NEWS FLASH (not really): Orchestra Musician Job Satisfaction Low (but you knew that)

There’s an intriguing article making the rounds from the 4/9/2016 edition of The Guardian. As part of their “What I’m really thinking…” series, the article was written by an anonymous orchestra musician who paints a remarkably bleak picture of what it is to be a professional orchestra musician.

Adaptistration People 153Granted, some of the pressures described in the article seem unique to the author and not really applicable to the musicians as a whole (“I was forced to learn my instrument by abusive parents who thought classical music was posh”…wow). But the bulk of the post recounts a grim workplace environment that musicians and managers alike are far too familiar with.

If nothing else, the The Guardian’s article succeeds at underscoring the need for improved focus on workplace satisfaction, a topic examined here on a regular basis over the years but the field, as a whole, routinely ignores.

What do you think, is the article just a load of over-the-top bitching, is it indicative of very real problems, or is it something in-between?

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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6 thoughts on “NEWS FLASH (not really): Orchestra Musician Job Satisfaction Low (but you knew that)

  1. It’s a load of over-the-top bitching. There are so many other ways to make a living that are easier and have more normal hours; there’s no reason at all to be an orchestral musician unless you love it.

  2. If I understand your perspective correctly, I can’t follow it to any productive conclusion. More to the point, how does that outlook deny the value of making a workplace environment as healthy and productive as possible?

  3. I think this is largely an over-the-top reaction from the far end of the job satisfaction spectrum. I gather this person is older, toward the end of their career, and it’s perhaps not uncommon for people who’ve been working for decades to get burnt out, disillusioned, or simply tired of what they do. But it seems like this person never even loved it in the first place, which I think is extremely rare in the music field. It’s hard to have any meaningful workplace satisfaction when you’re starting from such a place.

    His sole point that carried some weight was the hours and unique schedule that musicians have to work. It certainly can be a challenge to navigate family life and interact socially with the “rest of the world,” who seem to live on a different schedule. But with some creativity and a bit of effort, I think most people seem to make it work. Now, I’m coming from an American perspective, and I realize there are differences in the structure of schedule, how work is contracted, and probably even some working conditions across the pond. He talks about freelance pay structure and implies a bit of touring as well, which (in the orchestra field at least) I think is much more prevalent in England than in most American orchestras.

    Anyway, it seems to me this is mostly a person frustrated with his career blowing off some steam rather than someone actually bringing up legitimate systemic concerns with the musician workplace environment.

  4. I think it’s a pile of horseshit, published because it seems scandalous. Musicians’ job satisfaction runs the gamut just like most any other workplace. I can imagine inventing a similar article about almost any profession….school teacher (shouldn’t they feel fulfilled spending their days with beautiful cherubs, so full of energy and wonder?)….attorney (fighting for the rights of every decent person, or pursuing justice as a prosecutor?)….. Playing in an orchestra is an art, and we work with incredibly talented people, playing mind-bending works of art, but it’s also a job, and it’s a daily fact that it’s work – personal work (and, very importantly, interpersonal work), teamwork, and integrating many different viewpoints. In order to get into a major orchestra, players spend (usually) most of their lives doggedly pursuing *actual perfection*, usually alone in the practice room, in conservatory, and that continues throughout a career – again, alone in the practice room. Onstage in the orchestra, the pursuit is the same, but one can feel like he/she has much less control over the direction and the process. It’s so ingrained in us to strive for *actual perfection*, and we ALWAYS fail to reach it. But failure to achieve perfection is how we manage to do as well as we do each day, each week. Sometimes we forget to *also* enjoy what we’ve done. Have you ever been to a performance where NOBODY claps? I love what I do.

  5. Yes, he does have to do it. If he’s borrowed $40,000 for his instrument and $25,000 for school to get better at the instrument, it would not make sense for him to start up some new career as a landscaper or something.

  6. I would be curious to see a reaction (although I realize the need for this kind of anonymity) from someone in a top-tier orchestra that is in the midst of overhaul or crisis. If you will, take for example Hawaii (formerly Honolulu) or Atlanta. These are obviously players who are fighting to keep their positions and organizations viable (where the caliber of performance is hardly the issue causing monetary distress), but the job satisfaction is abysmal. You have players moonlighting as bartenders who were once able to make their living through their current position. The expectation should not be, “if you love the music, you should be willing to play no matter the personal cost,” or , “isn’t the intrinsic value payment enough?”. Frankly, it’s not, nor should it be.

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