To put it bluntly: What gives?
All professions come with their strains and stresses that are cloaked to the outside observer. So why is it that according to conventional wisdom'i.e., surveys, polls, stories in books like Richard Hackman’s management guide Groups That Work (and Those That Don’t)'orchestral musicians feel they often have it harder than most? When musicians profess a greater unhappiness with their chosen career than federal prison guards or sanitation workers, something seems amiss. These select people have the rare opportunity to support themselves with their art. Admittedly, there aren’t piles of cash to be had by playing with the Utah Symphony, but we’re also not talking about being perched on the precipice of starving-artist status.
So, again, what gives?
Utah Symphony and Opera violinist Frances Darger and principal keyboardist Jason Hardink recently took time out of their hectic rehearsal schedules to weigh in on all things orchestral. Coming to the conversation from somewhat opposite ends of the spectrum'Darger has been with the Utah Symphony for 63 years, compared to Hardink’s youthful three'the two predictably vary in perspective. But for the most part, they mutually refute the idea that symphony musicians have it rough.
“There are so few symphony jobs nowadays that those that get them are very lucky to have them,” notes Darger. “Now maybe they think they should have more money or more support or more glamour. There are surely those in the Utah Symphony that are trying out for other orchestras that offer higher salaries and different seasons; one or two that want to go onwards and upwards. But generally speaking, most everybody’s just happy to be playing.
Hardink echoes Darger’s assessment. But no job is completely without its complaints. For example, for all the perceived glory of landing such a coveted position, Hardink notes that the most surprising thing to him was the hefty workload.
“Just the sheer volume of notes I’m expected to learn per year is often overwhelming,” he explains. “I’m still kind of taken aback at how much is involved. The way it works for me is that if I prepare four operas, it might entail 1,200 to 1,400 pages of music. Then there are the concerts with the symphony that range from learning harpsichord parts one week, and jazz charts for a pop concert the next. I thrive off that variety, but it’s also a huge stress.
The workload of an orchestral musician seems to mirror the state of jobs everywhere, where personal productivity in the workforce is expected to increase. But salaries are also increasing for those lucky enough to have jobs. Besides, few symphonies really have the need for more than one pianist. Violinists, on the other hand, are a different story. Would the general public audience miss a few violins from a full-size orchestra? Should Darger be worried about losing her position after 63 dedicated years?
Luckily, nobody is about to be shown the door outside. Thanks to unionization, musicians reach tenure sometimes after logging just one year with the organization. The only way to really lose a job at that point is if you are politely asked to leave by the musical director. That’s some serious job security.
Another rarely considered risk for the professional musician comes with simply playing their instruments. The act of playing notes'bowing, fingering, etc.'entails assuming unnatural body positions for extended periods of time. Hardink confirms that the fear of disability looms large in the industry. Sometimes it’s hard for musicians to face the fact that, like athletes, their ability to use their body is their meal ticket.
But to both Darger and Hardink, such complaints and struggles seem trite; when considering all the options, they don’t think there’s a better job out there. So even though there are distinctive hardships, they consider themselves among the lucky few. It may be easier for Hardink to turn a blind eye to job-related troubles, simply because he’s still slightly dumbstruck at getting paid to play. But Darger’s assessment, backed by a literal lifetime of experience, is clearly one to be trusted. After all, why would she still be playing, year after year after year, if doing so were more dismal than being a federal-prison guard?
“It’s easy to keep coming back for me,” explains Darger. “It’s still a joy to hear a new wonderful violinist, a new wonderful pianist and to play under a fun new conductor. And remarkably, even after all this time, and in spite of everything, when I perform I still get cold chills crawling up my back.
It also can’t hurt to have several thousand people on a weekly basis tossing “bravos” at your feet'such adoration has to help quell most job-associated dilemmas. So maybe the better question is: What gives with the conventional wisdom?