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?