5 Bizarre Dark Sides to Modern Orchestras

#2. There's No Money in It

Back in the day, the average orchestra was able to cover about 80 percent of its bills by showing up and letting loose some Beethoven to adoring fans. Over the past few decades, though, ticket sales have dropped to 30 percent of an orchestra's budget. By doing what they are paid to do, a bunch of musicians are only able to recoup 30 percent of the cost of existing.

The percussion section do their best with what they have, and can also make a mean casserole.

Part of this cost mismatch has to do with streamlining and modernization of music. That is, there isn't any. A Brahms symphony requires the same number of musicians and man hours as it did 100 years ago. However, the cost of doing business, from union-backed wages to trumpet lubricant, has gone up over that time.

You'd be surprised at how much lubricant an orchestra requires.

Orchestras still exist, though, which means money is coming in. The shortfall is made up with donations and endowments from the general public, charitable trusts, corporations and two bucks from the guy who sleeps on the steam grate in front of the subway. It's a patronage model similar to that practiced back at the time of Mozart, with a similar array of problems. So, in this god awful economy, it's completely unsurprising that orchestra endowments are dropping by millions each year .

"Man, busking sucks."

Financials have finally gotten bad enough that the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the best in the country, has filed for bankruptcy after it failed to get its shit together. If you're wondering how this sort of thing filters down to those well-dressed people holding the instruments, well ...

#1. It's Kind of a Horrible Job

A survey of musicians found their job satisfaction to be worse than that of airline flight attendants and fucking prison guards. In other words, a guy sitting in a tux holding a French horn for 90 minutes is less happy with his lot in life than a police officer who runs the risk of being shanked with a sharpened toothbrush on a daily basis.

Why? Take a look at this piece of music (it doesn't matter if you can't read sheet music):

(It's DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince with Boom! Shake the Room.)

Notice how the top line has almost five million (approx.) as many black dots as the second line? That top bit is the soloist, who is carrying the melody while everyone else is chugging along playing long tones. There is only one soloist, thus the name. So if you're in an orchestra, you're almost certainly in that "everyone else" category, basically serving as bland background noise for the guy everyone came to hear.

It is the equivalent of data entry with a trombone slide. It's every worse for the people whose scores have the following on them:

Tank fly boss walk jam nitty gritty. You're listening to the boy from the big bad city. This is jam hot.

Tacet. That's Italian for "sit on your ass while the rest of the orchestra plays." It makes working as a security guard at a department store look like sky diving into a ravine by comparison.

The thing is, every musician starts with the expectation of doing that complicated top part -- being a soloist. Hours are spent perfecting a tone that is meant to soar across the stage like a bird from a Howitzer. In spite of this, not everyone can make it as a soloist. If they want to play at all, musicians are forced into ensemble groups, where that same tone will pitilessly drown out the melody emitting from someone more important.

"You want your wedding song to be Canon in D? Wow, no -- these are not tears of happiness."

Nothing in the musician's training has prepared him or her to be anything other than a soloist, but there's almost no chance that anyone will hear them ever again once they get into an orchestra. After all, someone needs to play the harmony, the bass line and the resounding belch during the passionate part of the fourth movement. The melody is usually left to the principal, or first chair, of a section.

And much like the Highlander, there can be only one. Sitting next to and behind that first chair is anywhere from one to 20 also-rans whose job is to get out of the way of the principal. So those decades of practice and solo training go out the window as the musician languishes away as third violin in the back row, playing downbeats for 30 minutes.

"Minutes 4 to 37 are "bar time." I hit the triangle at 38 and come back to drown myself."

That's it. Forever. There is no chance for promotion to second violin due to above average yearly music. There's no manager violin first grade, with commensurate salary increase, for good behavior. A third violin is going to stay a third violin for the rest of his or her career unless a principal moves on, retires or dies.

The musician's only other option, besides slowly poisoning the principal to death through his valve oil, is to try and find a position in another orchestra. Good fucking luck. With most orchestras cutting back their rosters of full-time musicians (remember the money thing), players are going to be in fierce and nasty competition with each other. And remember, this competition is for a place in the orchestra that isn't at the top. It's office monkeys jockeying for a longer lunch break and a cubicle slightly farther from the men's toilet.


Then there's the salary. It's possible to make a relatively legitimate salary as an orchestra player ... if you live in a major city and you're a principal player. A musician good enough to end up in the New York Philharmonic can expect to make $134,000 a year, which is an amazing salary everywhere but New York. If a musician can't cut it in one of the top symphonies, he or she can always move to San Antonio, where the average musician will make about $23,000 a year. That's about what a person could make as a secretary. And when's the last time that job made your retinas bleed?

For more really terrible gigs, check out The 5 Most Overrated Jobs Of All-Time and 6 Dream Jobs That Would Actually Suck.

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