The “N” Words: Negativity – Part III


Acknowledging a problem, going with the flow…

Negativity in orchestra musicians is something that usually evolves over time and through circumstances. As noted in Part II, protracted contract negotiations can spawn all sorts of long-standing conflicts – not only between the musicians and management, but also among the musicians themselves.

Negotiation issues aside, many interpersonal conflicts arise from the unique personality quirks of musicians. As Philip Farkas wrote in the “Art of Musicianship,” the primary duty of a musician is to cooperate. (see page 43 from Chapter 10). However Farkas does recognize that musicians are different breed of worker – prone to eccentricity, conflict and stress.

Sometimes colleagues who have worked together for many years do not speak to each other due to real or perceived personal slights. As blogger John Grillo accurately points out at

“ orchestra is very similar to a dysfunctional family. Members of the ensemble may not like each other, but are forced to deal with one another on a day to day basis.”

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All in the family

Like any other work environment, personal feuds can arise from a variety of things such as personal tastes, romantic break-ups, personality conflicts, narcissistic behavior and politics – just to name a few.

With music however, success – the end product – is an art form guided by emotion. This is radically different from just about any other business, where success is mostly defined by objective and practical decision-making.

Musicians tend to be much more temperamental than other employee types. Deep emotion and sensitivity are absolute requirements in order to produce exciting performances together as a musical team.

As Farkas notes:

“…in no other field – with the possible exception of highly trained athletic teams – is cooperation, split-second timing, emotional agreement, and mutual respect more important…”

In other words, music performance requires a strong ability to be flexible, stay calm and to “go with the flow.” Most professional musicians who have worked for more than a few years know this.

Yet many do not (or cannot) turn their emotion and sensitivity “off” when the music stops. While sensitivity and emotion are our greatest strengths in performing, they are our greatest weaknesses in almost every other aspect of the business.

This is one of my primary reasons for posting “top ten” lists of things not to do. Some musicians are easily threatened or annoyed, and many times will use rookies for target practice.

“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.”

(- Mel Brooks)

Q: How do you get two piccolos to play in tune?
A: Shoot one.

Q: What’s the difference between a musician and a mutual fund?
A: The mutual fund eventually matures and earns money.

Q: How do you make a trombone sound like a French horn?
A: Stick your hand in the bell and crack notes.

Within many of the countless self-deprecating musician jokes found online, pessimism and negativity lie within the subtext. As comedian and producer Mel Brooks has said, “humor is just another defense against the universe.”

The humor in many of these jokes is really nothing more than a cynical exaggeration of truth:

  • Two piccolos playing together are tricky to play in tune.
  • Some musicians are lazy and behave like children.
  • Horn players flub notes.

Take for example a recent blog at Frank Almond’s “Non Divisi” blog titled “Orchestral Fines.” For an insider like myself, this tongue-in-cheek list of fines for “bad behaviors” is quite funny, mainly because the underlying theme is loosely based on fact.

The subtext – reading between the lines – reveals another side. These “bad behaviors” – whether real or perceived as “bad” – are actually indicators of real problems. They are (slightly) exaggerated examples of things that get temperamental musicians annoyed at each other. While on the one hand the joke mocks the cynicism prevalent in orchestra musicians, on the other hand it reveals the cynicism as a matter of fact.

A recap – why are classical musicians so unhappy?

  • A highly-charged, sensitive, emotion-based workplace
  • Official reports and studies – such as Flanagan – misinterpreted as the “end of classical music” in America
  • contract negotiations that go badly
  • bad news of other orchestras’ failed negotiations
  • bad news of other orchestras folding
  • interpersonal peccadillos and conflicts

    – and –

  • feelings of powerlessness and lack of control – feeling like an insignificant cog in a cold, dead machine
  • the wide public perception that because musicians “play” we aren’t really working
  • the current public sentiment that unions are evil or irrelevant
  • management and union failure to adapt to changing times and tastes

In terms of job satisfaction, an oft-cited Harvard Business School study from 1990 by J. Richard Hackman found that orchestra musicians ranked lower than federal prison guards. Another study that I hear about now and then (?) indicates that orchestra musicians and airport traffic controllers experience the highest levels of job stress and anxiety.

Is there a silver bullet? Will this trend ever change?

This I believe, cannot really be answered. This problem has been around for a long time. Doug Yeo (trombonist with the Boston Symphony) for example wrote about this issue back in 1995.

While I believe we cannot wave a magic wand and cure the industry of what ails it, on the personal level I believe

we can certainly try better. For example, I try to make a concerted effort to control myself, my personal behavior and my own quirks and emotions while on the job. Sometimes I slip and the sarcasm takes over, but nevertheless I try to be proactive and encourage positive behaviors and downplay negative behaviors – in myself and in others.

The operative word here is try.

Beyond this we can act locally and think globally; Part IV will continue to other arenas where I try to make a difference at the “grass roots” – in the public school system and in the private lesson studio.


  1. John Grillo:
  2. Philip Farkas: The Art of Musicianship
  3. “Life and Work in Symphony Orchestras: An Interview with J. Richard Hackman”, by Paul R. Judy (Harmony, number 2, April 1996, p.1-13).
  4. Frank Almond: Non Divisi
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