Monday, June 8, 2009

How does great music engender such bitter people?

I am soliciting opinions on the following: how in the world is it that so many people who are involved in the classical music business are so bitter? It is hard for me to see how either playing the music of Beethoven or Mahler or being a behind-the-scenes person who brings Beethoven and Mahler to the public can make one quite so unhappy. For goodness sakes, it's a privilege - most people have jobs that allow little or no room for emotion or expression or beauty or a glimpse of the eternal. Very few people hear applause at the conclusion of their workday. But if, for example, you have the good fortune to play in a great symphony orchestra (which comes with an income that is solidly upper middle class, every imaginable insurance benefit, etc.) and you play the works of great composers at least *most* of the time, how can you complain? Yet I can tell you that orchestra musicians, on average, are very very very unhappy. Of course I have never had the experience of being in an orchestra, so I am probably missing something - but as a pianist who depends quite a bit on the annual whims of different concert presenters to find out whether I will be able to pay the mortgage or not, I find it hard to understand the bitterness. I know I'd have a more stable income as an attorney, for example, but it is a great joy and privilege to play great music for people.

Likewise the people in the music "business". Recently I have had the good fortune to get a new manager, someone who is relatively new to the business (though experienced in the music world). He is a hugely enthusiastic and energetic guy, who is of course trying to make a living, but genuinely loves music and wants to see people succeed. I have had other good managers in the past, but most recently I had someone helping me at a sort of minimal level. She explained at the outset of our relationship that she would not be making any phone calls on my behalf to help get concerts, but would be willing to negotiate contracts, etc, as offers came in. As it turns out I only worked with her on one concert during two years - it was clear that she had little interest or time to spend in helping me and after all she wasn't getting anything out of the arrangement financially. (It is typical for a manager to take 20% of each concert's fees). All of my exchanges with her consisted of me doing my best to be polite and grateful, to which she would respond curtly and with a tone that suggested I was taking too much of her valuable time. So I thanked her and told her I would from now on be managed by someone else, and that I appreciated and admired her work. Within minutes of sending her this email, she wrote back just to disparage this new manager and to sarcastically wish me luck. What a bitter, bitter, small person! Apparently it makes her feel better to speak ill of others.

I went to an extraordinary high school, Crossroads School in Santa Monica, CA, which recruited young musicians and, in addition to a great liberal arts education, gave us music theory, orchestra, chamber music, and the camaraderie of fellow music "nerds" who spent all our time practicing instead of "hanging out" or whatever normal teenagers do after school. We have had an exceptional group of alumni - that's the subject of another blog post, I suppose - but there was one violinist in particular who, when we were students, was practically a demigod to the rest of us. Nowadays he has an incredibly prestigious and wonderful position but I remember that this exceptional young kid moved to New York at age 16 or 17 to study at Juilliard and that experience seemed to really beat him down to where, for a time, he seemed bitter and confused and cold. His playing, which had always been fiery and brilliant, became dull and removed. (I have not seen him in years, but I know he has recovered from all that!). Somehow music went from being art to being a business - I think that can happen when you are in New York. Of course, the struggle just to pay one's rent and parking in New York probably turns everyone in to desperate animals. But does that have to happen? New York is probably the cultural capital of the world - it certainly seems to have the greatest concentration of great concerts happening, basically within a couple of square miles. Can't you live in New York and be inspired by great art, instead of being turned in to a soulless shell?

But I shouldn't single out New York - a few years ago I was playing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and I had a number of old friends in the orchestra. It took them till the second rehearsal to remember to be friendly to me - as if they had become so hardened and jaded by the "business" that they had only a dim recollection of fun times playing Brahms Trios and the like.

And conductors... why are so many of them so unpleasant? Does it make them feel that they are somehow more important, more authoritative? Of course I know many conductors who are wonderful people - but how are the rest of them getting hired at all? Are they such great musicians that they don't need to bother to be civil and courteous and human? (Generally this is NOT the case!)

Well, if you have answers to any of these great mysteries, please share them! Meanwhile, don't forget that the Beethoven "Archduke" Trio is one of mankind's greatest accomplishments - and that the "music business" exists to bring that piece together with a world of people whose lives will be better if they spend 30 minutes listening to it.

And oh yeah, as a piece of advice - I don't think you will REALLY feel better about yourself by talking down about others.


Bruce Hembd said...

Hi Max --

This is an issue that I have attempted to address on my own blog. It's a difficult issue to encapsulate but here are some brief points:

- Contract negotiations:
For most orchestras this comes up every 3-5 years. The musicians form committees, sometimes sub-committees -- and negotiate with management over work conditions. Many times these can get fairly heated and resentments between and within parties get born there that never, ever get resolved.

-- Lack of control:
Musicians in school are taught to be free and adventurous. A great deal of autonomy is felt. In a professional orchestra this is not the case. A musician is more like a cog in a large magnificent machine. Many musicians never get over this lack of control and bitterness ensues.

Some musicians lose their spark.

--Dictatorial conductors/adversarial employees:
Like it or not the conductor is the boss. A skilled conductor is not only a consummate musician but is also something like a social psychologist. Many musicians regardless of the artistry of the conductor will make a sport of poking fun at the boss. This is virtually true in any work environment. Some conductors will treat their musicians like indentured servants rather than as colleagues.

Playing in an orchestra can be nerve-racking for some musicians. I read somewhere that it can be a profession more stressful than being an air traffic controller.

--Childish behavior:
Bored, disenfranchised or bitter musicians (especially it seems, brass players with long rests or tacets) will entertain themselves with jokes and goofing around. I have been guilty of this myself, I am sorry to say. Needless to say, this can tick off other colleagues who are trying to focus on the music.

Also too, some musicians, while very skilled in the art of their instruments, are socially inept and will act like naughty children.

Narcissism and over-inflated egos can incite conflict and long, bitter resentments. Remember that we are talking about a band of people who may work together in one places for years, even decades.

In some environments, this is my own coping mechanism. When in a cage full of angry tigers, I just remain quiet, do the job, execute the notes and go home.

These are just a few that I can think of offhand.

Bruce Hembd said...


My blog label for narcissism, which attempts to address this issue:

Bruce Hembd said...

Sorry, one final comment:

Without a doubt, when the music is playing, 99% of orchestral musicians are into it and there is an almost spiritual connection that transcends any conflict. I don't want to give the blanket impression that musicians are incapable of having fun and enjoying themselves.

Its that time between the notes that gets us in trouble and when the grumbling begins.

Max Levinson said...

Bruce - your comments shed a great deal of light on the orchestral musician's situation in particular. I agree with you that, at the moment of a performance, the vast majority of musicians in orchestras are playing with real commitment, and no evident unhappiness.

I also enjoyed your post on narcissism among musicians in particular (and read the Slate article to which you linked).

I think that one of the problems of orchestra musicians in particular is that they feel that they have responsibility without having power. I agree with you that it is a difficult switch for a musician who grows up being encouraged to be expressive, spontaneous, etc. to one day join a group of 100 players who have to subsume a good deal of this to the will of a conductor or a section principal. My non-scientific observation is that some of my friends who are principal wind players in major orchestras are pretty happy- maybe because they have a bit more leeway with their parts.

Still, I wonder about others in the music field. Like the manager I was talking about (and others with whom I have worked and/or come in to contact with).

Alan Fletcher said...

VERY long comment follows - this was a talk I gave for PAMA last year - if you can believe it, this is a short version; there's more to come -

There’s a famous story about one of the world’s leading orchestral bassoonists, who, upon retirement, nailed his instrument above his fireplace, never to play again. If apocryphal, the story still shows something we observe all too often: that the joy of making music can easily be lost in the vicissitudes of professional life.

What would make a brilliant orchestral player want to give up and retire at 40? I recently spoke with such a person, who won a great position as a teenager and would seem to be living the dream of countless young musicians. But he was burnt out.

On the other hand, what makes Elliott Carter still vital at almost 100? What gives Yo-Yo Ma the exuberance, generosity, and joy so evident in everything he does? What helps musicians preserve the excitement they felt when they first understood that they could have a life in music?

Perhaps the answer lies in creating and sustaining a feeling of autonomy, of a purpose-driven selfhood.

Here’s an anecdote to which I can attest: at a break in rehearsal, a principal player in a world-renowned orchestra approached the conductor, an especially renowned figure who is still active today, and said, “Maestro, I have an idea about this passage….” The instant, withering response: “You just play the little notes; I have the ideas!”

A contrasting story: I was recently in Pittsburgh and spent a week observing the Pittsburgh Symphony’s new music director, Manfred Honeck. Honeck’s rehearsal style was striking. It begins with complete mastery of each score. But the rehearsals began with generous readings, full of encouragement. Then a process in which Honeck asked the orchestra to focus on one or two passages, pulling out ideas in a manner at once precise and very open. When he knew exactly what was needed, he said so exactly; for other issues, he asked the orchestra’s advice.
Perhaps the age of the autocratic conductor is over. Gustavo Dudamel would seem to provide convincing evidence. His ideal is to be in service to the orchestra, to be among rather than before them. His importance is not gainsaid by his humility. And both spring from an immense enthusiasm not only for music but for people. In every thing he does, he seems to say, “What can I do? What can I do for music? What can I do for the orchestra? What can I do for you?”

Yet, even if the days of podium tyranny are behind us, their effect is still here. Orchestra musicians have survived a hugely stressful education and audition process. They face a paradoxical condition: they must be supremely gifted performers, required to play at a consistently perfect level. But they also have to agree to be molded by someone else’s ideas, or even to be coerced into a subservient role. Is this what burns out gifted players? Is this what leads to a piece work approach to a career, a sort of garment worker’s mentality?

If a musician’s self-concept is that of being an unappreciated cog in the machine, circumscribed in every respect, this will surely make it impossible to have a career full of generosity and enthusiasm. The conditions of a career in ensemble performance have to include autonomy, respect, both give and take.

I mention the rigors of conservatory training, and must own up to having been part of the problem. My first job was teaching solfège in a major conservatory. This is a highly technical subject. As we taught it, it related to all aspects of reading and imagining music, and it was very hard work. Students who had reason to think they were very advanced were unhappily surprised to find that we were going to pull apart their whole idea about sight reading and studying. After a few years, some of my students surprised me with a little book tribute: a collection of my sayings, á la Chairman Mao. I was touched and delighted, but maybe I should’ve been a little worried at the title: “Stress Equals Excellence.”

Alan Fletcher said...

Part Two of overly long comment

“Stress Equals Excellence” is an apt description of much teaching philosophy in music. Is this desirable? A certain style of conservatory training aims at producing astonishingly precise and consistent performance, free of error, ready to be molded to someone else’s ideas and interpretation. Let’s consider some aspects of practice and rehearsal from the standpoint of stress.
Repetitive stress injury is the likely outcome of rote practicing. A more cognitive, psychological approach - chunking information, bundling issues, strategizing and planning - makes for more efficient and less physically stressful practice.
For a time, I myself studied piano according to Abby Whiteside’s method, as refined by Robert Helps. It would take far too long to make this strange and often wonderful philosophy clear. In brief, one makes the whole piece the object of practice, rather than passages of special difficulty, beginning the learning process with a deep analysis of the underlying structure. Then one makes choices about how to bring the structure forward, leaving out everything that is of lesser importance – and this often means the hard parts, so the piece is already in place and thoroughly understood before the brilliant and tricky parts are considered. In learning Schubert’s great B flat Sonata, one might sit at the piano imagining vast stretches of music in real time, playing only a few essential chords. Then the shimmering textures of the surface would be draped over this pedestal. It took exceptional concentration, but it not only avoided a lot of tendon pounding, it made memorization – that supreme creator of anxiety – almost simple. (It also helped to start off with a serviceable technique!)

If practice benefits from a highly cognitive approach, so also does rehearsal. Orchestras today function on an economic model that restricts rehearsal to a bare minimum – already a condition that militates against inquiry and experimentation and towards regimentation. But we’ve seen that the right approach from the conductor, and the right preparation and attitude from the players, can make the most of rehearsal time.

One of the musicians in my life who best exemplified an ideal of happiness, gentleness, and dignity in music-making was Eugene Lehner. Mr. Lehner had been the violist of the Kolisch Quartet, a stellar ensemble that gave the premieres of works by Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, and Bartók, and early performances of the Ravel Quartet and many other landmark works. The quartet had the peculiarity that they played everything, including complex new scores, from memory. Mr. Lehner told the story about one of his first tours with the group. They were playing Beethoven’s Op. 95, the Serioso quartet. There’s a notable viola solo, and, as the moment approached, Lehner realized he was going to have a memory lapse. This is a phenomenon that, I regret to say, is not uncommon: as the passage to be played disappears from the brain, the awareness of its disappearance becomes almost physically palpable. Lehner knew he was about to be humiliated. Then he heard the sound of his solo coming from the cello, perfectly adjusted in tonal color to seem like a viola solo. After the performance he asked the cellist how this had happened. The reply: “I felt that you were worrying, and saw that your fingers were on the wrong string for the solo, so I thought I had better play it myself.” This kind of knowledge of what the music really is, rather than what one’s own part or position requires, is truly the ideal.

Alan Fletcher said...

Part Three of insanely long post

So far, we’ve looked at the psychology of being a performing musician in terms of self-image in the large ensemble, the stresses of practice and study, the challenges of rehearsal, and the anxieties and uncertainties of performance. I think there’s an aspect of a musical life that could re-orient us from all that can go wrong, and usually does, and help us focus on an unexpected positive.

What if the great paradigm for musicians was to see themselves as autonomous, strong, important to their communities, and able to make a real difference for others? What if orchestral players, instead of being put-upon, exploited, albeit fantastically skilled laborers, prey to management’s demands for help in marketing and fund raising as well as conductor’s demands on stage, felt instead that they are in control of their lives as they integrate a variety of kinds of service? What if performers in the solo and small ensemble professions - pianists, guitarists, trios and quartets – had the endless details of self-management well in hand and were animated by larger issues and concerns? What would lead to such a state?
Last summer, Jessye Norman was our guest in Aspen. She was set to speak to all of our opera program students and staff – singers, pianists, coaches, teachers. We expected an inspiring story about her career: scintillating successes and the struggles that led to them, bits of advice dispensed from her lofty view on repertoire and interpretation. But this was the day after Beverly Sills had died, and Miss Norman was instead wrapped in contemplation of her friend’s marvelous life....Sills radiated incomparable technique and artistry with an appearance of ease and grace that was especially meaningful to those who knew how hard things really were for her. But more than that, when the moment came for her to retire from the stage, which she did at the high point of her own artistry, she turned immediately to a life of service to other musicians and to their public. Jessye Norman said, “Be a wonderful musician, but also be a true citizen! Volunteer in your community: serve Meals on Wheels or read to the elderly. Then, when you are helping someone, say, ‘I am a musician,’ with pride and conviction.”

Next summer, the Aspen Music Festival will partner with the international Albert Schweitzer Fellowship in a program of direct service to community for musicians. Albert Schweitzer was not only the Nobel Prize-winning humanitarian, an early advocate of nuclear disarmament, and a pioneer in bringing the highest standard of medical care to Africa. He was also a superb musician, whose books on Bach and especially on Bach’s cantatas were among the most important musicological works of his time. He gave the keynote address at the first summer of music and ideas in Aspen, in 1949 – the only time he ever visited the U.S. We’re immensely proud to remember that moment as we invite our students next year to imagine programs of direct service, some of which will then be funded by the Schweitzer Fellowship.
The Schweitzer Fellowship’s motto is “Reverence for life.” Musicians must be dedicated to excellence and must have a reverence for the music itself – without this, they will never succeed. But I think that if a musician’s focus is on reverence for life, for community, and for the largest possible context of meaning for the making of music, that many of the stresses can fall away. Or that may be too hopeful: the stresses do not fall way, but they are held in a framework that keeps them in place and gives them proportion, in service to the higher art.

Chris Shih said...

Despite not being in the music business, I nonetheless have many friends who are, and I've noticed the same kind of bitterness. I'm certainly not qualified to really give an opinion, but I feel grateful that I don't need to play music to put food on the table, and in some ways that makes me appreciate and cherish it even more. For me, it's PURELY about the music, about doing it justice, about conveying the composer's intentions. I suppose that's one thing that's refreshing about the amateur musician. In retrospect, I'm very happy with the balance I've been able to achieve between family, medicine, and music, playing 3 or 4 concerts a year. But I admire you for keeping the attitude that you do, and it certainly reflects in your heartfelt playing.

Stan said...

I think you're too close to it. It's not peculiar to music, but to people who wind up with jobs that are tantalizing close to what they thought they wanted, but ultimately not rewarding. Perhaps because musicians do something associated with creativity, the lack of opportunity to express one's individual creativity might be frustrating. But trust me -- and we're talking about first hand experience -- any job/profession can produce that kind of frustraton, given the appropriate mix of circumstances....

ckoh71 said...

Max, nice to have you blogging again. It's an interesting question, and you make some intelligent and reasonable points. I think the question is deeper - why are some people bitter and unhappy? Or consider the converse - have you ever met someone who works in what you or I might consider a mind-numbing or soul-crushing job (behind the counter of a drugstore) who came across incredibly friendly, good-humored, and generally happy? Meanwhile, I'm sure you've encountered obnoxious, hateful people who are supposedly successful from a financial/professional perspective - but probably wouldn't know genuine happiness and joy if it smacked them in the face. I certainly have met my share in both business and in the entertainment field. I sometimes ask myself why I can't be happier considering all of the lucky breaks that I have in my life and appreciate the fact that I can stop and consider beauty, poetry, and grace in this world. There are certainly poor people who are merely struggling to survive or keep their head afloat for whom such moments might seem gratuitous. (Of course, I would argue that everybody needs and desires such moment - only a few are lucky enough to have the opportunity and resources to experience them). Anyway, I don't think everyone is as sensitive and appreciative as you are. I think the same question could apply to great writers and intelligent people - I've often posited that smarter, better educated people tend to be more miserable and cynical. I think of Lisa Simpson looking at Ralph Wiggum who appears to take delight in mundane inanities unaware of his ignorance. But maybe that's a condescending attitude to take. In any case, my answer is that I don't know. You may chuckle but it comes down to a statement we collectively mocked in college - "why can't people be nice to each other?"

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Anonymous said...

I can answer the question you pose with personal experience because I too was one of those disenchanted musicians. In short, Orch. musicians (and the most famous soloists) for the most part, cannot/do not create music. Hence their great unhappiness. If they are happy it is out of ignorance. Partially this has to do with how most people define music (which is not accurate). Musical talent, Phrasing, Interpretation etc. considered the hall marks of music making in the classical genre is not music but a craft. Took me 20 years of meditation to discover and accurately define what music is. No person who creates music can be unhappy. It is impossible! Thank you for bringing this topic of misery in the music field up, because so few know about this hidden aspect that affects all the arts including acting, dancing etc. If you wish to communicate you can email me at