Sloan Hoffmann  

Do As I Say: Music Conservatory Culture and its Contribution to Discontentment
Among Professional Orchestral Musicians

Sloan Hoffmann
March 19, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

Orchestras have institutional cultures that can vary from one another, but there are some issues that seem to be universal. In this article Sloan Hoffmann looks down the orchestral food chain to music schools and their conductors and applied music teachers. She posits that attitudes are shaped in music conservatories and are then carried forward into the profession. For those of us who teach this article will have us looking inward.

- Ramon Ricker

In the discussions that have involved the many issues affecting musician morale in American orchestras, the culture of the American music school and its contribution to the problems in professional orchestras remains an unexplored subject. Those musicians who choose a career in orchestral performance come from a variety of schools, which despite their differences all harbor similar cultures and traditions that instill, percolate and foster the very concerns raised by musicians in today’s orchestras. I wonder if discussion at the professional level addresses problems that have become ingrained in music culture well before students hit the audition circuit, thus providing band-aids for sores opened too long ago to become fully healed even by administrative gestures that extend beyond the tokenism and temporary appeasement often provided by orchestra administrations and boards.

Musicians cite lack of creative control, inadequate compensation, unacknowledged education and talent and monotony among other frustrations that lead to career malaise. In their article, “Why They’re Not Smiling: Stress and Discontent in the Orchestral Workplace,” Seymour and Robert Levine bring up the idea that orchestral musicians suffer from infantilization and marginalization by orchestra conductors, administration and board members, and that the issues listed above stem from this treatment of musicians as child-figures. I suggest that the problem of infantilization begins in the music conservatory creating young musicians who lack control over their career satisfaction and who lack the ability to assess their successes as performing artists.

In the article that follows I will address the following core issues that I perceive have the power to make or break a musician’s potential for career fulfillment: the dynamics between students and their mentors, specifically studio teachers and conductors; the pressures levied on music faculty by their governing institutions and how these pressures affect the development of the students; and the level of realistic expectations students have for their future career, and the role of the studio teacher in guiding students in directions that will lead to career fulfillment.

In American music schools students face a number of individuals whose omnipotence takes away their developmental freedom, starting the culture of the musician as the child who must take direction without challenging the reasons or the results, even if their intuition and experience tells them they should challenge the directions they have been served.

I see two figures in the music school who foster the idea of musician as child, the same two individuals who have the power to help mold confident, able and satisfied young musicians: the studio teacher and the conductor. I understand that any teacher-student dynamic, by necessity, includes one who has experience and knowledge that surpasses the other and that the student must remain open minded and flexible in order to learn. I see a flaw in this dynamic, however, in that many teacher-student relationships do not allow room for questioning the reasons why or how. An element of “do as I say” exists in music education that may serve as the precursor to the lack of control orchestral musicians have over their careers.

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Comments (Click to Hide)

Ms. Sloan's article touches at the core of what I believe to be one of the major problems in American symphony orchestras. The nineteenth-century conservatory idea of replicative teaching (do as I do and don't question) and the equally antiquated idea of the conductor as all-knowing and omnipotent has indeed hurt our profession and severely compromised the promise of truly fulfilling orchestral careers for many. Any long-lasting change to such conditions must begin in the academy.

Ms. Sloan asks, in essence, how teachers and conductors in the academy can change their approach without dashing the dreams and hopes of their students. As an orchestral conductor at a large college of music, I can say that we must begin with the premise that the music itself is our primary motivation for being musicians. Ms. Sloan's article insiunates that the motivation for so many student musicians is to establish a career. They choose certain institutions and certain teachers more to increase their chances to have the career of their dreams, rather than for any significant insight into the music that they will perform. I remember one of many stories of a student oboist from a prestigious conservatory who taped every excerpt from an audition list to the walls of his apartment so all he had to do was turn in a complete circle and play every excerpt successively. This is not music making. This is trade school.

As a conductor I constantly remind my students that an accomplished technique is not an end, but a means to expressing oneself fully. I remind them that they are all important to our effort as an orchestra regardless of where they sit. I remind them that we spend the majority of our time in rehearsal, so we should treat each rehearsal as a marvelous opportunity for discovery, and I remind them that music is a reflection of our humanity. We make music not only for ourselves, but for the benefit of others, including our colleagues. I also make no bones to remind them that we are all responsible for our own happiness and we cannot always blame the conductor, the rehearsal and performance space, etc, for our discontent. Together we make music, not separately. I am proud that our orchestras, including our most advanced graduate students, have discovered that playing in an orchestra and exploring great works with fellow musicians is a joy, not a task. As a result, I find that my students come better prepared because for them playing in the orchestra is enjoyable, challenging for the right reasons, and part of a community in which we all share. High standards are possible without sacrificing self worth and joy.

Yes, one must compete in a ridiculously competitive world to get jobs. But what is it worth if your professional life is one of bitterness? The academy should not only teach young musicians to get jobs, but how to keep them and enjoy them for a lifetime.
ajimenez on March 28, 2019 at 8:54 PM
I certainly hope that anyone "falling back on an orchestra career" realizes how incredibly lucky they are to have even that! Having chosen to be an orchestra musician since Jr. High School, I never looked upon the job as a second class career. I agree teachers must look to their students and share a little reality with them about what they may and may not be able to do with their musical degree. Too many students look down upon orchestras when they realistically may not even have a chance to win a good paying orchestral position.
I'd like to encourage those teachers that have orchestral experience to share some of that reality with their students as well. I remember comments from a long-ago teacher about the reality of having a job each year and wished that she'd shared some of that information with me before I'd been through a strike and bankruptcy. Nothing would have deterred me from becoming a symphony musician, but at least I would have been a bit more grounded on what to expect.
lauross on April 10, 2019 at 6:57 PM
This isn't confined to classical musicians. How many rock stars have you heard of who have more money, fame, creative control and girls than they could ever want, and yet they're depressed, unfulfilled, and turning to drugs.

The fact is that musicians tend to be unhappy people striving for a never-attained perfection (this goes double for classical - though there's plenty of room for individual creativity, it tends to be narrow compared to music involving actual improvisation). No matter how much compensations you give, how much attention and stroking of the ego, people who want to be miserable will be, and people who want to maintain a positive attitude will.

Look at orchestral musicians, rock stars, conductors, soloists - you name it. Despite vast differences in lifestyle and working conditions, they tend to have something restless in them, and have major complaints about their "success."

Yes, I'm making sweeping generalisations, as does any article on this topic.
contraman on November 21, 2019 at 11:15 PM
One more thought: what we do is REALLY DIFFICULT. There's no getting past that.

Most of us are struggling day in and day out to play up to our personal standards, and frankly, when we fall short we end up in a bad mood.

It's a great job, but can be emotionally difficult if you don't learn to put it in perspective and not beat yourself up. I think for many that's the hardest part.

Well, that and the sudden independence and feeling of disconnectedness when you actually start your first job. Guess that also depends on where that first job is...
contraman on November 21, 2019 at 11:20 PM
I cannot agree more about 'venting' -- it's unproductive at best, and at worst, destroys morale.

However, since I have a feeling about how a fellow music student could interpret this article, I have to add: say whatever you want about conductors, but they generally do more score study than all members of the student orchestra combined will ever do in their college careers. If one is going to challenge the conductor's artistic judgment (I have difficulty imagining a situation in which this would be appropriate, but I'll grant that there probably is one), the work had better be there to back it up.
primadonna on September 23, 2019 at 12:05 AM

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