5 Bizarre Dark Sides to Modern Orchestras

Most people think of the orchestra as a hoity-toity elevator music club invented for your granny's listening pleasure. And while it's true that most members of their audiences are probably knocking on death's door , playing in one must still be an honorable, noble profession, right?

But like all forms of music, the orchestra has a the seedy underbelly of drugs, horrific injuries and low pay.

#5. Performance-Enhancing Drugs Are Rampant

Fucking up in baseball is so common that there's a special stat for it. In an orchestra, though, a single fuck-up can mean the difference between a sweet piece of Mozart and The NY Times talking about how shitty you are. And even the best, most practiced musician is going to get a case of nerves when walking out in front of a half-empty concert hall of sedated senior citizens. So what is the modern solution to performance anxiety?

Beta blockers. Magic pills that steady the hand and smooth out the notes.

Her betas ain't going nowhere.

Traditionally used to help with heart issues, these pills work by counteracting the effects of adrenaline. This drops blood pressure, slows the heart, reduces breathing rate and turns Speed into a exercise in zen. The end result is a noticeable increase in playing quality. Yep, it's steroids for violinists.

"That's a perfect rendition of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds! Shame that we're playing Bach."

How widespread is the prescription-strength orchestra? A study way back in 1986 found that 27 percent of musicians admitted that they took beta blockers. Though beta blockers are the reason that a North Korean pistol shooter was stripped of his medal, there's no push to start piss tests before Prokofiev. After all, this is a great alternative to what musicians used to use to settle down: tranquilizers or beer.

Pictured: The BBC Philharmonic.

#4. Playing is Dangerous

Playing music is goddamn terrible for your body. Hearing aid companies, for example, will advise that all musicians risk progressive hearing loss since the average orchestra is loud enough that it violates OSHA sound regulations. Anyone who practices for more than a few seconds a day could end up with a case of repetitive strain injury. But we're not talking about that (or the fact that string instruments shred your fingertips and violin players get horrifying, oozing sores on their necks). There are nontrivial, potentially life-ending injuries that a wind instrument player can sustain.

Like chronic noogie syndrome.

Yes. Life-ending. It is possible to die from playing a fucking trumpet. There are the horrifying cases of strokes in people who were playing trumpet so awesomely that their brains exploded.

If death is too scary an outcome, serious trumpet players can merely shred their mouth muscles until they require surgery to play again. It's called Satchmo's syndrome after Louis I-motherfucking-invented-jazz Armstrong. In addition to losing the ability to control his mouth adequately, Satchmo also played enough to start bleeding from his lips, which presumably made him all the more badass.

"That frothing blood-rimmed mouth sure makes Ride of the Valkyries more immersive!"

Trumpet players, and indeed all brass instrument players, use something called a Valsalva maneuver. It sounds like a military tactic but is actually the same thing you do when taking a shit. The Valsalva maneuver transiently raises blood pressure as the body strains against, well, nothing but itself. Now, repeat this daily for years. End result? A whole clusterfuck of symptoms. Increased incidence in eye problems that are related to glaucoma. In fact, brass players could very well end up like this 50-year-old trombone player who tromboned so hard his retinas began to bleed. Holy shit!


#3. Orchestras are Notoriously Sexist

In 1980, a letter arrived for one Mr. Conant, letting him know he had advanced to the next round of auditions for the spot as the principle trombone player with the Munich Philharmonic. That's a big deal, considering they've been around for going on 120 years (though they probably don't tout the fact that they at one point were known as the Orchestra of the Fascist Movement), so you can imagine what an opportunity this would have been. You can also imagine the hiring committee's surprise when Herr Conant appeared with a big smile, a large trombone and a huge set of breasts.

"That's very nice Ms. Conant. Give the trombone back to your husband and we'll get started."

Since initial auditions are done blind, the members of the committee had not realized that their best trombone candidate was (gasp) a woman named Abbie Conant. In spite of her XX composition, they let her finish the audition process and hired her. However, shortly after Ms. Conant arrived, her fellow musician's latent fear of vaginas began to show. For the rest of her career, Ms. Conant was exposed to a scale of sexist bullshit that deserves a medal for its scope, audacity and stupidity.

After two years of probation and rave reviews, she was mysteriously demoted. When she questioned why, the conductor said, "You know the problem, we need a man for the solo trombone." Subtle!

"Your lungs are a little too emotional and high pitched for our tastes."

Subsequently, Ms. Conant was forced to submit to a physical exam determining her fitness to play her instrument. And when the orchestra demanded that she be evaluated musically, she came up with over 95 people to vouch for her, while the orchestra could only find two schmucks who couldn't make it anyway. The end result of this evaluation was praise so glowing that it rivaled Chernobyl in the moonlight.

So how have things progressed since then? Well, for starters, the Munich Philharmonic stopped auditioning people behind screens to avoid making the terrible mistake of hiring a talented woman. Their sister orchestra in Vienna only started allowing women as full members in 1997, after which point they hired ... four women. In the U.S., things are comparatively better: about 35 percent of the orchestra is female. Still, women have a 7.5 percent better chance of being hired if they audition behind a screen so that the hiring committee isn't crushed by the power of breasts.

"I can't even wave my baton without hitting an ovary around here."

Even within the orchestra, things aren't quite equal. Women are disproportionately underrepresented in the brass and percussion sections. One explanation is that violins are less heavy, which attracts the frail weak women who can't possibly lift a 3.5 pound trumpet. Women conductors are even more rare than women trumpet players: As of 2009, fewer than 12 percent of all conductors were female.

We're going out on a limb here and say that the imbalance isn't due to the weight of the baton.

It's most likely due to breasts destabilizing their centre of gravity.

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