In this series we have discussed the alternate mental circuitry developed by musicians, how addictive this art form can be once this circuitry is hard-wired, and how this addiction causes musicians to tolerate employment circumstances that appear untenable to non-musicians, all to get an opportunity to practice their craft (and get their fix) as frequently as possible.
The following observations are drawn from my own experiences as an orchestral bassist, more specifically as a long-haul freelancer frequently schlepping between four states in as many weeks. While I am sure that there are parallels between these experiences and those of other musicians, much of what follows is a reflection of these particular experiences and may likely not be perceived by musicians in other performing situations. As always, I welcome any commentary or related stories from readers.
Performing music often fosters personal eccentricity, acting as a catalyst for latent or suppressed characteristics among many young musicians. Early musical success (effective demonstration of communication skills in the affective sphere) often rewards and reinforces these eccentricities, causing many individuals’ personalities to develop into caricatures of what they may have been without the influence of music. Perhaps it is the constant activation of creative neural pathways on the part of the musician, or perhaps it is a reflection of the type of person that is drawn to music performance, but eccentricity abounds in musical circles—in fact, the art form tends to encourage such development.
Music is also a communal art, with many individuals collectively participating in very close quarters for long periods of time. Low turnover in most orchestras means continual exposure to the same few individuals, and the extroverted eccentricity that the art form encourages can make for frequent heated exchanges and feuding among members of a particular section or ensemble.
Many professions outside of music also put co-workers in close proximity for significant periods of time, but few also require the constant cooperation and affective involvement that music does. The extremely slow turnover in most orchestras (many orchestral musicians spend 30 or more years in the same orchestra—often while sharing a stand with the exact same person!) tends to exacerbate personal differences and eccentricities. Add to this the fact that musicians tend to already be an emotionally heightened, creative, and often eccentric bunch (see Part 1: Hard-Wiring the Musical Mind), and you’ve got a heady brew just itching to spill over and cause trouble.
Stories abound in the orchestral world of arguments begun on stage over seemingly innocuous incidents (a sideways glance during a colleague’s solo, a comment made during rehearsal, or even a difference in pitch, articulation, or rhythmic timing) continuing backstage, moving into the dressing room, and extending over a period of weeks, months, and even years. It is quite common in orchestras for person x to refuse to sit next to person y, who in turn asks to never be seated with person z. Frequently, long-time stand partners have taboo subjects that, if brought up, resurrect arguments begun decades ago. Other stand partners never speak, each silently resenting the presence of another.
Personal conflicts like those described above occur in all sorts of other careers, of course. Office culture in the business world is notoriously filled with such long-running disputes—small slights artificially inflating by several orders of magnitude in such claustrophobic atmospheres. Still, office workers tend to only collaborate with their coworkers for short intervals during the workday, and tenure at one specific job for more than a few years is rare.
Not so in the orchestral world! Once a violinist wins a spot in an orchestra, he is likely to spend the next thirty years in that same exact chair, with the same person to his left, in front of him, and behind him, all of them slowly graying together over the years. Perhaps, one day back in 1977, his stand partner snapped at him, calling him a “sloppy player”. That comment, made one day in the heat of the moment, still burns in the mind of that violinist. Every time he sees his stand partner, he thinks, “Sloppy player…I’ll give you sloppy player. Look who’s talking! You always grunt when you come in!”
These small back-and-forth exchanges, present in all areas of life, take on exponentially more magnitude in the close and emotionally charged confines of the orchestra. Slights often forgotten during the course of event in other areas of life can be like bamboo chutes under fingernails in the orchestral world, becoming more and more aggravating and all-consuming with each passing day.
I have seen exchanges among orchestral colleagues that would make non-musicians drop their jaws in amazement. With the right perspective (and we bassists perched in the back of the ensemble frequently have the distance and vantage point to appreciate the humor in such exchanges), these exchanges can alternate amazingly juvenile or hilariously funny.
One very common orchestral squabble involves close proximity to the “big guns” in the orchestra, specifically the brass and percussion sections. Sitting close to the louder components of the orchestra has never been a negative for me—in fact, I actually enjoy it. If it gets too loud, I just pull out my earplugs (conveniently located in the peg box of my double bass) and enjoy the music at a reduced decibel level. While playing a concert version of Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings score, I was seated directly next to a lidless piano. During the piece, one of the percussionists was tasked with whipping the inside of the piano with big chains. It was loud, and it was awesome!
Many musicians, however, do not feel that way, holding up their hands to cover their ears whenever seated next to the brass or percussion or complaining loudly during rehearsals and performances. One has a right to protect their hearing, of course, but one must also realize that we are all making music together, and these sections are integral parts of the musical experience. Think it’s too loud? Put in earplugs!
One of my former colleagues would not only complain loudly whenever the percussion section would begin playing but walk up to the percussionists with an angry scowl on his face and yell, “Quiet!” before rehearsal. He’d continue, “Shut up, drummers. Jeez, what’s the matter with you?” He would actually repeatedly complain to the personnel manager about the volume of the percussion section! This happened not just once, but over and over, every concert, every time the percussion section played.
Can you see why orchestra musicians slowly go crazy?
Another one of my colleagues was notorious for arriving at the absolute last possible second for every rehearsal and performance. No warm-up for her—she would always arrive in a fluster, unpacking at the last possible second.
One could reasonably wonder why this individual didn’t start………I don’t know….leaving home 15 minutes earlier? It’s not rocket science, after all. If it takes x amount of time to arrive at a destination, just leave that amount of time plus a comfortable margin, and you’re fine.
Unfortunately (and I believe it goes back to the musical hard-wiring discussed in part 1 of this series), musicians are not always that great with the…..practicalities of the business! Figuring out accurate travel time is beyond the capabilities of some performers, it seems, and this musician certainly suffered from this deficiency, arriving at the last possible minute.
This habitual borderline lateness manifested itself on every gig she did, and the problems associated with it boiled over at one point, burning me in the process. The orchestra was performing in a pit with only one entrance—a fire code violation if ever there was one—and the basses were seated along the far wall of the pit, on the opposite side of the entrance. Getting into position involved crossing the entire orchestra pit, necessitating much moving of chairs and stands.
Well, this musician continued the close call arrivals at this gig, lifting her bass up above her head and doing a crazy dance between chairs and stands, now filled with orchestra musicians astonished and annoyed by this habit.
The second time this happened, one of the cellists (not the principal cellist, but one of the section cellists) angrily stormed over to me (not her), his face beet red. He demanded that I address this “problem in my section” and force this individual to arrive early to move her bass into the pit. When I mentioned that this sounded like a personnel issue and not a bass section issue, he stormed off, taking his anger out on me musically over the next few weeks in a series of extremely musically destructive acts (but that’s a story for another time!).
Another fun orchestral personnel clash that I have been privy to:
At a festival I was playing, we had a Turkish bassist and a Chinese bassist. Neither could speak English fluently, and neither seemed to like the other’s bass playing very much. Most rehearsals contained several bass fricks and fracks, the majority of them emanating from the Chinese bassist.
Finally, the Turkish bassist had reached his limit. He pulled the Chinese bassist and began to lecture him about his poor ensemble skills. The problem was that the only language they had in common was English, and neither of them could really say more than a few words. What ensued had me biting my cheeks to keep from laughing hysterically:
T: Jin, you…need….practice!
T: I…you….not good. No! Bass not good! Practice! Practice?
C: [sputter]….maybe…you…need practice!
T: Yes. I practice. But you….really…need practice!
C: Aah! No! Your bass…bad bass!
T: My bass? You……
You get the idea. Orchestral personnel head-butting transcends political border, race, and culture.
Finally, I’ll leave you with one final recollection of orchestral musicians in conflict that stays with me to this day. This happened, again, at a music festival (always a great place to see cross-cultural orchestral conflict, which is usually much funnier than the burning resentment scenario described earlier):
Dmitri was a very strange oboist for a festival I played in Russia about 10 years ago. That he was not playing with a full deck was evident in his every action, from his strange giggle to the questions that he asked in rehearsal. His Russian colleagues rolled their eyes whenever he opened his mouth, both annoyed with him and embarrassed that he was “representing Russia” in any capacity at this festival.
The American woodwinds called him “Casio Tone”, and for good reason—when he played, it sounded like we were being invaded by aliens with oboe-shaped sonic weapons. I don’t know what else to say except that, after working on oboe for about four weeks earlier this year, I can safely say that I had a better sound than him (and my sound sent small animals running for cover!).
This woodwind section (made up mostly of Americans from Baltimore and New York City) tolerated his presence with thin-lipped tenacity, patience growing ever thinner, until finally, one of the American bassoonists confronted him, getting in his face and shouting at him backstage. That classical music can incite red-faced shouting matches may be surprising to some, but I have seen this happen many times and can recall dozens of stories like this from other orchestras.
Anyway, after the American had finished tearing Dmitri apart (and I felt bad for the guy—he was obviously mentally unbalanced and in need of help), a truly strange thing happened, one that I’ve never seen happen before in my life, but one that had a powerful effect on me. Dmitri, wiping away tears, walked behind the backstage curtain and proceeded to honk and shriek through his oboe, seemingly expressing his pent-up rage and frustration through his instrument. I listened, horrified and ashamed but also fascinated, as this sorry individual continued honking his emotions out.
To me, Dmitri perfectly exemplified (albeit in an extreme fashion) both the power that communicating musically has upon an individual (screaming his emotions in a terrifying catharsis through his instrument) and the effect that music can have upon an individual’s ability to communicate in a socially acceptable fashion.
I’ve often thought about Dmitri on my long, lonely drives across the country in the years following this event. In what way has music altered my view of the world? What would I be like without having it as a part of my life? Would I be happier? As I turned out on yet another freezing, snow-packed Wisconsin road and headed out into the darkness, I frequently pondered the issues I’ve been bouncing around in this series. Music, which has the power to enrich and brighten the lives of nearly everyone on this planet, can be a terrible master to its purveyors. Like junkies, we are drawn back time and time again to it, loving it and hating it at the same time. As I accelerated to highway speed, praying that the semis passing me wouldn’t blind me and send me off down the embankment toward the river below, I often thought what I’ve been saying all along during this series:
I must be crazy.
Music made me crazy.
Read the complete series:
- Part 1 – Hard-Wiring the Musical Mind
- Part 2 – Full-Time Loyalty at Part-Time Rates
- Part 3 – Music is Addictive
- Part 4 – Orchestras – A Secret Society of Weirdoes (and I’m one of them!)
- Part 5 – Driving for Dollars – life as a classical music bottom feeder
- Part 6 – Individual Artistic Expression
- Part 7 – The Satisfaction of Section Playing