Life In A Professional Orchestra: A Sustainable Career?
Will the next few decades see reduced opportunities to follow a performing career in the UK’s major (inter-)national orchestras? On current evidence, that the answer may be Yes. Whilst ‘classical’ music at the highest levels will continue to stake its claim in the cultural universe, extended career progression for most orchestral musicians is probably diminishing.
It took centuries to establish professional symphonic orchestras as bodies which employ large numbers of accomplished performers, contracted full-time and as permanent employees within formal artistic companies.
The first instances of engaged orchestral players are to be found in the Mannheim of around Haydn’s time (Joseph Haydn, 1732-1809), when conspicuous by extraordinarily wealthy patrons consumption – a whole orchestra just for me! – was the order of the day; but it was another century or so before civic patronage supported the regional and national orchestras which we see today. And even then, full-time professional orchestral posts have become the norm often only in the second half of the twentieth century.
British orchestras in transition
Britain has an honourable orchestral tradition, as home to some of the longest-established orchestral societies in the world. Proportionately, the UK may have fewer civic professional orchestras than some other parts of Europe – a situation which is justifiable cause for regret – but what Britain lacks in quantity it compensates in quality, with a long and distinguished history in the orchestral tradition from the origin of the great institutions, right up to the present.
So what is the problem? Perhaps contemporary British experience is different from that of continental Europe, but there is a sense on the part of some in the UK (such as Norman Lebrecht) that ‘the classical orchestra is dead’.
This view I would emphatically deny. It does seem however that the ‘career of orchestral performer’ is indeed becoming endangered.
Whilst the UK conservatoires produce more and better technically prepared instrumental performers (whether they are thereby necessarily greater individual artists than their predecessors may be another debate), the standing of and prospects for career orchestral players now is probably even worse than it has been for many years.
But despite claims to the contrary, this is not because the current government is hostile to classical music. It is because, over the years and however unintentionally, players have acquiesced whilst managers have allowed it to happen.
The situation of the major London orchestras (which we will not consider further here) is different from that of most other UK establishments, of which there are now considerably more than even a few decades ago. New flexibly sized ensembles have arisen across the country in response to changing cultural and popular demands, whilst the traditional ‘regional’ orchestras – all of them institutions of international standing – have remained the benchmark against which serious professional artists in the British orchestral tradition measured their careers.
Until now, that is. For the past fifteen years or so have seen major shifts in the professional experience of those instrumentalists who hold full-time posts in the leading non-London orchestras.
No longer are orchestras bastions of white male middle-aged hegemony. That stereotypical profile actually evaporated quite a while ago, but changes have been increasingly rapid in the past few years.
Whilst rows of older men were previously the norm across least the front desks of major ensembles, their replacements are often now young women, and often this gender turnabout extends to large parts of the string sections if not always elsewhere. Many orchestras have become feminised. And they have also taken on many keen if less experienced young players, not always to the delight of their seniors, for whom a thorough knowledge of the repertoire, gained by years of experience, remains the hard-won key to professional self-respect.
Interpretational consequences for the music
Few professional musicians would deny that a combination of experience and fresh enthusiasm is critical in the orchestral mix; but numbers of more seasoned players claim that a substantial core of professionally mature performers is still required – people who literally know the score and can be relied upon to sustain their own orchestra’s corporate memory in the interpretation of great works.
Indeed, it has been argued this loss of specific corporate memory is why orchestras now allegedly sound more similar than they did previously – a ‘sameness’ of interpretation which many listening classical music enthusiasts regret, and which perhaps adds to the future challenges facing the genre.
Career musicians, or instrumental operatives?
But it is not just the orchestral art form which has changed because of the new demographics. The actual experience of being an orchestral player has likewise changed. And principally this is because many of the newer performers do not, it seems, perceive orchestral music as a career in the longer-term formal sense.
In the words of some backstage wags, the role of the orchestral performer has become that of ‘instrumental operative’. Rather than perceiving themselves as individual performers of standing who are increasingly valued over time, the newer generation of players perhaps sees the role as one to be experienced for a few years before moves away from the symphonic platform offer diverse ways forward.
Multiple roles and core roles
In part the greater opportunities orchestras now provide to engage in small ensemble work, to develop skills in ‘community education, and in some cases to take on leadership roles (with parallel in-service training) at an early stage in a career, are to be welcomed.
British orchestras can lay legitimate claim to being at the developmental forefront in terms of the orchestra as a body of fine players with a range of skills and approaches. But in so doing they are also in danger of neglecting their core role – the propagation of classical music by performers of the highest standard, of course illuminating their work with fresh insights both musicological and technical, but also bringing to bear the understandings and traditions of previous generations of inspired composers, conductors and performers.
It is a strange situation where some orchestras offer substantial on-the-job training in community education, but no continuing professional development at all in the central role of any orchestral musician – that of playing his or her chosen instrument. Human resource formal issues apart, this is extraordinary in terms of the institutional failure to invest in core business – no-one can continue comfortably for years with zero personal support in their central role, especially when it is as open to scrutiny as that of performing musicians.
It is also a strange situation where the contractual position of many orchestral players, especially tutti players, leaves them with no expectation ever of a reasonable salary. (In early 2007, the average minimum salary for tutti / ‘rank and file’ players in the fourteen BBC and major ‘regional’ orchestras was marginally more than £26,000 – with hardly higher pay at the top end of that scale.) one are the days when longer service was recognised and financially rewarded. Now maximum income can be achieved in just a few years, leaving the prospect of decades on the same sub-optimal income.
Not a sensible long-term option
Add to that the loss through contractual change (secured by managements since the demographic changes outlined above) of most small additional income through recordings and television appearances, as well as often the 24/7 on-call requirement at no extra cost within the hourly averaged week (not ever good for family life).
It is little wonder that orchestral musicians increasingly see their long-term futures elsewhere. It perhaps was fun whilst it lasted, but it’s no way, they may decide, to earn a sensible adult living.
Western classical music on the cusp?
In other musical genres artists trace their artistic ancestry back through the generations. Western classical musicians too are able if they wish to do this; but in general they do not.
Whilst the orchestral role remains so unpromising for many in terms of professional progression and opportunities, the prospects for the art form too must be in doubt.
Valuing skills and talent
Colleges, players and managements all have some part to play in reversing this situation. When managers, and more players themselves, demonstrate in real ways that they lay store by performers’ skills and enduring careers, the paying public is more likely to do the same.
The way forward for orchestras is clear. Encourage a positive and purposive view of orchestral life, and other things will fall into place.
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