‘The players on either side of me slept together’

This weekend’s orchestral talking point appears anonymously on the Guardian website. We cannot vouch for its authenticity or which orchestra is involved, but the general tone of the piece sounds fairly London-typical:

I work most weekends and holidays, then have random weekdays off. The freelance pay structure and low fees keep my nose glued to the grindstone, with almost zero opportunities to develop broader interests or a social life outside. People fraternise exclusively according to instrument, reinforcing the incestuous lifestyle…

one man orchestra

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  • If the pay is poor, the hours miserable, and the joy of music-making absent, then he/she should get out. Even more so, if the job is an expression of abusive parents’ wishes. This person must have a decent brain to have become such an accomplished, albeit unhappy, musician. Take the plunge and make a new start in life.

    • What Mr. Sykes says is eminently sensible. If it’s that bad-and it doesn’t seem to have much going for him or her-it’s time to get out while he or she still can.

  • It’s hard to get out. To get to such a high level of skill requires focus from an early age. Sometimes other job-skills/experiences fall by the wayside as you train to be a musician. A decade or so later…. the honeymoon is over – you have a family to support on a modest wage and financial/time restraints on doing any retraining whatsoever.

  • I’ve been playing professionally in orchestras since 1986.

    I still love playing my violin, and playing orchestral music.

    As far as I can tell, so do most of my colleagues.

    Complaining, “Whatever is put in front of me I have to play; I have no say in it,” is like an actor complaining that he has no say in his performance of a part in a role he auditioned for.

    One wonders what else the author complains about in his life.

  • His/her attitude is toxic, so he is certainly putting in his contribution to that. I agree with Patrick, above, that this one is in the wrong job and ought to do something about it. But I suspect that a few months on the treadmill of nine-to-five routines and he would realise how lucky he is.

    But if he hates it that much — if his parents were so abusive that they not only forced him to take lessons (a not unknown phenomenon) but got him educated to a professional level in said instrument (at an age where he ought to have been able to stand up for himself a little more) — he really needs to get out.

    On the other hand, if he hates it that much, and nobody has noticed and suggested he remove himself for bringing bad attitude to work, then the situation is just as bad as he describes.

  • Perhaps someone could persuade a Bill Gates or a do-gooding royal to set up a charitable foundation to ease the exit and transition to another field.

    Society for the Humane Assignment of Musicians or some such.

  • A number of thoughts occur more or less simultaneously:

    – Getting out is hard. Developing the skill to become a professional performing musician — even a lowly, poorly paid, rank-&-file freelancer — usually precludes developing any other marketable skills. Then you need to have some idea what you want to do instead. Then you need the time, money, and energy to go back to school. Most importantly, you need the confidence to believe that you might be able to succeed if you try. I can say from experience that an adulthood as a professional musician can have a corrosive effect on a person’s self-esteem, especially when you see your “civilian” friends, one after another, year after year, try to hide their embarrassment when they finally find out how little money you make. The whole attitude of “oh, but you get to do what you love” pretty much goes up in smoke when they realize that you get paid like an assistant manager at McDonald’s.

    – At the same time, becoming a musician requires a number of qualities that will serve you surprisingly well when pursuing another career: The tenacity to stay focused on a distant-seeming goal. The ability to persevere in the face of disappointment/discouragement/failure/rejection. The understanding that learning is a matter of time, conscious effort, and slow progress, not just “talent.” And you have to be intelligent: a friend of mine once put it very well when she said “To become a musician, you have to be able to at least get B’s in school without spending time on homework.” If you are a professional musician, you have those qualities.

    – The environment is as toxic as you allow it to be. People in work environments everywhere sleep with each other, smoke, drink, and get depressed. You really can make a decision to focus on the parts of the job you like. (People in other lines of work have to do that too. Ever thought about all those people heading the other way in rush-hour traffic? Some of them focus on the length of the commute, the feuds with co-workers, the demeaning hierarchy…)

    Anyway, just a few thoughts off the top of my head. Good luck to this unhappy musician.

  • I felt like this once. So I quit my instrument and entered the “workforce.” It was much, much worse. All the same problems existed, just without music. So I went back to performing. Being a musician is much better than a 9-5 job. I’ll take it any day of the week. And I support a family of 5 on it.

    • https://syncategorematic.dreamwidth.org/486040.html
      My dear boy, you are so happy, ever merry, bright and smiling,
      Do not ask for this sweet fortune that has poisoned worlds away.
      You don’t know, you don’t know, you don’t know what is this violin,
      What dark horrors lie in store for one who dares begin to play!

      If a player’s hands commanding take the violin and bow,
      Peaceful light is gone forever from the eyes that make that choice.
      Rabid wolf packs wander, hungry, on the roads where fiddlers go.
      Fiends and demons love to listen to the fiddle’s regal voice.

      Ever, ever must these strings go on and sing and cry and wail,
      And the maddened bow must leap and dance all through the nights and days,
      Under sun and under snow, under blizzard, under gale,
      Even when the west is burning, even when the east’s ablaze.

      You will tire, you will slow, you will stop for just one note,
      And the power will be gone from you to breathe or make a sound,
      And the wolves in rabid bloodlust will at once lunge at your throat,
      And their claws will crush your ribcage as their teeth will drag you down.

      Then you’ll know the cruel mockery of all that sang around,
      And your eyes will see the over-late but overwhelming fear,
      And the mournful cold will wind around your body like a shroud,
      And your friends will bow their heads then, and your bride will burst in tears.

      Go on, boy! You will not find either joy or treasure here!
      But I see that you are laughing, there are sunbeams from your eyes.
      Here, take the magic fiddle, face the monsters others fear,
      And go die a death of glory, the dread death that fiddlers die!

  • Being an orchestra musician, I can very much sympathize with the author’s assessment, even though I also understand some of the points made by critics here. I think one of the points that is here somewhat missing, and therefore underappreciated in order to understand the situation as a whole, is the remarkable discrepancy between input and outptut, or if you will, between effort and reward, that befalls many musicians. Becoming a professional musician takes incredible perseverance and sacrifice, and so from a very young age, as it takes in many cases close to two decades of consistent practice to reach a professional level. Many musicians have had to spend much time in the practice room at a time when their peers were just being regular teenagers, and this in many cases bears tremendous impact upon one’s personal development and social skills, and is often encouraged by pushy parents who in many cases have no understanding of the reality of the profession — a recent and excellent book addresses this issue among many others (“Producing Excellence,” by Izabela Wagner). It also needs to be stressed that the level of playing has risen dramatically in the past 10-15 years — what used to be deemed the level of a soloist is now simply expected when one auditions for a major orchestra. The field is fiercely competitive and ridiculously saturated, and many are unable to sustain themselves financially despite their high level. Getting out and doing something else is theoretically possible, but it must be stressed how easier said than done such a statement is — musician skills do not really transfer anywhere else, so one must basically start from scratch in a completely different field all the while working full time in order to provide for oneself. Orchestra schedules, because they often have rehearsals and performances on the same day, will conflict with many other commitments (which makes it challenging to go back to school to learn something new) and make for very long days (sometimes over 12 hours) and much commuting back and forth. In addition, and perhaps because they are vastly composed of people who in most cases have impaired social skills due to their common history, of people who are in addition constantly in close quarters due to the job itself, orchestras tend to be rather toxic workplaces where people subconsciously attempt to work out their own unresolved conflicts and frustrations, which they often share in common with their colleagues who have had a similar past history. We could add to this picture issues of identity (for many, being a musician constitutes the core of who they feel they are) as well as issues of creativity (as the author writes, s/he has no real say in how s/he performs her or his task). It’s easy to say “just get out, just do something else” — I would venture to suggest that such a response does not come from one who fully understands the reality of being and becoming a professional musician. The author’s assessment, in my opinion, reflects the incredible finding of a Harvard scientist who determined that orchestra musicians had less job satisfaction than… federal prison guards — see http://www.polyphonic.org/2012/11/30/life-and-work-in-symphony-orchestras/

    • It’s never easy getting out and making a fresh start. You identify the reasons very well, both in general and, more specifically, for musicians. But you also make the point that professional musicians are highly dedicated, supremely accomplished, and intelligent individuals. Not all professions, even reasonably paid ones, require extensive specific vocational training. The skills, aptitudes and experience of musicians must be transferable to other areas of work without unmanageable need to retrain. And if one’s personal identity, as a musician, is so inextricably bound up with work’s monotony at best, misery at worst, as it seems to be for this individual, then it might be better separated from that grind. Perhaps he/she may develop a love of music when it is no longer a duty. I know this is, of course, so much easier to say than to do. And I am not, and have never been, a professional musician. But like professional musicians, and everybody else, I have only one life to live, and I think it’s worth trying to live it well.

  • I meant really…just go and do something else and free up the work for someone who wants to do it (I have been a professional classical musician for 20 years and still love it).

  • Interestingly, I recall hearing about 20 years ago that surveys had shown that London orchestral musicians, despite the heavy schedule and low pay, tend to have higher morale than their counterparts in the big US orchestras. But that had to do more with the self-governing nature of the LSO and others similarly organized.

    A lot of what is described is consistent with Blair Tindall’s “Mozart in the Jungle” is representative, so apparently London and New York aren’t all that different.

  • Musicians like the author are the scourge of professional orchestras. Honestly it is NOT the salt mines. He/she should get out and leave the space to one of the many players who would kill to be part of a professional orchestra. It is an incredible privilege to get paid to play beautiful music at a high level. I have been a London orchestral player for the last 35 years and still love it as do many of my colleagues.

    • Bull cr*p. Some of the most jaded musicians I know are still exceptionally fine players. Perhaps they see things differently to you? Just a thought…

  • I’ve loved playing in orchestras since I was a teenager – 50 years now. I’ve held a front-desk chair in a very fine orchestra for the last 30. The personal and professional demands are greater, the stress level higher, than I ever imagined. As I’m getting older, the orchestra is getting better and performing is getting harder. But while we’re performing, I think just two things: (1) this is the hardest thing imaginable (2) this is the greatest thing imaginable.

  • This “What I’m Really Thinking” series seems to search out the person who is having the worst possible day in that occupation, and have them write the column. I read several; they mostly sound as if they could have been written by the same person (or maybe people with negative attitudes all sound alike).

    • I think they are written by the same person – a Guardian staffer with a mindless Corbynite prejudice against the middle class and civilisation in general.

      • “mindless Corbynite prejudice against the middle class and civilisation in general”?

        What a strange comment!

        I’d struggle to find an anti-middle-class sentiment in The Guardian, to say nothing of a hostility to civilisation in general. It’s a very moderately left-leaning liberal rag, i.e. quintessentially middle class, if somewhat more sympathique to the public sector professional m/c than the private sector business m/c. It has been consistently opposed to Corbyn, who is, if anything, a shade further to the left but who is, himself, wholly middle class, liberal, and just another scion of the the enlightenment traditions which, I imagine, are your reference points for civilisation.

  • The main problem is the education of orchestra musicians,
    All the mental conditioning, you could even call it brainwashing, is about creating a soloist mindset, acquiring skills of a soloist, playing solo literature.
    Then when they wake up in the post-academia real world and try to find a job that pays the bills, most will end up with a tutti position in an orchestra. Which is absolutely fine, honorable, and gratifying. But only if one can overcome the illusional conditioning in one’s mind, that a tutti position is failure, since the mindset since childhood projected a glorious carreer as a star soloist.

    • If you are an orchestra musician, you are presumably a string player, and probably neither a bass player nor a violist. I don’t know how true your description still is for violinists and cellists, but there are quite a few other instruments around in an orchestra. Their players tend to have a rather different mindset in my experience.

      • True, but violins and celli have the majority in the strings. 😉
        Also it must be stated, that the inhumane working conditions for most orchestra players on the British Isles, compared to the continental colleagues, are not helping to soften the potential stress factors either.

  • I’m frankly shocked at the vitriol directed at this poor musician who has done nothing more than describe what is, for some, a true experience of orchestral life.
    There is nothing unusual in finding an environment – with all the bitching, bullying, affairs, anti-social hours of an orchestra – toxic. It is.
    Yes, there’s a lot to enjoy about being a musician – but let’s not pretend it’s a totally happy experience all of the time.
    Should he/she get out the profession? Maybe, but would we be so hard on someone expressing discontent in any other job? Why are we so offended by the idea that somebody isn’t blindly grateful for being a musician? Perhaps they’re still contributing a lot to the orchestra despite their feelings? That we can’t decide from a short article in a newspaper supplement.

    • Well, it’s not all vitriol from those who are suggesting he/she should get out and do something else. Certainly not from me. Those who hate, and feel trapped by, their work have my deepest sympathy. I make no judgment about the contribution to the orchestra, but I guess from the opening statement that this is at the very least a solid, reliable musician who does a thoroughly professional job. But I do not expect anybody to be grateful for the opportunity to be a musician, or anything else. If somebody is unhappy, I think it’s worth considering what options there may be for making changes. Many of us feel trapped, at times, but in many cases we are not as trapped as we fear. At least, what is trapping us is often not our circumstances, but our expectations, and the fears we have about the expectations of those around us.

  • I’ve been a full time orchestral musician for the past 14 years and, although I’m lucky enough to still enjoy the positive aspects of my work, I find it easy to recognise all the depression and disillusionment described by Anonymous. This is my take on a couple of points.

    I have no doubt that anonymous is an excellent and sensitive musician. The cynicism and resignation they demonstrate comes from having the highest musical ideals being disappointed again and again. What is cynicism other than deflected passion? I’d also imagine that anonymous contributes to other aspects of orchestral life. The Camraderie and gallows humour that serves to combat the many frustrations of work is one of the aspects of my orchestra I enjoy the most. I’d much rather a world-weary hardened pro than a bland “isn’t this wonderful” merchant.

    I really don’t believe that this person is totally “the problem”. It’s easy to say that they could retrain, but how long before their replacement is ground down by the ‘factory’ of the orchestra? Is there not room for change in how orchestras work? Also, there must be a fair amount of truth in what they write as, as the vitriol demonstrates, they seem to have hit a nerve.

  • A person who was “forced to learn … instrument by abusive parents” is certainly at a disadvantage in terms of job satisfaction, so it is not surprising that some of these “complaints” seem just petty to those of us who do enjoy making music together with other fine musicians.
    For example, why does it matter to anyone whether one’s colleagues have affairs or not? Work schedule is odd, that’s for sure, but it is not objectively any harder than for a regular job. Spending “six hours ay together on average”? How awful! For most working people, it would be eight to ten hours. Traveling “against commuter traffic” is definitely a plus, especially if one remembers that it works both ways: you can relax when most others are busy working hard.
    Of course we like to complain because we know that we are good at what we do and there is always room for improvement in our working lives, but most of us are intelligent enough to realize how fortunate we are that we are able to feed and clothe ourselves and our dependents while doing what we love. Maybe I am just lucky, but in my orchestra positive aspects of the experience are much more noticeable and important to me than the other ones.

    • Workplace affairs, whether they go well or end badly, usually have an effect on workplace morale. Usually a negative one.

      • Work hours are hard if it means you rarely spend time with your family. And affairs in the workplace can be very very negative to those around, especially when all parties involved are in the same band. It’s not pretty.

        • Also, a working day IS nearer 8 hours if you add on the fact most musicians arrive 20- 30 minutes before a session to warm up, lunch/tea breaks and the time it takes to dress for a concert(not to mention coach/car journeys to and from venues). Yes, there might be 6 playing hours per day but you are in the workplace and alongside colleagues for more than that. Not complaining about it, just pointing it out.

          • During my many years in an orchestra, there were a number of affairs between my colleagues – probably more than i know about – but no one has ever explained to me why this has to impact anyone who is not involved in the affairs themselves. If you are concentrated on your job which is making music, then the only way other people’s affairs may affect you is that they give you a little more material for juicy gossip during intermissions.
            The six hour figure (not my invention at all but the one that was used by anonymous) is obviously approximate and sometimes it is more than that, but it is often less too – even zero on free days – so “six hours a day together on average” is a rather generous estimate.
            Having said that, I have no doubts whatsoever that our job is extremely difficult and stressful, which is why it has been always clear to me that one should only go into this profession if one is genuinely in love with classical music and performing it. Then and only then the rewards are greater than the many sacrifices (including reduced family time) that we are making every day.

  • Of course most of us have the brain-power to realise that there are worse jobs out there and people suffering terrible hardships. However, that fact does not negate this musician’s experience.
    Obviously many musicians are very happy in their work, but let’s not shut-down discussion on some of the negative aspects of the orchestral world.
    Interesting that performance anxiety hasn’t been mentioned. It’s almost a taboo in the profession, and that’s really not healthy. Many players use beta-blockers or alcohol to cope with nerves. Others I know have had hypnotherapy or counselling to deal with aspects of the job.
    Some of the less than empathetic attitudes I’ve seen from musicians on this thread probably don’t help either.
    I was lucky that I was able to leave my orchestral job and pursue other avenues. But I often think of some of the sensitive, talented people attracted to a career in music who are chewed up and spat out in a sorrier state than me.

    • Interesting comments about performance anxiety. I guess it’s not been mentioned, because the author didn’t mention it. And in fact he/she seems quite blasé about the performing aspect. Indeed, it may be that seeming insouciance which is, at least in part, at the root of some of the less sympathetic responses: “If you find the playing all so damned easy, count yourself lucky…”.

      I have often wondered how many professional musicians (I’m not one) suffer in this way. The stark exposure to fellow professionals and to audiences on a regular basis must be a trial to some of those who are temperamentally just more inclined to be anxious. Which some of us are!

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