Back to the Future for Orchestra Musicians?


Now that we’re well into the summer months, I thought I’d take a moment to see what people are writing about in the orchestra world.  Here’s an excerpt from an article I found:

The situation of the symphony musician in the United States today is reflective of the somewhat tenuous economic status of symphonic music as an art form offering meaningful aesthetic experience to a limited public.  The symphony musician is caught between the potent forces of general public apathy, a management dominated labor market, and a union that in someways works against his best interests.  To these may be added the effects of a recording industry over which he has little control and which offers him only short-term rewards while extracting long-term profits.  From the disjunction of his social position as a dependent craftsman and his idealized self-image as a gifted and highly skilled artist emerge problems of reconciliation of his social and aesthetic expectations with the realities of his occupational life.  Strong commitments to the values of art and his chosen profession, essential to fine performance, are often undermined by unhappy experiences centering about unmet demands for material and status rewards, and the felt instability of his position.  Sensing that others pull the strings that may ultimately affect his destiny, many a symphony musician experiences a chronic anxiety concerning his life [choices]: he feels such a situation is inconsistent with the image of the musician as the bearer of the highest kind of aesthetic value which he offers for the enrichment of the community.
By David Westby
Written in 1960

What do you think about this passage?  Has anything changed in the 53 years since the article was written?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section and I’ll follow up with my thoughts as we go.

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Nate Zeisler is the Dean for Community Initiatives at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He envisions a world where students majoring in the arts have a clear path to a sustainable career, where creative minds are empowered and inspired to rule the workforce, and where access to the arts is not just for the privileged few, but for all.

One thought on “Back to the Future for Orchestra Musicians?

  1. Certainly shows the value of history in understanding our present. While the bleak portrait of the musician’s life is in accord with our anxieties today, I actually think the position of the professional musician — at least towards the top of the orchestral food chain — is a bit better. There was only one full-time orchestra when this was published — Philadelphia, which went to a year-round calendar that very same year of 1960. That said, the attitude that musicians don’t merit a living wage persists in some quarters, even though the Ford Foundation’s stated goal of its funding awards to orchestras in the 1960s was explicitly to raise the professional life of the orchestral musician. It is this money which makes up the beginning of endowments for all top-tier ensembles.

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