Dazed and excused?

Here’s the latest in a series of articles about how undemonstrative and boring American orchestra musicans are. From the Chicago Sun-Times.

Link to Article

Here’s my take on the phenomenon. I love watching European orchestras play, especially the Berlin Philharmonic. They move like a teeming coral reef of musicality, with the violas being a school of clown fish, the basses are giant kelp, etc. They also sound incredible – even if I’m not looking at them. I’m not sure why European orchestras do this, but I do know that if you’re not a principal player, in an American orchestra you meet a lot of subtle (and some not-so-subtle) pressure to keep your movements to a minimum. If you’ve been playing chamber music and solo recitals in school, where movement is not only helpful (in the former) and freeing (in the latter) this takes some getting used to.

I think some of it may have something to do with the average age of the orchestra – if it’s on the older side, the players are of a different generation: they studied with people who were playing under Toscanini, Reiner and Szell. These tyranical conductors insisted upon almost militaristic standards of conduct both with regards to precision of playing and stage deportment. You didn’t want to catch they eye of these conductors – they were like the Gorgon of Greek mythology – one look and you were turned to stone for eternity.

It may also have to do with the mannerisms of the conductor who has been music director. A person in the vein of Lenny Bernstein might inspire a more taciturn stage presence, as the maestro is doing a lot on his own already, whereas a conductor who barely moves will inspire more movement from the players as they interpret his/her subtle movements into massive fortissimos and the like.

In the end, I feel, how musicians deport themselves falls within the strange-bedfellows arrangement of the combination of artistry and professionalism. Just how much or little musicians move as they play must be genuine, not contrived. We are artists, not entertainers. Entertainers deliver entertainment, and when they’re at their best they do it with consummate artistry. Artists deliver some of the most original and lasting monuments of the genius of humanity in the form of organized sound, and if they do it well, we can be both entertained and fundamentally changed at our core. We do our job at the service of the inspiration of the composer who brought the music into being as a written document. To place ourselves above the Urtext is to commit the worst form of heresy, and if we draw more attention to ourselves than to the music we’re re-creating then we’ve failed as performers. Perhaps I’m parsing the distinction too much here, but that’s how I feel about my role as an orchestral musician.

So, what about those Europeans? They come from a different tradition, they might perhaps have a closer connection to the music which comes from their continent, and they might just be happier than we Americans are. Somewhere along the line we in most American orchestras have lost the slender connection between our love of music and the job that we do. The combination of big business and fine arts is always a difficult one, and these are especially trying times for classical musicians of all stripes. Some few orchestras use their tradition of excellence and esprit de corps to boost morale: Philadelphia and Cleveland come to mind most readily. For those of us in ensembles which don’t have those storied histories and hallowed personalities, we try to make the beginnings of such traditions for ourselves. Perhaps, as we grow closer together over the coming years and welcome the growth in artistry that is sure to come, we will begin to operate as a new machine, full of movement and interest, high on its own, wonderful synergy.

growing pains

A couple of good articles about growth and life in Portland:

  • Article 1 (Willamette Week) – High unemployment. More businesses. Lower income. More newcomers. It ain’t business as usual.
  • Article 2 (The Australian) –

what am I worth?

I did a search on a local (Portland, Oregon) real estate site a few weeks ago looking for a home in the price range for which I could qualify for a bank loan. I got two hits: both were single-wide mobile homes in less desireable neighborhoods. This shouldn’t have been a surprise to me: over the past five years, houses that once cost around $130,000 now cost upwards of $350,000 – and there is not an end in sight. Every six months or so, there is a front page headline stating that the median price of a home in my metro area has increased upwards in double digits. Right now the average price for a single-family home is $282,900. For a condo: $233,800.
And what has happened to my salary? My salary went down by 5 percent in 2002-2003, and has stayed flat since then. I’ve lost around 12 percent of my buying power in real terms, and even more when you factor in the rapidly rising cost of living in my oh-so-popular town (at least for Californians selling their $1 million McMansions).

I have three degrees in music – a B.A., an M.M. and a Graduate Performance Diploma. I’ve got $8000 left on my student loans, which have been consolidated and refinanced twice. I am paying for an instrument that I purchased four years ago, and really need a better bow to go with it. I teach four students and take side gigs whenever I can fit them in to my schedule, and play with a string quartet.

Why is it so difficult to persuade donors and board members that I deserve a raise? Not a huge raise, just an adjustment back to the equivalent of where I was five years ago. I sit and watch members of our management team get promoted and get pay raises, and hear how little can be done for the livelihoods of those of us how actually make the sounds that they manage.

I watch virtually every orchestra in our peer group surpasses us in working conditions, benefits and weekly/per-service wages. I watch my savings dwindle and my ability to ever own a home slip away with each passing year. As one of the top graduating string players of my classes at each of the schools I attended (University of Puget Sound, University of Maryland, Peabody Conservatory of Music), I watch as top graduates of pharmacy school start at salaries at least three times my own after a decade of service and a modicum of overscale.

I have counseled patience when others have advocated for vigorous responses in the face of wage cuts, wage freezes, changes of health plans, increases of co-pays, dwindling audience sizes, increasing management salaries, and the stunning disconnectedness of the elite (to which we go to beg for the scraps to keep the whole enterprise going) from the plight of the very people who they applaud each Monday evening between dinner and a nightcap. I know that I am much more fortunate than some, but I labor under the public’s mis-conception that I work only for the love of my art.

I love what I do, make no mistake about that, but love does not pay my rent, my health care statements, my grocery bills or my car payments. I am asked to play at a higher level of artistic excellence in each succeeding week, and I comply, with all my heart and all my mind. I face the audience at the completion of a performance and put on a game face regardless of the empty seats, the skill of the conductor, my health or mood, the merits of the piece, and the amount of applause given. I practice on days when I don’t even have the wherewithal to get out of bed.

Playing in an orchestra is a job – not a game. It’s too bad that we “play” music – it should be called “working” music or “exerting” music. I listen to 87 colleagues at the same time, decipher the meaning of the arm motions from my boss two feet in front of me, listen to my inner voice mulling over the fight I had with my wife earlier in the day, in spite of the difficult, exposed passage coming up, and I’m expected to play perfectly in tune with my colleagues, anticipate where they will play, how the conductor will react to the entrance, and phrase the same as the nine other people in my section, using the same vibrato, pitch, bowspeed and part of the bow as my principal and the concertmaster. If I don’t do it very close to perfection, at least six people right around me will hear, as will my boss, and I could be held accountable, just as I hear them, and hold them accountable. Now, tell me – do I “play” an instrument?