Orchestras are Ancient, Crumbly Ruins

The Orchestra
The Orchestra

I don’t imagine that I will add much to an already long line of articles (here’s a nice balanced article by Douglas Yeo) and conversations about the demise of the orchestra, but I figure that we need to keep this conversation going. Let’s invent a hypothetical trumpeter–Carla Cornet. Let’s see how the orchestra model of employment and artistic outlet impacts her.

  1. Unemployment and underemployment: Carla is up against anywhere from 50 to 300 applicants for a single full-time position. She probably cannot win every audition she takes. Thus, she remains in the pool. She may eventually take a part-time position, but she will have to work elsewhere to make a living.
  2. The prospect of playing music that is foreign to us in spirit: Carla grew up listening to pop or country. She liked “music.” So, she joined the middle school and high school band programs, excelled, decided “music” was her calling, went to music school, studied classical orchestral music. If she gets a job in an orchestra, she’ll play this music. She undoubtedly is broadminded enough to appreciate the good stuff in classical music, she’s clever enough to “re-frame” her expectations, BUT it’s not the music from her youth.
  3. The prospect of playing music that is not of our time or does not represent all of our people. If Carla gets a job in an orchestra and if she likes classical music deep down, she may wonder why it is that classical orchestras only pay a token gesture to modern music, music of minorities, or music of women.
  4. Limited repertory. Carla also wonders why she plays a recurrent sequence of about 100 pieces every four or five years. The truth is that orchestras are holding onto their fragile audiences by promoting the few pieces that the audiences know.
  5. Daniel Pink, author of "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us"
    Daniel Pink, author of “Drive”

    A heirarchical organization that is not really in line with our current notions of work interaction. Carla plays second trumpet. She has to check her opinions at the door. Principal makes all the calls for the trumpet sections, for good or bad. Of course, for the principal trumpeter, the conductor makes all the bigger decisions. As Daniel Pink in his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, has wonderfully pointed out, people of today crave more autonomy. This is intrinsic to our sense of motivation.

  6. Lack of creativity. Carla’s job is all about crafting every note to suit the composer, the conductor and the principal. She thought she was a creative person, but she doesn’t get to express her creativity in a field where everyone says, “Oh, you’re SO lucky to be working in the arts!”
  7. Lack of job stability. Take a look at the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra who have been locked out since October 1, 2012. Or the brutal crushing of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians by their management’s lockout.
  8. Decreasing benefits. Less medical and pension benefits compared to yesteryear.
  9. Decreasing and aging audiences. Carla wonders why people HER age don’t come to hear her. She can hardly GIVE away tickets. Audience attendance has declined 10% to 20% over the last 20 years.
  10. Decreasing sales of orchestral recordings from U. S. orchestras and decreasing numbers of classical radio stations. Carla wonders why her orchestra’s recording of the Ring cycle only sold 300 copies. 300! That doesn’t even cover the expenses of making the recording.

It would be no wonder if Ms. Cornet has conflicted feelings about her orchestra job. But she’ll probably grind out her 25 years so that she can get her pension. THEN she’ll have a good time in retirement.


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