Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Confronting stupid, with thanks to Seth Godin

Seth Godin aims high
Every morning, I get a new post from Seth Godin in my inbox. For those of you familiar with him, I would wager that you've appreciated his wit and insight into the nature of the new economy, what kind of work will be needed from us in the future, and how we can meet the challenges of a drastically and rapidly change global scene. While his comments are coming from a marketing/tech point of view, I have found his words potently germane to my profession.

Here is today's post, in its entirety:

"Some gigs are process oriented: Set up a process correctly and the rest takes care of itself. It's challenging and frightening to get it right, but after that, you merely have to do the hard work of showing up each day. Do the work and you'll get the results.
Other jobs require a different sort of hard work: the guts to be wrong, a confrontation with the risk of being stupid.
The comedian who fears that each new joke might fail, the writer who has to say something new, the leader who must improvise, solving new problems on a regular basis. What makes this work hard is that it might not work.
More and more people now have jobs that require them to confront the risk of appearing stupid on a regular basis."

My friend who performs with the Oregon Symphony has been telling me about her term for section string players: "tutti swine". While this may seem derogatory to section string players, it is in fact a gallows humor jab from a consummate insider: an orchestral position can be all risk and no reward.

In Godin's example of confronting "the risk of appearing stupid on a regular basis" he presupposes the silver lining that a person just might get it right and reap the benefit of seeming actually quite clever, thereby proceeding, possibly, to scaling up a business plan, making money, having a platform for trotting out new ideas or products, becoming well known, or whatever the next step may be. In an orchestra, once you've won the highest position/chair there is, there is no opportunity for advancement or larger voice in the shaping of the ensemble, artistically speaking. 

In orchestral life it is utterly unacceptable to appear stupid. That is, the player who misses notes, plays out of sync with the section, aims high musically but doesn't quite succeed, will stick out of the larger texture, call attention to himself, and be on the short list for a pink slip. There isn't room for "it might not work" in an orchestra.

To pursue the comparison further, out of a sense of self preservation, an orchestral musician would be well-advised to choose Option 1: set up a process correctly, and show up each day...do the work and get the results. This actually works to a certain extent in an orchestra. Musicians these days are exquisitely trained professionals with extraordinarily fine techniques to rely on. Trouble is, music is not automation. It's a human need, and musicians go into the field because they feel music so deeply, so inextricably as part of their identities.

Can you imagine automating your identity?

The orchestral musicians I know are far from callous beings. They are sensitive, highly trained artists who are doing their best to play at a high level under daunting work conditions. Today, Greg Sandow, who writes about the current state of classical music, quotes extensively from a report authored by Robert Levine, Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. His searing remarks link the myth of the omniscient conductor to the culture of infantilization within the ranks of the orchestra.

Sandow's larger question is how this squelching of artistic identity within the orchestra is linked to the trouble the classical world finds itself in today. That would be evidenced by the folding of many ensembles, the recent bankruptcy filing of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the extended strike at the Detroit Symphony, declining audiences, etc.

So I do ask these questions: Does the rankist (see definition by Robert W. Fuller) symphony orchestra model need to change to reflect our current democratic sensibilities? Do conductors need to change the way they view their job description? Are orchestras squandering their most precious resource, namely the artistry and creative vision of their musicians? Is there a way to make room for risk-taking within the ranks without jeopardizing the artistic cohesion of the ensemble?


  1. These are great questions, Heather. I think the idea that the hierarchical structure of orchestras is linked to the crisis of classical music is really interesting. My students, when I teach segments on classical music in my courses and get them to open up about their own musical tastes, almost all say they value music as SELF-expression rather than the representation of ideas, and for that reason are turned off when they see classical musicians seeming only to follow orders/directions from above (or from the printed page). I actually try to push against this idea of music as mainly self-expression--or at least to open up their thinking about music's relationship to "self"--but in the end idea drives their preferences (and pocketbooks).


  2. It seems to me that art created by musicians who do not feel that they can take risks ceases to be art at all. Art is alive and evolves. It is never the same. It is both sad and shocking that musical directors do not eagerly and regularly access the individual and collective genius and skills of the musicians they serve and direct. A concert that is collaborative and fully engages the creativity and explorations of all the participants has to be so much more satisfying for those participants. Not to mention for the audience.

  3. Shawna, this is why I was in crisis a few years back, wondering whether being an instrumentalist (as opposed to a composer) was, in fact, a creative endeavor. I was able to emerge feeling that, yes, it is a creative process. My conclusion is that our process of digesting a musical score, making it a part of our thoughts and dreams, and translating the score into movement, our technique on our instruments, and letting that score speak through our efforts, is akin to what an actor does, and is subtle, deep and vital work. Cristina, I have been thinking about what you said for days now. It is so fraught with layers of meaning. First of all, the discussion requires a definition of the term "self" - and that gets very Zen, very fast! Like the deeper a person's quest for self-discovery goes, the more the self disappears! I have a feeling that many of the great composers of yore (thinking Mozart, Schubert, Bach, for example) weren't so much expressing themselves or even ideas as much as tapping into a gift they each possessed for dwelling in a richly musical realm. Their music seems connected to an otherworldly truth that's possessed of its own grammar and sense. And seems divine, too. Music that is about itself, rather than about its creator. I need to keep thinking about this some more!!

  4. Heather, I love "Music that is about itself, rather than about its creator." I need to keep thinking about that idea more. It's so common for people to think about art in terms of self-expression or expression of ideas, which is a part of the truth. But I also like your addition that art expresses a bigger truth, a bigger way of seeing that goes beyond the personal or the small "i" idea. A transcendence of sorts. This all starts sounding grandiose, but I'm thinking of it in the Zen sense. Something that has its own existence and is available for the tapping to those who put committed attention there. Thanks for your thoughts.