What motivates us?
What makes us get into this business, anyway, making numerous sacrifices along the way?
Not the money (ha!), but rather the drive to create, to devote one’s life to the pursuit of organized (i.e. musical) creativity.
What percentage of active musicians feel that their musical thirst to create, that primal urge felt by creative individuals in all disciplines, is being met? Does the collective experience of the orchestra satisfy these urges? How about a smaller ensemble, like a string quartet or a jazz combo? If not, under what circumstances can these creative desires be satisfied?
Double bassist and early music specialist Jerry Fuller has some very astute observations on this topic, in response to an older post about why so many bassists blog:
Most of the bass bloggers I know perform in orchestra settings and it is my hypothesis that anyone who is a performer really wants, no, really needs, to be heard. Playing bass in an orchestra is not a place where you as an individual are heard. In fact, based on my own experience in two professional orchestras, if anyone heard me (other than the rare double bass solo passage) I was probably making a mistake. String sections are heard, not the individuals in those sections. This phenomenon is exaggerated for bass players in opera orchestras, since with the rare exceptions of some operatic double bass solos, individual bassists are not even seen when buried in the pit, much less heard. This has been a major factor in my decision to focus on performing early music. I usually am the only bassist and everybody hears what I am doing. I find that in the early music chamber ensemble setting I am having a real musical impact and I find it very satisfying.
I also find it interesting that pianists, principal trumpet players and other soloists don’t blog very much. I think they find that their individual musical voice is heard and they don’t feel as compelled to find other media through which they can communicate. I am curious if others resonate with this hypothesis.
Looking at the issue of exactly which instrument groups blog the most started my mind racing. Why bass players? What about our own experience encourages this kind of expressive outlet?
Jerry hits the nail right on the head with his observations. As a section player in an orchestra, we stand little chance of having our artistic contributions recognized in any way commensurate with the amount of time and energy we have put into our craft. While one may easily argue that the satisfaction of being part of a well-oiled symphonic machine should be satisfaction enough, my observational experiences have shown me that, more often than not, symphonic musicians (especially section players) feel more like a cog in a vast and indifferent Borg-like mechanism after some time.
No matter how altruistic and group-oriented our intentions may be, for most musicians there is a strong desire to have their own individual contribution recognized, not simply their contribution within the framework of a large performing body. They want to make an impact and a difference themselves, not just as a part of a faceless collective body.
Most professionals in other fields have their efforts recognized in the manner described in the orchestra above–as a part of a larger framework. High-performance employees are recognized for their efforts in the business world through promotions and other financial incentives. Other professionals may win awards within their area of specialization of receive some other figurative tip of the hat for a job well done.
Such recognition may be plenty for the majority of the population, but artists are different–that’s why they became artists instead of “regular folk”. And the larger the performing organization in which a musician is a member, the stronger the urge to break free and express their individual creativity. This urge is evidenced in pop as well as classical music–look how many artists strike out on their own, doing solo projects, many of which appear quite ill-considered to us on the outside.
The same phenomenon can be seen among actors all the time. How many TV stars leave a “sure thing” spot on a series for the bright lights of Hollywood? And look how few succeed. Then consider how much higher profile these television actors are than your typical orchestral musician. Even a third string actor on a cable channel cuts a wide swath in popular culture. Most regular folk are more likely to be able to name an obscure actor on an obscure program on an obscure channel than could name the concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra.
For most musicians (at some level within their conscious or subconscious), there is a strong desire for individual recognition of their creative abilities, and if it’s that hard to be recognized with a prominent position like concertmaster how must a section player in one of these orchestras feel? How about, then, a section player in one of the countless lower-tier orchestras that span the globe? Are their creative urges being satisfactorily met in these groups?
Unfortunately, some musicians find that their creative fire is extinguished after prolonged work in large, faceless ensembles. Whether from countless bar band bookings, hotel background music gigs, weddings, restaurant dates, or symphonic performances, many musicians find that these strings of gigs have (wooosh!) blown out their creative candle, and that music has become something to be endured rather than enjoyed, a moderately profitable way to make some cash. It beats pushing a broom around, right?
Scratching that Creative Itch
Readers can easily identify how I deal with the urge to create (blog…podcast…videos…), but for me, teaching also satisfies these creative urges to a great extent. This may likely not be a universal feeling among all musicians, but I find that the way in which a pedagogical event unfolds – be it a lesson, master class, or academic class – allows for a great deal of personal creativity on my part. Experimentation is a natural part of teaching, and letting the reins go and watching a lesson develop a life and rhythm of its own is highly satisfying. Throughout my life, my favorite teachers have usually operated in this vein.
How do other musicians employed in large ensembles satisfy their creative needs? Here are a few examples:
|1. Side Projects – Having interviewed several musicians from the Chicago Symphony for the Contrabass Conversations podcast, I find it amazing how many are committed to artistic side projects. Other orchestras members express the same sentiment, often speaking with obvious enthusiasm for such projects, often with more enthusiasm than their primary job!||2. Chamber Music – The larger the performing ensemble, the harder it is to feel like one is making a truly impactful contribution. Playing with only a few musicians (in a string quartet or other such ensemble) can be extremely satisfying to members of large ensembles.|
|3. Playing Different Styles – Many classical musicians find great satisfaction in playing jazz or rock music, discovering a greater expressive latitude and many outlets for their creativity.||4. Exploring Other Art Forms – Musicians looking for a creative outlet often turn to painting, sculpture, writing, composition, photography, or even web design. This multi-disciplinary approach can be extremely rewarding for a musician with the right outlook.|
|5. Finding Creative Satisfaction in Seemingly Uncreative Outlets – What may not be seen as a creative endeavor to non-musicians–serving on a committee, working for a cause in an office–often helps to balance out and ground the musical mind. Just as amateur musicians find creative satisfaction by entering the artistic arena, so do musicians find similar satisfaction by the participation in “ordinary” tasks. It’s strange, but it’s true–I’ve seen it time and time again.||6. Conducting – Nothing is more satisfying for many musicians than the follower taking on the role of leader, and many musicians satisfy those creative urges through conducting local community or youth orchestras. This quite different skill set requires an alternate mental approach than performing, providing the musician a new way of seeing their art form (orchestral music) and quite likely enriching their experience of this music.|
|7. Teaching – As I mentioned above, teaching, when approached with the right perspective, can be hugely creative, and the act of shaping younger minds and responding to pedagogical challenges often provides deep satisfaction to the performing musician.||8. Nothing – Some people just love large ensemble music, and they want nothing more than to be immersed in the medium. Any other artistic endeavor may likely be seen as a distraction to someone with this outlook. I’ve known many musicians who fall under this category, listening to multiple copies of every piece they are performing, attending every orchestra concert in their region, doing research on the repertoire, and finding deep satisfaction in their role as a building block of the ensemble. More power to them–this is a great place to be, creatively, especially if you’re in a large ensemble!|
The Amateur Perspective
What is especially interesting to me is that, while classical musicians (and members of other large performing ensembles) may look for more satisfying creative outlets elsewhere, amateur musicians see playing in an orchestra as a fantastic way to explore their inner creative being. Even if the orchestra becomes confining to the artist/musician, it is still a significantly more creative atmosphere than most other workplaces, and it may in fact be a relaxing way for amateur musicians to engage in structured creativity. With orchestras come rules–be on time, practice your music, perform in x number of weeks–and these rules can in fact help to channel and direct amateur creativity, guiding these players in a structured format toward an artistic goal.
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