How Many Times Can You Cut The Budget And Still Claim To Be World-Class?

If you don’t already read Drew McManus’ blog Adaptistration, you may want to take a look some of his recent posts as well as the conversation on Facebook that ensued.

Drew started out yesterday linking to an article on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that suggested the drop in people auditioning for the Pittsburgh Symphony might be a consequence of the pay cuts musicians agreed to after a strike in 2016.

The article in and of itself is interesting in terms of considering if musicians are factoring this in a decision not to audition versus those that are just eager to gain some relatively stable employment, regardless of past labor negotiations. While I was reading it, I wondered if there might be a similar drop in applicants and auditioners in states whose governments have enacted laws and rules artists and administrators deem problematic.

Drew goes on to mention the “orchestra caste system” providing some insight into the dynamics between orchestras.

It’s exactly what it sounds like: those who earn less and work in organizations with smaller budgets must defer to those who earn more or work at larger budget groups because the latter are “better” than the former.

…For example, if musicians from an orchestra like Minnesota are on strike or locked out, it is assumed they have carte blanche when it comes to offers of substitute work at a smaller budget orchestra, like Grand Rapids. They won’t be expected to go through any formal substitute hiring process and existing subs will get booted in order to make room.

But if the situation were reversed, you’re far less likely to see a group at the level of Minnesota extending the same degree of latitude. Instead, you’ll see positive thoughts and well-wishes and by the way, we have this substitute hiring policy and you’ll to go through that before we can offer you any work.

He goes on to talk about how standards are established and enforced in orchestras. That is the part that has turned into a lengthy conversation on Facebook that gets into the standards being enforced, who is enforcing them, if others can override, people taking leadership about standards and so on.

The conversation got so involved, when last I looked, there was a suggestion that a few conductors, musicians and Drew get together and videotape a discussion of the issues.

Even if you aren’t involved in the classical music/opera scene, check the conversation out because some version of this situation probably exists in your field, just with different players wielding the power and influence, but also preferring to skirt similarly difficult conversations.

Just To Take The Edge Off

A couple weeks back, Slate had a long form article on people using beta-blockers to help with nervousness and stage fright. Just seeing the title, I immediately recalled a piece Drew McManus wrote 15 years ago wondering if the use of beta blockers among orchestra musicians was akin to athletes using performance enhancing drugs.

The Slate article made me wonder about the pressures orchestra musicians face because both performing artists quoted in the article were orchestra musicians. One was a performance psychologist on faculty at Juilliard who was against their use. The other was a cellist who actually founded a company that provides online consultations with doctors to help people access medicines. He is a frequent user of beta-blockers.

A 2015 study the Slate article links to shows that 72% of musicians have tried beta-blockers. 92% of responses indicated beta-blockers were most effective at dealing with nervousness (91% indicated experience was most effective). All those surveyed were orchestra/chamber/opera musicians since the survey was an update of a 1987 survey for International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians.

Use of beta-blockers is growing according to the commentary on the 2015 survey,

With regard to beta-blockers, the study shows that 72% of ICSOM musicians have tried using beta blockers for performance anxiety. Out of that group, 90% said they would consider using them for auditions, 74% would consider them for solo or featured performances, and 36% would consider them for orchestra performances. By comparison, in 1987 a reported 27% of ICSOM musicians had tried beta-blockers, representing a significant uptick (45%) over the last 28 years. Also in 1987 of those who’d tried beta-blockers 72% said they would use them for auditions while only 4% would use them for orchestra performances compared to today’s 36%.

While there has been an increase in the number of those who have or intend to use beta blockers, on a positive note, musicians have increased efforts at lead healthy lifestyles and pursue alternatives,

Today’s classical musician also reported better than average health and there was major increase in physical exercise as a method to address performance anxiety. In 1987 61% of musicians reported regular exercise and in 2015, 68% reported regular exercise. As a means for addressing performance anxiety, however, exercise was used by 17% in 1987 and 74% in 2015, a striking increase.

In both Drew’s 2004 piece and the recent Slate piece, there are people who swear beta-blockers are the best thing in the world and pretty much survive day to day by using them.

There are two big issues, however. The first is the obvious point that the pills are just masking the effects so that the root cause of stage fright/anxiety is never addressed so it is no wonder that people feel they need to continue to use them.

The second, and perhaps bigger problem is that the FDA has not approved the use of beta blockers for anxiety. They were created to address chest pain and heart arrhythmias. Taking them incorrectly or if you have a medical condition you are unaware of could result in everything from fainting from low blood pressure to heart attacks.

Going off them abruptly—say, if you took them for a string of presentations, then stopped—is dangerous, too, because blood pressure can spike in response, argues LeRoy.

This is a topic that bubbles up every few years that bears paying some attention. Since there are so many musicians using beta-blockers with apparently no ill-effects, (unless there are unreported incidents at auditions and performances), I imagine people will continue to use and swear by the pills. But this focuses on the symptoms without questioning the causes.

Perhaps the easiest place to start investigating is the training process itself to see if that might be engendering anxiety. The 2015 report asked the age people experienced their first performance anxiety and the largest response was approximately 33% between 11-15 years old. Approximately 25%-28% between 16-20 years old and 15% of respondents between 5-10 years old.

The Arts Aren’t The Cherry, They Are The Yeast

Apparently I watched a lot of TED Talks in 2009 as this seemed to be recurring element in my retrospective posts these couple of weeks. However, this is one I have remembered clearly for the last decade.

Mallika Sarabhai talks about using artistic expression to teach as well as deal with sensitive topics like justice and injustice. She starts out her talk telling a story about a monkey who witnesses a rape by the god Indra noting that the way Indra expiates the offense leaves the monkey confused. She says she has told that story around the world more than 550 times at schools and black tie events and has been able to discuss a rape due to the framework of the story.

Now, if I were to go into the same crowd and say, “I want to lecture you about justice and injustice,” they would say, “Thank you very much, we have other things to do.” And that is the astonishing power of art.

The part of her talk that has stuck with me for 10 years though is when she relates the health of people has been improved thanks to a performance that teaches people in villages to use a piece of cloth folded 8 times as a water filter. I think it is the practicality and survival element that has lead me to remember it.

All of these examples lead up to her very memorable policy statement about arts and culture:

What I need to say to the planners of the world, the governments, the strategists is, “You have treated the arts as the cherry on the cake. It needs to be the yeast.”

Art Is STILL Infecting My Brain

Over 9 years ago I wrote about a TED Talk given by Golan Levin where he was demonstrating technology that being used to generate images based on sound input. The things he was doing was fun to watch because it was so interactive for the individual. Now 10 years on, we might be a little more blase about it all.

The one part of his talk that caught my attention was a visualization they had created of Jaap Blonk performing Kurt Schwitters’ tone poem The Ursonate.

At the time I wrote,

Much to my surprise, the cadence of Blonk’s recitation ran around in my head for a few days after. I don’t know if it qualifies as an ear worm since I couldn’t tell you a single word. Though I could spout nonsense syllables in an approximation of Blonk’s performance.

The thing is, it is 10 years later and as soon as I read this entry, Blonk’s recitation started bouncing around in my head. I started trying to recite what I remembered. I want to say I did a good job of recreating what I recalled. It is hard to know what the standards for accurately reciting nonsense sounds are.

In the interests of infecting you, watch the TED Talk (Blonk’s piece starts around 6:30) or watch the full recording of Blonk below.

I keep using the term “infected”, but it will probably evoke the pleasure you experienced as a kid playing with blurting out a made-up language.

I wrote back in 2009,

“Listening to Blonk’s and some of Schwitters’ recitations today, I recognize just how fun language can be. (I haven’t listened to all the different recordings.) Blonk especially seems like he enjoys playing with the sounds, luxuriating in the pleasure of pronunciation and takes joy in the enthusiastic exclamations.”

There have been times when I realized I got yelled at for doing stuff as a kid that is deemed artistic when done by adults. A lot people post Picasso’s quote, ““Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” It seems to me that the appellation “Artist” is the reward you get for reconnecting with the what you got punished for doing when you were a kid.

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