The Healthy Orchestra Challenge – At Last

Music scores & instrument case 068 (116x106).jpg The Association of British Orchestras today overtly acknowledged the health risks of orchestra playing. But for many orchestral musicians the reality of every day life is sparse professional support, low esteem, low pay and no say – exactly the conditions in which ill-health, stress and worry thrive.
It’s a puzzle that so many orchestral musicians have health-related problems, when there’s evidence that music, and perhaps especially classical music of some sorts, is ‘good’ for those who listen to it. A clue to this conundrum can be found in the conditions under which many players work.
The Association of British Orchestras, at their Annual Meeting in Newcastle, have today launched their Healthy Orchestra Charter. Now at last we see a formal acknowledgement by the organisations which employ them, that orchestral musicians experience significant health risks in the course of their professional work.
The list of risks is long – physical problems such as deafness and repetitive strain injury, bullying, burn-out and stage fright amongst them. Is it any wonder, with this level of risk, that so few players who enter orchestras – some of the best classical musicians we have – actually stay in that employment for the entirety of their professional lives?
Well-established research findings
Of course, it isn’t news that these significant risks occur. I attended the International Conference on Health and the Musician at York University in 1997, and even then the research literature was compelling. But it is encouraging that now the focus has moved from others pressing the point ‘in defence’ of the players, to the current position where, perhaps belatedly, employers themselves are addressing the problem directly.
From a formal health and safety perspective there’s no way round this in a modern employment situation, except to face the issues squarely; and the additional impetus of formal acknowledgement may also help the individuals at risk to feel more comfortable about coping. The problems have now been articulated where they need to be; which means those who experience them are more likely to get the proper support they require in the context of their employment instead of, as previously, only through informal arrangements such as the BAPAM scheme – life-saver though this can be, and hopefully will remain, for players with particular personal problems which they may not wish to share with their employers.
BAPAM is an excellent resource for musicians in genres across the board, but it can only address some of the issues for professional orchestral musicians. Orchestra players need (but usually don’t get) continuing professional development (CPD), at least outside ‘community education’ programmes. Occasional employer-sponsored consultation in instrumental technique from a really top-flight teacher would come in handy over the decades – as younger players slowly and often sadly discover. But this is rarely on offer. CPD of musician employees is a responsibility of orchestra managements, not of BAPAM doctors.
Isn’t it obvious that properly embedded individual instrumental technique support for orchestral musicians reduces the inevitable risk of small ‘bad habits’? And that in turn individual performance support increases personal confidence, and reduces the need for absence and / or medical intervention – thereby also reducing the overall costs, short and long term, both to the employer and to the individual? A virtuous circle indeed.
Continuing individual professional development for performers, supported by a serious orchestral management cheque book, is well overdue. ‘Our people,’ as every management everywhere insists, ‘are our prime resource…’
Other stress factors
Excellent though the Healthy Orchestras initiative is, it does then seem on first reading that not all the issues identified formally and informally at the 1997 York conference are being equally acknowledged. Stress factors which many musicians themselves identified included not only the obvious physical and psychological strains of the job, but also extraordinarily low pay and a sense in which they felt as though they were still ‘at school’ – you can be in an orchestra for many years and still have no acknowledgement of seniority of any kind, invisible in the scheme of things with not even your own place in the actual seating arrangements.
And that’s before we get to the issues (above) around keeping up personal performance skills – probably the most anxiety-making part of any professional musician’s day-to-day existence.
Plus, in some orchestras the managerial urge to present a youthful image has overtaken any respect for experience and what that brings to the particular ‘sound’ for which a given ensemble is known. Not only could this be a threat to the individuality of the great orchestras, but it’s personally distressing for those have who carried the tradition of their orchestra over the years.
Add to this the ingrained belief of many players that ‘you’re only as good as your last performance’ (no latitude for being human there), and the conviction that it’s possible for any player to be destroyed by constant criticism (Will I be the next to be bullied?) and the situation becomes a personal time bomb, buried deep in the collective psyche of the musicians on stage.
Music is good for you – mostly
So perhaps here’s the rub. Classical music offers those who listen to it enjoyment, solace and stimulation. And so in comfortable circumstances it does to those who perform it. I doubt any orchestral player enters a major symphony orchestra expecting less. This is a vocation which demands and promises much of and for those who aspire to it.
But, at least for all except the most highly ranked members (and perhaps for them too?), there’s something quite disturbing in more than one sense about the contexts of orchestral life.
Maybe it’s this:
You sit on whatever platform you’ve been dispatched to, a performer at the top of your profession under the relentless public scrutiny of the punters, your employers and (hardest of all) your equally stressed peers, without any discernible artistic or personal say in what happens – and dressed in a ‘uniform’ which your (often socially well-advantaged) audience understands to represent wealth and authority…. but you know differently. A silent cognitive dissonance abounds.
And you worry – about your playing, about your pay, about how you will fit your family and other external commitments into your irregular and unsocial performance schedule, about what could happen next.
No-one now disputes that stress affects most severely those who have least power and influence. Here’s a textbook ‘classical’ case of that happening.
See also: Orchestral Salaries In The U.K.
Life In A Professional Orchestra: A Sustainable Career?
Musicians in Many Guises
British Orchestras On The Brink
Where’s The Classical Music In The Summer? An Idea…

Posted on January 28, 2006, in Arts, Culture And Heritage, Education, Health And Welfare. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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