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.
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.
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.
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!
"ARE YOU READY TO CLASSIC?"
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.
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 ...
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.
"I MURDERED 14 PEOPLE FOR THIS OPPORTUNITY."
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?