Wednesday 28 November 2007

Controversial sociology report: Conflicts in a professional symphony orchestra

Sociology major Mille Buch Andersen, University of Copenhagen recently submitted her thesis: "Internal conflicts in the Danish National Radio Symphony orchestra", which has caused significant controversy and debate in the Danish press.

In brief, Buch Andersen conducted interviews with selected orchestra musicians aiming to describe the nature of conflicts and how they are solved in a 100 member professional symphony orchestra (the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra - RSO - one of the Danish top professional orchestras). The initial hypothesis was that there would be major internal conflicts between the musicians, both within and between the various sections of the orchestra, as well as between the musicians and the conductor. During the interviews with the musicians, Buch Andersen discovered relatively few major conflicts of this type (excerpts shown below), since the musicians generally had significant respect for their colleagues position and difficulties within the orchestra hierarchy. On the contrary, she uncovered the presence of major conflicts between the individual musicians and the management.

When Buch Andersen then submitted the thesis with the above conclusions, she was asked by the University (allegedly after complaints from the management of the Danish RSO) to withdraw the thesis due to "methodology problems", while at the same time the management for the Danish RSO claimed that Buch Andersen had been illoyal in her research agenda, since conflicts between musicians and the orchestra management was out of scope for the thesis (only conflicts between the musicians were to be analyzed).

Buch Andersen then felt she was forced to withdraw the thesis and change the conclusions. The core issue (unanswered) in this debate thus centers around the question if the University succumbed to pressure from a "private" enterprise, due to concerns on future working relationships between the "industry" and University regarding thesis work. Finally, Buch Andersen´s (altered) thesis was accepted. And a couple of weeks later the orchestra manager was fired - completely unrelated to this incident, the Danish Radio claims.

For Danish speakers, the thesis can be downloaded here:

The below excerpts are from interviews with (anonymous) members of the orchestra when asked on which conflicts they, as musicians, perceive in the orchestra and how these can be related to the structure of the orchestra (the angle of the thesis is organizational sociology). 42 (of the app. 100) musicians contributed to these interviews. Generally Buch Andersen found it difficult to get the confidence of the musicians and describes spending months to get the confidence of some of the musicians (with some she never achieved that).

One musician states: "It is a small collective, where we look after each other and always are on guard" - "many colleagues have grown up together... and we have gotten used to things, which others would probably find crazy" "it´s almost like a caste system" "a closed oyster" another musician describes the milieu.

On working with conductors in general:

"Of course it doesn´t work if we all talk all the time..then the rehearsals don´t move on.....You have to be aware that total anarchy doesn´t develop...there isn´t time for that"

"Our job is simply to do what we are told! There is no room for democracy! Not at all! So it´s very authoritarian in a way, professionally authoritarian, that is."

"and occasionally "totally stupid" decisions are made [by the conductor] and you have to accept that, even though it irritates me....But oppositely, sometimes an order is given that for you is obvious but not for others, and then they may just continue to ignore the order and just go on playing as they see fit, and that is really irritating, since these people ruin it for everyone else"

"It should not be too relaxed, definitely not....One man stands up in front of 100 really professional musicians, who each have an opinion on how things should be done...and then he is supposed to have a really well-thought approach to the music. Otherwise you simply cannot conduct....So it´s also important to have conductors of a certain standard here....You cannot expect us to play with a mediocre conductor...not an orchestra with our standard..."

"A conductor may be both unpleasant and unfriendly, but at the same time excellent...To be a nice person is not necessarily a sign of quality, in this regard...They may be the friendliest people in the world, know everyone´s first name etc...if they don´t know their stuff, it doesn´t matter."

If the conductor is less-than-excellent:

"You get irritated...since we then play below our normal standard, which is very unpleasant...A good conductor brings something to the music.. Then it´s really exciting "

"First thing is that the discipline is gone, we start to talk and play unfocused and the quality drops within 10 minutes....It doesn´t work out well...We get through, but it´s not so pleasant to listen to.."

Internal causes of conflicts between the musicians:

"Some conflicts arise because those musicians sitting in the rear seats never get praise from above. Like for those playing a solo, people come up to you and tell you how beautiful you play. But for those just sitting there night after night, playing the right notes and never getting a word of praise, it´s easy to feel unimportant"

"If we didn´t have these rotations [between positions in the front and back] I think I would have quit. In the back you think: What am I doing here? I am completely unimportant. Of course that isn´t true, we all contribute, but sitting in the front makes you want to contribute a little extra."

"One of our colleagues is very strong-minded. Like, he looks at the conductor and then he plays and doesn´t care what the other people in his group do. That is very irritating"

"He was very solistically orientated and didn´t work well in a group. So it was a relief when he quit."

And between brass/woodwind and "others" (presumably the strings):

"and obviously the brass section versus the rest of us, simply because they make so much noise compared to us. And the musicians sitting just in front of them...that is really frustrating. And then maybe the conductor tells them to play louder, and then all others tell them to stop. Then they get pissed off... "

"Some have a power base - maybe they have a noisy instrument, things like that - that can be really irritating. And if they are not sensitive to their surroundings, then it becomes really irritating."

"Some probably consider themselves superior to others. I suspect several of the solo woodwind players sitting in the middle of the orchestra and having small soli and being heard all the time...I suppose they feel they have a special status within the orchestra...and that causes some problems because they get away with things others don´t - like small-talk during rehearsals etc. And if you are a really good musician, then it´s difficult to do something about, because the orchestra on the other hand really needs someone to play these soli really well.

"Yeah, the solo brass and woodwind. Some of them discard an entire symphony if there are not good soli for their instrument. And their behaviour is a bit aristocratic at times".

On the consequences of the competitions (in which several members of a section normally participate in order to become principal, assisting principal etc..):

"Such things can be really painful...sometimes conflicts have been going on in a section for more than 10 years...musicians not talking to each hatred..and nobody really takes care of it."

"We all know, that the competitions are not objective. It´s a subjective thing. And everything may happen....It may vary according to the jury...and there may be internal issues, intrigues etc. So it´s absurd to say that the best musician always wins."

On working conditions in general:

"Scheduling is terrible. Many late rehearsals, which tear on the family. Many changes. We ought to have our schedule many months in advance."

"You feel like you are on call 24 hours a day, since our rehearsal schedule comes out so late, and with all the changes...That is a major cause of conflict."

"The management has all the power. Incredible in 2006, but that´s the way it is..the management practice is as it was 100 years modernization at all.."

On the management:

"This orchestra will never move forward - maybe just 1% more - but the potential is so much is crashed by bad treatment from the management...never mind the´s about respect - human respect."

"The way you are treated vary enormously. People high up in the hierarchy are greeted at gatherings, the others not.....terms like "upstairs" and "downstairs" have literally been used. For example during dinners. "Upstairs" is the management, of course..and maybe the principals, soloists, musical director, and that´s it! And everyone else is considered second-rate."

"Musicians may to be phoned up at home from the management if they perform less well in a solo during a concert...this is very counterproductive, and make the musicians afraid instead of inspired".

If all members on the orchestra dream of becoming soloists:

"No - I honestly don´t think so, but it´s in our education, that it´s "finer" to be a soloist, which, of course, is not true. But it runs deep in most people, and in some orchestras you may chose to underline this - not a functional hierarchy, but also a human hierarchy build on solo vs. non-solo. You are simply worth more to the decision-makers. And it´s absurd, because the hierarchy in an orchestra has never been between people in my opinion - it´s a functional hierarchy - a definition of tasks when things have to move along and 100 people do not have the time to talk, then you assign some people who make some fast decisions."


daland said...

In the ‘70s I remember to have seen a short movie with Zubin Mehta and the LosAngeles Philh. on exactly this issue.

However, the purpose then was to show how the unavoidable conflicts arising inside an orchestra can not only be solved, but to a certain degree are even welcome, since their solution brings additional cohesion to the pack!

mostly opera... said...

You are welcome!

Anonymous said...

Just linked to this ... thanks! (I think the commenter above is actually a spambot, although I can't say for sure.)

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