Why it’s time we started valuing our orchestral musicians

Sarah KirkupThu 24th May 2018

Following a Musicians’ Union report on the perilous financial situation of many UK musicians, Sarah Kirkup writes from personal experience about why this is a profession that, more than most, deserves to be championed

I used to dream of being a flautist in a major London orchestra. I was determined to get there at all costs, and nothing was going to stop me. When I was told at music college that my embouchure wasn’t flexible enough, I willingly tooted down my headjoint in front of a mirror for hours at a time until it loosened up. When I was told, upon graduating, that it would probably take me at least seven years to find a position in an orchestra, my determination didn’t waver. Even when I was dismissed from a Paris Opera Orchestra audition with the curt ring of a bell, merely seconds into my performance, I barely faltered. This was what I wanted to do!

But then I realised that I had to earn a living. So I started teaching. First in primary schools, then private schools, and then at home, to flute pupils of varying ages and standards. It was rewarding, but also exhausting. I still had to find time to practise for auditions. And when opportunities to perform came along, I had to grab them – even if that meant, on one occasion, teaching from 8am until 6pm and then driving down to Brighton for a 7.30pm performance of Tosca (unsurprisingly, my contribution was an unmitigated disaster).

If I’d been braver, I would have reduced my teaching hours, tightened the purse strings and gone all out as a performer, taking any gigs that came my way and building up my contacts (not to mention my confidence). As it was, I rather liked having a regular income from my teaching, and that – combined with the fact that I was a nervous wreck whenever I performed – made me decide that I just wasn’t cut out to be a performer. So I moved to the US, retrained as a journalist, and that was that.

Except that, as a journalist who writes and reads about classical music every day, I can’t help but be awed by the talent and dedication of musicians the world over who, unlike me, didn’t give up. Who overcame numerous obstacles – financial and otherwise – to keep doing what they do. Who continue to practise, day in, day out, even if that means – as it does for one friend of mine – going to the shed at the end of the garden when the kids have gone to sleep.

‘66 per cent of established musicians with up to 30 years of experience have considered leaving the profession altogether ’

Which is why the recent report from the Musicians’ Union has got me all stirred up. New research, it says, has found that 44 per cent of the UK’s orchestral musicians don’t earn enough to live on. The situation has become so bad, says the report, that 66 per cent of established musicians with up to 30 years of experience have considered leaving the profession altogether. And with an average starting wage of £21K for those in full-time employment, who can blame them? Yes, you read that right - £21K. Which, when you consider the average price of a small, one-bed flat in London on the Zone 2/3 border – £472,163 in 2016, according to the Evening Standard Homes and Property section – isn’t going to get you very far.

There’s an argument to be made that musicians aren’t in it for the money – they do it because they have a passion for what they do. But while that’s true to a point, they still need to be able provide for themselves and their families. Across the pond, of course, things couldn’t be more different. US orchestras are funded almost completely by private money, which makes a massive difference to musicians’ salaries. In 2013/14, the average annual salary for a member of the LA Phil was a hefty £86,000, while, for a smaller orchestra such as the St Louis Symphony, it was still a respectable £47,500. As Tom Service wrote for The Guardian in 2014, ‘American colleagues face a secure retirement and a stable financial present; it’s not too much to think that the players in British orchestras ought to have the same chance.’

As it is, the current situation in the UK is alarming, to say the least. Due to funding cuts, says this latest report, ‘orchestras present less of a viable career option for many professional musicians than they once did. This is putting the UK’s orchestras under serious threat of a skills gap or even closure.’ Which is why the MU has launched a new campaign. By highlighting the personal journeys of four musicians, and encouraging others to share their stories, The Musician Behind the Moment aims to raise the profile of musicians across the country which, in turn, could lead to an increase in funding.

Daniel Meyer, Chair of the orchestral section of the Musicians’ Union and second violinist with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, welcomes the exposure. ‘The campaign isn’t just a whinge about pay,’ he tells me. ‘It’s about raising awareness. Some people think that orchestras are nothing to do with them but nearly everyone has encountered an orchestra, whether that’s through playing a video game, watching a film or having been visited by musicians at their school.’

Meyer’s hope for the campaign is that it will remind communities across the UK of how valuable musicians are. ‘People need to consider the number of hours we’ve put in to get where we are, the amount of competition there is for orchestral posts, the number of people there are chasing jobs,’ he says. ‘If we were doctors, we’d be consultants. If we were lawyers, we’d be top barristers. But as it is, our status just isn’t recognised.’

‘Due to salaries not keeping pace with inflation, there was a pay reduction in real terms of 12.5 per cent’

Meyer has been playing with the BBC SO for 32 years and loves his job. He particularly loves working under Chief Conductor Sakari Oramo. But he acknowledges that times are tough. Three years ago, funding cuts across the BBC filtered down to the orchestra, meaning that changes had to be made. They lost the post of co-principal trombone, but resisted any further losses by agreeing, across the orchestra, to a one per cent reduction in any pay rises. Having said that, salaries, according to Meyer, haven’t been going up anyway. In fact, the MU did a comparison between orchestral pay in 2011 and 2017 and found that, due to salaries not keeping pace with inflation, there was a pay reduction in real terms of 12.5 per cent.

It’s little wonder, then, that many musicians are looking for additional, or even replacement, work – and not just in the teaching field. Meyer knows of a freelance musician who also drives taxis. And music writer Jessica Duchen has blogged about orchestral players turning to property development, massage and even bathroom installation as a way of supporting their offspring. ‘I’ve been telling my son to be a doctor, or an accountant, or a plumber,’ Meyer says. ‘But unfortunately he’s studying music.’

If The Musician Behind the Moment campaign also helps to raise the morale of the musicians themselves, this can only be a good thing. While, as Meyer says, ‘it’s a joy and an honour to be paid to do what we love’, the effect of low salaries and funding cuts, not to mention the pressure of squeezed rehearsal time, is taking its toll. ‘Rehearsals are more intense,’ admits Meyer. ‘There’s less slack in the system – and that slack was there for good reason. It was there to give people time to recover. As a result, it would appear that general sickness across orchestras – both physical and mental – has increased.’

What we need, argues Meyer, is a change of attitude towards orchestras. He recalls a recent BBC SO tour to Japan, when a private concert was packed out with factory workers invited by the sponsor. ‘It’s a different mindset over there,’ he says. A Gramophone colleague echoes this when he points out that many people would happily pay big money to see a football match, but fewer would consider buying a ticket to see their local orchestra perform – even at a fraction of the price.

With any luck, The Musician Behind the Moment will prompt a shift in attitudes, and convince regular members of the public – not just music lovers – of the key role musicians have to play in our society. And next time you switch on the radio and hear an orchestra playing, or turn on the TV for the Last Night of the Proms, remember the hard work and dedication it took to get these musicians to where they are now. I salute every last one of them.

To find out more about The Musician Behind the Moment, please visit: musiciansunion.org.uk

Sarah Kirkup

Sarah Kirkup has been Deputy Editor of Gramophone since 2010. She has a particular interest in the connection between classical music and dance, especially ballet, and has written about this subject for Gramophone and other publications, including those at the Royal Opera House.

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