Random musings on orchestral career longevity by a partially-recovered violist

[Note: written yesterday] I’ve got a long break between rehearsals today. The Oregon Symphony is doing a semi-staged version of Shakespeare’s Tempest accompanied by Sibelius incidental music for same. So, long break for various tech things to happen before our afternoon dress rehearsal. If you’re a fan of all things Shakespeare, it’s definitely worth a look this weekend. Find out about tickets and the like here.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about orchestral careers and their longevity. I was struck by a recent New York Times article on the Chicago Symphony’s legendary brass section that Principal trombonist Jay Friedman has been in his position since 1965. 1965. That’s three years before I was born! I’m in awe of his endurance and in his artistic integrity that has led him to be a formidable contributor to the famous “Chicago sound” for the past 54 years, give or take. Amazing.

Then I think about other musicians, both in that orchestra and others around the country, where seemingly everyone in the broader musical world was muttering to themselves “why hasn’t that person retired, yet?”

It’s a tough situation, I can only imagine. But imagining it became easier for me since my cycling accident. I’m well on my way to a full recovery (knock on wood), but there were some dark moments in the middle of the night where I thought that I might never get there, and what would I do then?

When I began my tenure with the OSO, back in 1995, then Music Director James DePreist was famous for allowing musicians to stay long past their ‘sell-by date’. Then, finally, the musician in question would get invited to a ‘lunch with Jimmy’, and they’d be gently asked to move on. These days the process has been a bit less gentle, I’m guessing, marked by a very high-profile public dispute between incoming Music Director Carlos Kalmar and then Principal flutist Dawn Weiss, which ultimately led to the end of her OSO tenure.

But, regardless of the music director’s attitude towards personnel issues, there will come a time when an orchestral musician will literally be called to face the music. Many of us take great pride in what we do, and there is a lot of truth in the adage that experience can make up for some loss of technical aplomb, but I wonder why it is that some of us are unwilling to admit that we are not capable of performing at the requisite high standard day in and day out. Playing in an orchestra – especially a full-time major orchestra – is the equivalent of running a marathon every single week of the season. It places great physical and mental demands upon us. But there are many factors involved in recognizing when the time has come, or if there are a few years left to go.

Financial concerns are perhaps the most important factor taken into consideration. This is even more true with the perilous state of the national musicians’ union pension fund. Most musicians, unless they’re in one of the wealthiest orchestras, work more than one job to make ends meet, and funding one’s retirement is a fraught business. It’s easy to say “that person should hang up their axe and retire” but if they don’t have enough money to live on once their orchestral income stream stops, how likely are they to make that decision?

Pride is another factor. We all have egos – it would be hard to be a performing artist if we did not. We train for decades, and audition perhaps dozens of times, before we – if we’re lucky – win a position in a living wage orchestra. When we arrive, we are the fair-haired boy/girl who can do no wrong. Accolades roll in. Pretty soon, however, as we approach middle age, there are newer, shinier members of the orchestra who arrive, and we are part of the older guard. It’s easy to bristle under those circumstances. Resentment can creep in, antagonisms with our respective sections can arise, and tensions with the music director can begin or start to get worse. Even if one is able to objectively view one’s performance quality, and realize that it is slipping, there is going to be considerable resistance to that notion, especially if we think that our colleagues are conspiring against us, or that the music director has an axe to grind. Entrenchment begins, and denial strengthens. It’s hard to see a way out of that which doesn’t end in failure, humiliation, or betrayal. No wonder it’s such a difficult decision to make.

An additional factor, which is oft overlooked, is that musicians have been doing music for a long, long time. And during that time it has been one of, if not the, central defining aspects of their lives. Leaving active performing in an orchestra that you’ve spent the majority of your life with is a major, major decision. It is akin to a divorce or losing a family member in terms of emotional impact. It’s not a decision to be taken lightly.

On the other hand, I’ve witnessed colleagues who have woken up one day and realized that they were simply done. They had a great run, and it was time to move on to greener pastures and play for the joy of it for a change. I see them at concerts – some quite often – and they appear a decade younger than in their last season with the orchestra. It’s pretty gratifying to see that there is a graceful way to retire on one’s own terms (even if it might be relatively rare). However, just as every person is different, so too is every musician’s decision to stay or go an individual one, and one that must be respected. I hope that, when my time comes, that I will have the wherewithal, self-awareness, and humility to make the decision that is best for both myself and my colleagues. Fingers crossed!

2 Replies to “Random musings on orchestral career longevity by a partially-recovered violist”

  1. Love this post. As a CPA, I well understand the financial implications of a career in music. As a musician, I understand the love and passion this career can beget. There must be a respect and tolerance for aging musicians IF we are serious about attracting new musicians to the fold.

    If ‘ll musicians think they will be summarily dismissed from an orchestra post at the age of 50, they can and will choose to take their obsessive personality that is rewarded by music into a more lucrative and stable career – medicine, accounting, engineering.

    It is a balance of long term versus short term thinking we have to strive for – the perceived excellence of the newer trained musicians versus the stability of the profession.

  2. Michael Jordan was about the greatest basketball player ever, and at the end of his career, at 40 years old, he had more experience (and terrific experience, at that) than almost all the other players in the NBA. But he only played ok in his last season. That *experience* will only take you so far when your play requires a *body,* and not just a mind.

    Age is hard on the body, and musicians make music with that very body, while it ages, and as it survives and recovers from injuries large and small, chronic and traumatic. While it’s possible to refine one’s sense of musical language, or become a more effective, inspiring educator over the years, most musicians will find that their body fails them at some point. The body will not play the instrument with the same power, accuracy, or speed. For example, I might have more sophisticated ideas about phrasing, but I know my lungs don’t have the capacity they used to, so I’m constrained. I know of only a few brass players who sound great in the later years of their career, and fewer still who seem to improve with time.

    Having tendinitis for years has taught me a lot about physical pain. Compensating for that pain by handicapping my bass trombone (removing a valve to decrease the instrument’s weight) has taught me a lot about the pain of artistic compromises. Having to limit my practice time to prevent overuse has taught me about the pain of failing my own expectations.

    None of that is unbearable, but it does make me think twice about the career: in what other kind of job (save, again, professional sports) does professional experience have an inverse relation to professional opportunities, rewards, and compensation? We’re so lucky to have the tenure, the union support, and good colleagues! But there are few alternatives for a musician whose body fails them.

    As Kris pointed out, medicine, accounting and engineering are great fields, and those careers have proved wonderful for many *young* musicians who decided to change course. But I don’t know a single musician who left an orchestra at the age of 45, when their body failed to operate the instrument adequately, in order to purse a career requiring an advanced professional degree. One would have to spend at least tens of thousands of dollars, and years of unpaid schooling. That’s a pipe dream for any musician living in today’s economy, and even more difficult if one has children.

    Most of us need to keep working our current job(s) just to make sure we can retire someday, much less start over again! And that is why tenure is so important. If we made the millions that NBA players make, then sure, I could see the ethical imperative of making room for younger players. But we don’t and we can’t.

    Instead, musicians are obligated to understand and make space for fellow musicians doing their (decreasing) best as they age, because this would be an unworthy career if we didn’t. If we valued only those musical attributes most visible in youth, and didn’t allow musicians to age in place, “orchestra player” wouldn’t be a career: it could only be a youthful phase.

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