would take to maintain the competitive edge on a pro sports team that offered tenure to all players it kept more than two seasons. Second – the priorities of management are (necessarily?) focused almost solely on audience development and fundraising, with no useful place in the equation for inspiration or professional development of their musicians. After all, that’s the conductor’s job. I think you’ve discussed a little bit about how that’s working out….

  6. Da Ping Luo says

    I think it’s peculiar that Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is not mentioned in this blog post…is that coming up in a latest post as part of a series?

  7. richard says

    I would love to see the job satisfaction statistics

    for percussionists, trumpeters, trombonists and tubists. In many ways they are “over qualified” for a lot of the standard 0rch rep. Technically speaking, a good high school trumpeter can handle with ease the trumpet parts in a Mozart symphony. As listener, I don’t much care for late romanticism, but as a player, it was more fun.

    Personally, I would love to see the the big orchestras have their members do more chamber work.

    And, of course, more 20th-21st music.

  8. Joan Sutherland says

    I guess it’s really true that each one of us in an orchestra is only one note of many in dense chords as they move and change in time. There is so much that needs to be considered if the music is interpreted, especially music from Beethoven and on, that it can really be directed by one person -the one with the full score. It’s their art, and we are trained and willing to respond to that one person’s hearing of the score. The violins can’t tell the trumpet to decrescendo more and to what volume if they’re busy with a lot of 16th notes. This is what we do -in rehearsal and during concerts. But most of us have other musical lives as chamber players, gig musicians, teachers, and soloists in smaller orchestras. We all know members of our audiences and we all have friends who plug in their earphones and don’t ever buy tickets. Many of us have opinions about what that relationship might mean, how and where it might be expanded, rejuvinated. But we are “managed” by Boards, General Managers and office staff who are non-musicians. They may adore music, but they are often far more conservative than we players are. But look at Ballet, Opera and Theatre Companies. Most major ones are run by an Artistic Director who once danced, sang or acted. Maybe it’s time to return to hiring conductors again who manage the artistic shape of their orchestras? The more ownership and creative authority comes from the podium, the better the music making. Art decisions can’t be built by committee, especially a non-musical committee. Would we see different directions with orchestras run by their conductors and a players group?

  9. says

    Good post. I think you are onto something with the focus on high motivation, which so closely correlates with high expectations – and the greater likelihood those expectations will be disappointed in a competitive environment (tip to Kevin James).

    I’ll just chip in with a couple of observations:

    I wonder if there’s anything to the fact that the studies you are using began in the ‘90s. Those years seem to have been the “tipping point” in the transition from the 20th Century orchestra, with its authoritarian leadership models, to the 21st Century orchestra, in which the orchestra musicians are expecting, and being given, much more say and power. I would be curious to know what job satisfaction levels were for orchestra players in, for example, the 60s, or the 30s in the US during the New Deal.

    A related point (with another tip to Kevin James) is about the ultimate usefulness of applying conventional measurements of job satisfaction – contentment, happiness, remuneration etc. – to the arts. I’m not a musician, but I was a theatre actor and director for a while. I found it agonizing, and there’s a good chance I would have ended up down with the hockey players propping up Hackman’s table. Yet even though I ended up deciding that the toll the thespian life was taking on me was too high, it was some of the best work I’ve ever done. (Maybe Aristotle would have been a better guy to devise “satisfaction” criteria for performers?)

    I’m caught between the thoughts that on the one hand these kinds of measurements could indeed contribute to improving musicians’ job satisfaction, and on the other that we are nowhere near being able to measure such things (tip to Bergman – how can we measure the human soul?). Also brewing is the thought that the researchers’ motivations for trying to measure them in the first place should be scrutinized and factored in (maybe they were driven by corporate interests?… but that’s another story).

  10. Orchestral Musician says

    @Joan Sutherland, it can go both ways.

    With one person having “ownership and creative authority” you can have a beautiful result with an over-arching creative vision, but if the chemistry with the orchestra isn’t right then you can also have a disastrous result, and with all the power with only one person, it will take a long time to turn the situation around.