Orchestras and musicians under pressure – what can be done about it?

Why are so many orchestras and musicians around the world under pressure in these days? In the Netherlands recent budget cuts begin to bite. Orchestras are closing down, musicians loose their jobs or do face severe pay cuts. The Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) has fired some musicians (mostly from Europe) without any explanation. In Italy orchestra musicians are by law not longer allowed to do additional work, to play gigs or chamber music, to teach pupils or to have masterclasses. In Spain the Liceu (Barcelona) has been trying to close doors for two months during the running season to save money.  In Germany the South West Public Radio (SWR) wants to merge its two major orchestras (100 posts each) in Freiburg and Stuttgart. A couple of other German orchestras are facing cuts, too. There are more examples from the UK, the US and other countries.

Has anyone an explanation for these developments? Of course the local circumstances are very different. In some South European countries the financial crisis jeopardizes the arts budgts, too. But it’s not only a question of lack of money. The really scary thing is, that in most of these cases the artists, the musicians and sometimes even the managements are almost victims of incompetence of the board, the arts aministration or the politicians in charge.

Is there any insurance, any toolbox for a better perfomance during a crisis? One of course is the solidarity between the artists themselves. Another one is the efficient support from the audiences. A third component is the public opinion which is influenced by the media, more and more by social media like blogs, twitter and facebook. There is still a restraint to be observed how orchestras, managements and musicians use social media as well as lobbying tools to safeguard their own interests. Even a more active and sometimes agressive communication for the orchestra goals must be considered (see the pictured example from Serbia).

Those orchestras in which management and musicians stay together, work together and act together will be stronger and even more successfull than others. This needs confidence, respect, communication, participation and motivation. If there are front lines within the orchestra itsself, the battle will be lost.

Done with learning? No opportunities for further training in orchestras?

The idea of learning a life long is common in many professions, yet curiously absent from the job experience of most orchestra musicians. It is in fact something of a taboo topic, seen to indicate professional deficits rather than potential for improvement or a preventive (medical) measure. Only a handful of music academies have even begun to address the issue. Musicians themselves give a whole range of responses on the subject: some have already had very positive experiences, others would reject institutionalised further training, pointing out that participation in chamber orchestras often is an effective substitute. The central question seems to be on of communication: how to criticise perceived shortcomings of colleagues’ performances in a constructive manner?

Musicians want to learn more - not only for outreach and education work

Positive feedback comes from some orchestras, after special workshops with specialists for baroque music or for respiration and brass instruments: not only do musicians find their technical abilities improved, the workshop also has a beneficial effect on group dynamics and communication. Trainers point out that playing techniques are acquired during the body’s prime years, yet these techniques may no longer be adequate later on as physical capacities decline with age. It is here that further training can make a significant difference to improve play and prevent occupational illnesses. Further training also offers some benefits from a management perspective: as a preventive medical measure it is usually cheaper than remedial action or losses due to sick leave; but, seen as an indication of goodwill, it can also improve mutual trust between management and musicians. Even so, opportunities for further training remain limited at the moment. Most institutions that offer further training do not focus on artistic development, but on subjects such as outreach work or communication.

An exception in Germany is the Baden-Württembergische Ensemble Akademie Freiburg (BWAEF), offering master classes in early and new music, instrumental training, technique and music theory.

Conclusion: Orchestra musicians need more opportunities for additional and specialist training on the job to keep up and improve their artistic excellence for a long life in the profession. Orchestra management should discuss this issue in the orchestra in an active role.

Motivation in the orchestra is a key issue

Orchestra musicians often work under conditions of high stress; yet at the same time, personal motivation and work satisfaction tend to be high. The question is how motivation in the orchestra can be fostered and demotivating elements minimised. Given that motivation is largely an intrinsic quality, yet orchestra work mainly other-directed, the importance of leadership qualities and highlights human resources development, communication and team building must be more stressed as success factors. When asked, musicians list a number of motivating factors: job security, a helpful working atmosphere, gifted conductors who also offer good leadership, opportunities for artistic exploration (e.g. through membership in a chamber orchestra), but perhaps most of all – the applause of thrilled audiences.

Professional musicians and athletes, it is argued, share certain characteristic as high-performers. It is worth to be discussed to which extent Frintrup and Schuler’s Sports Performance Indicator (SPI) can be applied to orchestra musicians. A number of indices could usefully be employed to develop motivation, while others – especially those relating to self-directed activities – may be less valuable. Yet a certain freedom for exactly such personal decisions often has positive effects on motivation, and many businesses are utilising this effect to increase staff satisfaction and productivity. Orchestras may be well advised to copy this approach, especially for decisions on (guest) conductors and programming.
Good examples for motivation in the orchestra are cases in which musicians of ensembles have set up self-directed programmes, often run as chamber concerts, in co-ordination with local theatres or concert halls or self-directed outreach and education activities. Another example may be an orchestra, running its own music school where orchestra musicians work as instrumental teachers as well.

At least there are many approaches to improve motivation in the orchestra. Orchestra management has to focus more on this issue.