The jaded professional

April 11, 2016 at 06:30 PM · From the Guardian's "What I'm Really Thinking":

An orchestral musician unloads. Useful thoughts for the bright-eyed young'uns hoping for professional careers. (Not everyone is this jaded, but certainly some are.)

Replies (26)

April 11, 2016 at 08:00 PM · Well, yes, that's very sad and even somewhat disturbing. But there are disgruntled, dissatisfied people in lots of careers. Judging from prime-time TV, most lawyers and medical doctors have suffered marital problems, addictions, and the like. The author of this essay should retool.

April 11, 2016 at 08:37 PM ·

After 20 years of anything, even something you once loved, can become hated. After 20 years of doing something, it is great to make a hobby a career.

April 11, 2016 at 09:00 PM · Especially if your parents forced you to do it and you had something else in mind.

April 11, 2016 at 09:52 PM · I feel very sorry for the author of that piece.

It in no way reflects my life or that of many of my colleagues. I'm sure a few of my colleagues could relate--in fact, I could probably guess who as unhappy people are usually unhappy at work too.

April 12, 2016 at 01:12 AM · Is that actually a true story? Written by a professional musician?

Or is it pseudo-journalism fiction?

April 12, 2016 at 01:23 AM · It sounds quite similar to a small, well paid group I worked with, in the military. Each person had a spouse and a partner, chain smoking and or off-duty alcoholism. Not that the musicians live the same life, but it doesn't surprise me too much.

Unfortunately, I do think a lot of professions could lead to something like that.

April 12, 2016 at 02:03 AM · My parent, both musicians, didn't exactly encourage me to be a pro-violinist. The life of an artist is usually pretty tough, and being in a culture that doesn't really value the arts doesn't help. With that said, it's an absolutely terrible idea to go into something like this if you don't like it, really like most fields. If you aren't passionate, study something boring like engineering, because at least you will be comfy (I studied engineering). If you are passionate, you may still consider avoiding a risky profession, but this guy sounds like he has his own problems besides the violin.

April 12, 2016 at 02:19 AM · I believe all those Guardian submissions are from real people.

I've met more than a few jaded orchestral musicians, but certainly it's not a universal experience. (It may have something to do with expectations, too. People who end up orchestra musicians because they couldn't make it as soloists or chamber musicians, and who don't love orchestra playing, can end up pretty bitter about the way their life has turned out.)

April 12, 2016 at 02:22 AM · The author's narrative rings true.

The preadolescent dream of becoming a symphony player is what motivated me to take up violin studies in childhood. I trained heavily for the symphonic profession but finally decided, at 21, not to go into the music business after all.

I am thankful that there are professionals who are willing to do orchestra work -- so that the rest of us might continue hearing symphonic music; but I am even more thankful that I made the decision at a young age to ditch the idea of going for such a career myself. In fact, of all my career decisions, this is the one I'm most proud of. Each year that goes by, I am more thankful. The music goes on -- I just don't make a living at it.

EDIT: Even if you awarded me the CM chair, I would still hate the job -- the long evening hours, the decibel levels -- which got on my nerves well before they got to the danger zone. Then, too, I found that I just didn't like big groups. Small chamber -- up to, let's say, five players -- suits my personality and temperament far better.

April 12, 2016 at 02:34 AM · I would also say orchestras best suit those who like to conform and do not mind being told what to do and obeying without question.

April 12, 2016 at 03:04 AM · I think the author was most likely a violist...

April 12, 2016 at 04:19 AM · "...who are willing to do orchestra work"


April 12, 2016 at 05:39 AM · Even sadder are the jaded who don't realise it.

April 12, 2016 at 05:52 AM · Orchestra playing is a different discipline than chamber or solo playing. It's not lesser, but it is different -- and obviously, it provides more jobs. The expected degree of personal input into the work varies based on the instrument (and on the orchestra). Wind and brass players are basically soloists embedded in the orchestra. String players shouldn't really be tuning out, either -- not if precise and thoughtful ensemble is going to be achieved. A blended sound is harder than it initially seems. And in adult orchestras (at whatever level), conforming without question isn't really expected. "Give the conductor what they want", yes, but people can and will ask questions of their section leaders, and section leaders will question the conductor when warranted.

April 12, 2016 at 10:51 AM · That Guardian article reads like standard-issue mid-life-crisis stuff.

April 12, 2016 at 12:11 PM · Thanks to Lydia for a thoughtful explanation of orchestral playing.

I fell in love with orchestral playing back in my youth orchestra days, and I have never fallen out of love in the intervening 4+ decades. Is it all positive, of course not, but any adult understands that every choice has its negatives. I feel incredibly fortunate in my life.

And as a section principal, "conforming without question" is not at all part of my job. Of course there is a hierarchy, but knowledge, intelligence, and musicianship are required for the orchestral player as well as the quartet member.

April 12, 2016 at 12:24 PM · That is a nice bitter piece to read. I do not know why but, I had a good chuckle when I read this:

"Oh, but you play music you love, on an instrument you love,” I’m regularly told. I don’t: I was forced to learn my instrument by abusive parents who thought classical music was posh. Whatever is put in front of me I have to play; I have no say in it."

Any and every job can be toxic environment. That jaded "professional" isn't so much jaded as they really are bitter, disgruntled and about to go postal. They're more psychotic than postal. haha.

Like any job, being a professional orchestral players has it's ups and downs. I've had a few stand partners whom I had not-so-respectable choice names for them in the past.

April 12, 2016 at 12:26 PM · I'm just back from four days of chamber music, and was struck by the boyish / girlish enthusiasm of the professional quartet coaches, even, almost especially, the one with 45 years' experience (now you can figure out which quartet). So maybe the answer is to play chamber music!

April 12, 2016 at 02:16 PM · I think playing in an orchestra could well be a fun career. Every time I've played in an orchestra I've found it to be an intellectually stimulating and engaging experience. I think that depends on what one is willing to put into it, over the long haul.

"Supplementing" orchestral playing with teaching, freelancing, and the like, could be enjoyable too. A lot of the fun in professional work depends on who you're working with. That's true in every field.

But I can also easily imagine how quickly the fun might evaporate when the cancellation of a freelancing gig or the discontinuation of a couple of students jeopardizes one's ability to make ends meet.

It's also quite clear that there are one hell of a lot more qualified violinists looking for orchestral work than there are salaried orchestral violin jobs. That can't be good for wages.

All of the professional musician/teachers that I know who are not stressed out are the ones in dual-income situations. The spouse's income is needed not only for the salary but also for the health insurance and retirement benefits.

I wonder what the typical economic background is of the student graduating from a top music conservatory. Almost of the local kids I know who are taking violin lessons are in families with incomes well above the median. Do aspiring violinists therefore have economic expectations based on this experience?

@Mungo, my guess is that quartet-coaching is an opportunity that comes along to a typical professional player/teacher maybe a couple of times a year at best. I can well imagine that someone who has perhaps grown tired of his or her orchestral playing might become quite enthusiastic during that time, and hopefully that enthusiasm carries back into their regular work. The fountain of youth is working with young people.

I don't know about the hearing damage issues. That's a serious problem and it's not clear what the solution is. I can imagine that is very frustrating to those it has affected.

April 12, 2016 at 02:16 PM ·

April 12, 2016 at 05:31 PM · The columns in that "What I'm Really Thinking" series all sound like they went out & found someone having the worst day of their life --- those days when trying to see the good in a situation feels like lying to yourself --- and encouraged them to let loose.

They read as if they were all written by the same person. (Maybe it's just that unhappy people sound alike)

This musician sounds as if he is badly affected by things which go on to some extent in every orchestra and every workplace. If he truly is unable to see the bright side(s) of his situation, he is probably clinically depressed and should seek help.

April 12, 2016 at 10:08 PM · That's what the union is for.

April 12, 2016 at 10:45 PM · "That's what the union is for."

Ha ha! That's a good one!

Orchestras involve people, and relationships are always messy. Those of you who think chamber music is somehow "more funner" should read accounts of the politics of the quartet.

It can be worse. Ask an old-timer for stories about the Budapest String Quartet. Apparently, if they were in a town with one restaurant and all had to eat there, they each sat in a different corner. Facing the corner.

It's seldom about the music. When I first joined the Nashville Symphony, it was just after a lockout. Some were for striking and some against. The two sides hated each other, and I found myself stuck in the middle. One of my stand partners had mental issues. People have had affairs in several orchestras I've been in. Drugs and alcohol are present, but not to the extent of other professions (I believe). I don't think unhappiness in an orchestra reflects one's general level of happinesss. All it takes are a concertmaster, principal or conductor out to get a player, or a wacky stand partner, or an inept board or administration that squanders a windfall. We have seen financial ineptness in orchestras across the country, including Minnesota, San Diego, Nashvile, and many others. They have a few good years, expand too fast, and then collapse and fire half the orchestra.

But this can happen in schools, law firms, and medical practices.

These situations, as has been pointed out, affect all careers

April 12, 2016 at 11:38 PM · Yes, once you become highly competent in any job, you still need stimulation.

Putting aside the musician who thinks he or she was forced to be a musician by parents, the issue, I think, becomes one of mentoring, diversifying, and generally learning to manage "a successful career".

One group of people who need to attend to this are the "leaders" of the musicians. In any other career, the leaders are aware of the need to develop and so "engage and hold" good employees.

I could write at length about this, but instead will say simply that at every leadership level in a professional orchestra, some awareness and appropriate action must be shown to assist the people around you.

So, we come to that challenge I used to put to my staff: "What can one 50 year old person say to another 50 year old person to bring about positive improvements?"

April 13, 2016 at 12:32 AM · ""That's what the union is for."

Ha ha! That's a good one!"

Not sure why you're laughing. We have rules about how late we can get back from a runout and how many hours must elapse between a runout and the next service. The situation referenced in the previous post would not happen in an orchestra with a collective bargaining agreement.

April 13, 2016 at 01:35 AM · In my orchestra, that rehearsal would have been canceled, and a grievance filed over the late arrival. For something that egregious, I would expect financial compensation.

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