Slash Your Local Orchestra

10,000 hours.

That's the number going around these days when people spit-ball what it takes to master a skill: 10,000 hours of practice. I happen to think it's on the low side, but maybe that's because I wasn't as gifted as some. Yo-Yo Ma, for instance. But then, someone of that level only comes along once or twice in a generation. He's not competing for jobs against the masses.

Still, a number of years back, Yo-Yo Ma did joke that he'd never pass an audition to join the Philadelphia Orchestra. It's a claim that's hard to swallow, but not beyond the realm of possibility. Especially in today's job market.

In fact, winning any job in a professional orchestra is increasingly like your chance of being there when lightning strikes. Even if you're among the consummately gifted, the chances of winning that full-time gig are frighteningly slim. But don't take my word for it, ask anyone currently in the workforce.

Make believe.

For the non-musicians, imagine you're graduating among experts from our nation's top conservatories. You and your highly trained peers are similar to first-rate NFL newbs entering the workforce for the first time, all searching for your first big break. You, like your NFL counterpart, compete against an army of first round draft picks.

And this is where the similarities end. You, unlike Andrew Luck, face fiercer competition than the NFL, fewer jobs than the NFL, and vanishing funding for the jobs still available. Also, each year the number of jobs, and the charitable giving that sustains them, will dwindle further, consistently, without exception.

There will be no courtship for your expertise. No limos, lavish parties, enticing gifts or anything like that. All expenses incurred for the audition process are charged to the musician. Cellists are responsible for their own airfare, and that of their cello, since the cello cannot safely be checked as baggage. In the rare occurrence that there are two jobs open this year, you'll drop a significant chunk of change just to show up for the right to compete against the 50-100 others auditioning for the coveted spot. You'd happily practice the 10,000 hours for that single audition if it were possible. The stakes are that high. And when you're done, maybe, if you're lucky, and lightning strikes, you just might earn the right to work.


You see, no orchestra is a sure thing. When you finally do land that first job, nearly every orchestra out there will cut your work. It's what they do. They can't really afford you, even the great orchestras.

In fact, the United States of America is home to some of the finest orchestras in the world. At least, I think it still is. I've been out of the business for a couple of years and am unclear on which orchestras are still breathing. Ah, well. Give it a few years and I'm sure we'll rip those revered institutions to shreds and besmirch their good names, just as is happening right now, elsewhere in the country. Politics will be exercised at the expense of flesh and blood people who want the right to eat (don't worry, they're fat anyway) raise children (how dare they?) or put roots down somewhere (not in my town!). These Americans, as I've written about before, are clearly subhuman, as determined by our free market system. Granted, they're not throwing themselves from buildings like those Chinese people building your iPhone, but give it time.

Even the Philadelphia Orchestra hasn't cut it in these tough economic times. They're currently mired in legal hell with the American Federation of Musicians and Employers' Pension Fund as they struggle to settle past due payments. You heard that right; the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the finest in the world, a national treasure, is bankrupt. But who cares? Most young musicians aren't going to win an audition for the Philadelphia Orchestra anyway. And orchestras are about "handouts." Musicians need to get a real job. The market has spoken.

What are they thinking?

How is it that our country's Beethoven-worshipers feel entitled to steal your hard-earned money? (Or, why do they expect you to "give," by way of taxes, to the National Endowment for the Arts, or privately, to your local orchestra?) To understand their audacity, you'll have to look at the shape of their careers.

Most aspiring orchestral musicians crawl up the ladder from the bottom: the regional orchestra. Regional orchestras may pay anywhere from $500 a year to $4,000 a year. They do not provide health insurance, and most "gigging musicians" will not buy it themselves. Once a musician earns a contract to play in a regional orchestra, they naturally commute for extra work to help make ends meet. Some will commute from Kalamazoo, Mich., to Bowling Green, Ky., and every flea-ridden orchestra in between. Without a car. (For real.)

I should stop there for a second before anyone gets too excited about the possibility of cobbling together multiple $4k a year jobs for a livable wage. There are two reasons this isn't going to work.

  1. You've got to play every concert to get the4k. Most members of a regional orchestra aren't hired for every concert, as the orchestra is reducing its size for most of its season in an effort to save money.
  • Even if you're offered the full4k, scheduling problems arise in your effort to include those other orchestras offering500 or more, annually. You'll commute to the highest bidder on your "free" weekends, but, since you're not playing every concert with those other orchestras, your earnings are significantly limited. At the end of the year, you've played all your "free" weekends, and you've boosted your annual income by another1k, all told. Give or take.
  • So how do musicians live?

    Well, they don't, really. The ones who don't exist as figments of your imagination (that is to say, however the non-musician might imagine the musician's lifestyle) barely scrape by. The lucky ones have family money. The rest will never see a vacation. (Or, if they go somewhere, it's with their instrument so they can practice.) There's no such thing as weekends. Since they don't have health care, or they're buying some horrible package for an obscene price, they're unlikely to start families. Most live like gypsies. Some even beg on the streets for your loose change when they're not teaching your child how to play the violin (who can eventually grow up and not like classical music either).

    Many of these highly trained professionals are in considerable debt, because they went to Juilliard, Eastman, or some other expensive conservatory. They have no money to invest in the stock market, but they've heard from others that this might be a way to make money. For them, rubbing two one dollar bills together isn't going to do much, and they might need one of those dollar bills to put gas in someone else's car so they can carpool to work.

    The full-time gig.

    Despite the long odds, a select few will manage to win an audition for a full-time orchestra. These musicians' accomplishments are always tempered by the economic reality of their chosen profession. If they're in a B-level orchestra, their jobs are insecure at best. Many of these orchestras have vanished, flooding the marketplace with still more workers looking for gigs. If your B-level orchestra is still kicking, you live in constant fear that death is waiting around the corner for your orchestra.

    If you're in an A-list orchestra, such as Philadelphia, your job probably isn't going anywhere even if your employer did file for bankruptcy. Still, most of your six-figure salary is going into your mortgage, since you live in or near Philly. Add the expense of a fine cello or violin into the mix, and you've not got a lot left over.

    (Any non-musician who doesn't have an idea of what a good violin can cost should Google it. I don't want to ruin your surprise by telling you here.)

    But, now that you're in that full-time gig, you've become embroiled in the politics of players' negotiations with management, who, after all, also want to continue to provide an orchestra. They just have to get to sleep at night knowing the bills are paid. And they're sweating bullets to do it. That death rattle invading your dreams bugs them too.

    Back to handouts.

    Sometimes politics between management and players derail contract negotiations, as they have recently in Louisville. In comes the musicians' union, the AFM. And, against the backdrop of our national debate on unions, many in the community will naturally assume the musicians are gaming their employers. Discussion of how the arts requires "your help" will fall on deaf ears as much of the public shrugs their shoulders and puzzles over why they're asked to "give handouts." They'll clear their throats and delicately suggest to the lot of lazy beggars that they should "get a real job." They'll say things like, "The economic reality is that there's only so much money. You've got to divide what's there." (As if there was never a thing called development. As if there were ever a time that was economically "good" for the arts.)

    Of course, the gems, who are passionate about classical music, already give with their hearts --generously. Until, one day, they look around to find that, they're all that's left. People who used to give in smaller shares, the "real world" givers, can no longer afford it. Discovering this alarming state of affairs, the high roller patron gives more of her money, but now she's also giving her time. She serves on boards, even sponsors auctions or other clever ways to drum up cash. Finally, she can no longer afford to prop it up for the rest of us. She can no longer sustain it on her own. Her portion of the burden is too large, or maybe she passes away, and the orchestra declares bankruptcy.

    Sounds too fatalistic? It's happening now. It's been happening for years. If you live near an orchestra, you know. And if you don't--who cares?

    Free Market; Service without value.

    If there's no orchestra near you, I can understand why this seems like a service without value. That point is often argued when cities are on the brink of losing their orchestra. But those who frame the argument in that way really don't understand what they're saying. You see, art has to be "productized" in order to sell, and a development director who doesn't understand that ought to be let go before ever you fire the first musician. To understand this phenomenon about the productization of art, watch what happens when Josh Bell, one of the most "in demand" violin soloists in the world, performs on his Stradivarius in the subway. No "productization," no one cares.

    Intrinsic vs. free market value.

    Musicians point out how they're helping your kid's SAT scores, or how your kid is more likely to go to college because s/he takes violin lessons. They point out how "studies have shown... " then insert some arcane bit of data related to classical music. Yet, those arguments are typically met with "Look around. No one wants to give to your orchestra. No one wants to listen to Beethoven." They argue that the free market is working, since there is little perceived value, we're culling elitist art from our culture.

    To them, I point to "the clear value" of American Idol.

    To them, I point to "the clear value" of Internet porn, as determined by our free market, and its virtuous impact on our society.

    To them, I point to "the clear value" of all those without homes, and buried under crushing debt, after the housing bubble collapsed.

    Slash and burn.

    So, as I look to my friends in Louisville, whose families are suffering in the wake of the unconscionable decisions of the management of the Louisville Orchestra, and as I read some of the ignorant and hateful remarks in the comment section of various news pieces I've read over the past few years, presumably made by some Louisville residents, I have to wonder how that community's classical musicians have become so vilified. How did it happen that they've been characterized as lazy, greedy, overpaid, conniving and ruthless? ("Eat their young" was one quote that comes to mind.)

    I can only think it is related to the tenor of the national debate about politics in general, and unions and free market values specifically. And if that's true, then the conclusion I make is that the remaining full-time musicians in the LO are losing their jobs because of the conviction that "one size fits all" for our nation's talking points. Nonprofit is fundamentally different from Big Business. Always has been, always will be. And the American Federation of Musicians isn't exactly like the auto union. The two industries are completely different.

    As orchestras continue to fold across the nation, musicians too join the ranks of the unemployed, attending to our national self-loathing and self-fulfilling prophecy, "collecting handouts," and creating more lazy, smelly, good-for-nothings to carry a sign and march on Washington. Smacking down your local orchestra taught someone a lesson, for sure. What the lesson was is anyone's guess.

    Cross-posted from