Through the Looking Glass

The Year of Living Dangerously in the classical orchestral world continues.  This time we get an interesting twist on the standard with the West Coast edition.  After a while it’s hard not to get desensitized to all the bad news out there.  Then I ran into a civilian.

It’s always fascinating to get the take of a civilian on the madness that has infused the orchestral scene the last couple of years.  I was in the airport and somehow got into a conversation with a woman from Indianapolis, and out of sheer perversity I asked if she attends the ISO much.  To my delight it turns out she does.  The next words out of her mouth were telling:

“You know they’ve had their problems lately…. and I still don’t understand why they have a union.”

All I could do was chuckle wryly.  It is not easy to distill 75 years of “labor relations” in the orchestral field down into about 2 minutes, but I tried.  Certainly there were reasons in the past for the emergence of the Musician’s Union, and certainly there are reasons today, and probably in the future, for its continued existence.  But that’s not the point.  What my travelling acquaintance was getting at is that the whole structure of orchestras, with the presumed Union vs Board fabrication (with Management usually stuck in the middle) is not how anyone sane would create a business model for an ensemble, if one had to do it from scratch and without our collective history.

Then there’s the issue of the public perception of what we do.  Here was a woman who was obviously intelligent, very funny, a supporter of the arts (VERY proud of the ISO, by the way), and yet still didn’t really grasp how it is that musicians get to the level of the ISO.  There’s that damn disconnect between how musicians perceive reality and how the civilians perceive it.  Both perceptions may be real to the people living in them but they are pure fantasy to each other.

I suppose that this was put into stark contrast by the recent article in Bloomberg.  To start off there’s the fact that this was published by Bloomberg, a company with no other interest than money.  The nitwit who wrote this rather unfortunately reflects the musings of a clear majority of the people in our society.  While social media erupted in outrage I was amused, and not at all surprised, to find that those objecting to the article were preaching to the choir, and because of that they have missed the point.

Yes, this author is misinformed.  Yes, this article is extremely poorly written and beyond amateurish.  But there’s still a large number of people who believe that Barack Obama is a muslim who was born in Kenya, and this has been constantly and consistently debunked for the better part of the last 6 years.  Imagine the misinformation and misunderstanding about our own profession that is out there in the civilian world.  Civilians do not understand what we do.  Even my very good friends who are not musicians do not understand what I do. I can see it in their eyes – what we do scares them.  We are The Other.  When talking about us they get that tone in their voice like we are the Chosen Few who get to go past the curtain into the presence of the Holy of Holies.  All they ever glimpse is a flash of light and a whiff of incense.

No, that’s not quite right.  It’s just that they can’t quite wrap their heads around it.  Trying to explain what happens in an orchestra is profoundly different than comparing yourself to Michael Jordan.  Civilians can grasp the Michael Jordan comparison quite easily since any idiot can pick up a basketball and shoot.  We have all done it, and every once and a while you actually get the ball in the basket.  But it’s pretty easy to see how far it is from shooting free throws to guarding MJ in the paint.  There’s a tangibility factor in play…… and in play, I suppose.  But what we do ….. Look, I’ve been doing music for almost 45 years now, professionally for over 20, and I think that I could actually get a note out of a flute.  I wouldn’t even try with an oboe.  Is it no wonder that when you put an instrument in the hands of a civilian the look on their face would not be out of place in the famous Staff-into-Snakes scene from The 10 Commandments?  When it comes to music the gulf between what a civilian can accomplish and what a professional does is so very wide that Clarke’s 3rd Law comes into effect:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

For us it should read:

“Any sufficiently proficient artist in the eyes of a non-artist is an Alchemist.”

And so, you can claim that so-and-so symphony is one of the best in the world all you want.  You can claim that the members of so-and-so symphony deserve to be paid like others until you’re blue in the face.  You can wax poetic about what it takes to be in one of the best symphonies in the world until next year’s Grammy awards.  In the end those are all losing arguments, not because they aren’t true, but because they don’t make any sense to the civilians.  They have no real mechanism for gauging the relative worth of our arguments.

For some people that won’t matter.  They want music in their lives and they are prepared to do whatever it takes to make that happen.  I’m not worried about those people.  I’m worried about the other 90%.  I’m worried because there’s another very famous axiom that deserves to be quoted here:

“Damnant quod non intellegunt.” –

literally “They condemn what they do not understand.

14 thoughts on “Through the Looking Glass”

  1. Bill – what a wonderful post. The heart of the issue is education. Educating the public. Educating donors. Educating the audience. And, perhaps, educating musicians and management/Boards about the challenges of each others’ work.

  2. Mary brings up a unique point. Management often times assumes musicians are not interested in the role of the staff in running an orchestra. The best bridge building that can happen is a dialogue between management and musician to help educate everyone on their perspective roles. It always amazes me how our musicians engage with staff when they are present for rehearsals. We are all in this ship together, and it is time we all started acting like it.

  3. Education – it’s a good idea but it doesn’t work. An example of the disconnect between reasonably intelligent civilians and what musicians do is as follows: I am now a retired manager of a music hall at a small university. The Music Department used the Hall for it’s orchestra, winds and two choirs for their classes. Another department wanted to use the Hall during the orchestra and winds time for a lecture. The professor could not understand that these were classes not “just rehearsals”. Even after explaining that they were, in fact, classes with credits she still insisted they were not important and therefore they should have the Hall for their lecture. The decision was made by the dean to allow their request. She was surprised to find out that they would need chairs and music stands in order to move to another classroom. I also told her she would have to pay for the rental of the chairs and stands and the percussion/timpani because none of those would be leaving the Hall. Suffice to say it didn’t work, but she had the balls to request it again. This time it was denied.

  4. Why do some people begrudge other people their incomes? Plumbers make $200 to come to your house and unclog a drain. Good for them! Minimum wage was raised. Hallelujah! My nephew makes more at his computer job at age 27 than I do playing in an orchestra after almost 20 years of service. Fantastic! You know what? The President of the United States makes less (as president) than most financial dudes and CEO’s. I think he does considerably more than they do AND his life is at risk. Does he deserve a raise? YES. These articles are so misinformed. I fear that now that our schools have removed most of the arts, there will be nobody in future generations to appreciate what we do. The ironic thing is, with a few weeks training, many musicians would do well in banking and finance jobs, but reverse the situation and give bankers our jobs in an orchestra for two weeks and they could barely play a scale.

  5. love your post, but….what should we do? education? too vague. what does that mean? usually something different to us musicians than to the civilians. how about stop hiring businesspeople to run the orchestra like a corporation? unfortunately, it seems, that the business people have the money, and we seemingly need those corporate sponsors. i mean, what do all corporations do when its time to tighten the belt? they trim the work force. demand the regaining workers work more for less. its been corporate business model for a million years. instead of educating the civikusns about our “maguc”, let’s educate musician about business and get them to lead the orchestras.

    • From your mouth to the Goddess’ ears, Tom. I’m in a raving argument right now on facebook where some friends are bemoaning that professional sports people don’t get harassed about their salaries the way we do. I’m trying to point out that professional sports lives in the FOR profit world, and that makes an immense difference. We need to jusity ourselves by ourselves, and not be comparing ourselves to everything else that goes on in the world.

      • Yeah, though I would not mind orchestral musicians being paid like pro athletes. You train as hard and over a longer period of time, you’re at risk for various types of injuries, and you can spend your whole lives playing.

  6. Bill,
    re: “…the whole structure of orchestras, with the presumed Union vs Board fabrication (with Management usually stuck in the middle) is not how anyone sane would create a business model for an ensemble”
    For what it’s worth, that is the model we are stuck with, not just in orchestras, but in education, manufacturing, health care, sports and so. The American economy is built on an adversarial relationship between labor and capital. We should not be surprised by labor/management difficulties because they are built into the system. We need to accept labor actions not as failure of the system, but as its pure expression. Musicians, or anyone working for someone else, should always be preparing for the next battle over compensation. Constant education and public relations are crucial.

  7. In regard to the Alfidi Capital guy – don’t take him too seriously, here is review of his business from Yelp:

    I tried contacting alfidi capital after I had come into some money. I was looking for some advice on what to invest. I received no answer, even though I DID DARE to contact him, as a woman. I should not have done this, alfidi capital’s website says that women especially should contact him, which isn’t exactly professional. I then googled the address of this so-called business and it appears to be a dorm-room at San Francisco State University. Another red flag. This business does not appear to be a business at all, but just a blog. Not sure why it’s even up on Yelp.

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