California Literary Review

Orchestras, Oboes and Orgies

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April 3rd, 2007 at 9:46 pm

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Blair Tindall [Photo by: David Howells]

Oboist Blair Tindall’s new book, Mozart in the Jungle, offers a scandalous look at the lives of classical musicians, particularly those “freelancers” who are not safely ensconced with one of the country’s top orchestras. Drug use is rampant among these artists, and we learn that the casting couch is not just a Hollywood phenomenon. But Ms. Tindall’s book also offers touching stories of musicians struggling with health and financial issues in addition to intense artistic pressures. Finally, Mozart in the Jungle addresses the problems with America’s system of music education and the inevitable consequences of too many musicians chasing a small number of jobs with orchestras that are struggling to find an audience.

I always thought classical musicians lived on a higher spiritual plane than the rest of us. Your book seems to say that is not the case. Is there anything ennobling about music?
Many in today’s society are introspective, and yes, some of them are musicians. People in diverse fields can be as intensely spiritual as the most accomplished artists. Musicians are human beings who experience life in unique ways just like everyone else; and fortunately, the ability to enjoy music is more universal than many realize.Merriam-Webster defines “noble” as “having high moral qualities.” The practice of music alone has nothing to do with morality; it’s sequences of notes, time delays, and personal interpretations. But teamed with the study of history, philosophy, science, and other subjects that affect mankind, music is unparalleled at EXPRESSING these high issues – the arts and humanities would have a fraction of their impact without the other. What synergy!
A mystical attitude about the place of music can create a devastating effect, driving both audiences and amateur musicians – fearing they lack the intellect to understand — away. Music is beautiful, uplifting, and can make life so much more than it already is, but…it is still just music. To anyone who reads, writes, practices, and performs the stuff, it is ethereal, yet straightforward. Those schooled in music performance understand how much rote practice is involved; scales, arpeggios, repetition. To produce a great performance, even the most talented and renowned player must be applauded for this necessary and diligent preparatory work.
Music is a resource that anyone can understand, and even participate in. Even those without musical training can drum on the beach, enjoy a picnic at the local orchestra’s parks concert, or sing in a church choir once a year. Music is everywhere…and classical music is composed of the same 12 tones and the same rhythms as pop songs and much other music.

You detail drug abuse and promiscuity (in one case a full blown orgy) among classical musicians. Is there something about an artistic temperament that explains this behavior, or is it because of the high pressure, vagabond lifestyle that musicians are forced to lead?
During the post-Pill, pre-AIDS era of the 1980s, sexual abandon was common across a wide cross-section of society, both heterosexual and homosexual. Substance abuse is also present in every sector of society; lawyers, miners, farmers, housewives, secretaries, programmers, social workers, executives, and, yes, performing artists.When I wrote my NY Times article about stage fright drugs, which mostly consist of the adrenaline-blocking class of heart medications called beta-blockers, many clinicians mentioned that these therapies had reduced some musicians’ use of alcohol and sedatives to control stress and performance anxiety.

You’re brutally honest in Mozart in the Jungle about your own indiscretions, but you’re equally forthright about the misbehavior of others who had no say in telling this story. How did you wrestle with this moral dilemma and have you received feedback from any of the people mentioned in your book?
This is a question every memoirist receives. I was honest about my own behavior and that of others, yet stopped short of revealing 95 percent of the worst in our business. The nature of memoir is that of truth; only real people can illustrate real stories. However, a measure of effective journalism is its ability to instigate societal change, and only a picture based on truth can do that. Of course, my view of events is unique, and anyone else in the music world is welcome to write their own book revealing a different side of the business, which I would look forward to reading.The profile I presented of myself was meant to represent the “culture of entitlement” that sprang up at the arts boom’s peak, and to poke fun at a misguided egoism and lack of awareness that was representative of the era.
It is sad that some of the press focuses not on the wonderful people I profiled who acted with integrity and generosity, like Alice Tully, Robert White, Jaime Laredo, and others, choosing to fabricate some hatred or “sour grapes” that I have never felt and would therefore never communicate.
I meant to represent characters empathetically, to bring the reader into the futility of their worlds. It is powerful to feel the frustration of the most talented, intelligent, and kind people who believe strongly in the system – only to have the fairy tale of the music business fade, sometimes leaving its practitioners with few alternatives because of intense, yet narrow, music conservatory training.
What is the problem with the way arts, and particularly orchestras, are funded today? What is the solution and what role should government play, if any?
In 1957, the Ford Foundation began an innovative system of matching grants, which provided seed money for the formation of many performing groups, philanthropic organizations, community, state, and federal arts councils. This system promoted an arts boom through the 1960s and 1970s, but when the program ended in 1974, much of the arts world maintained the growth model — while the audience did not, and may never, grow fast enough to support it.The government is already playing a generous role, giving performing arts institutions a status as public charities. This benefit is twofold, allowing organizations like the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera not to pay taxes while enabling a benefit for philanthropists to donate through a system of tax-incentives. In addition, local arts councils and the National Endowment for the Arts contribute to certain organizations – an average of six percent to American orchestras.

What do you say to the parent of a musically gifted child? It seems if they provide a more well rounded education, as you recommend in your book, their child may not be able to compete with other children who are more focused.
A parent of one of the army of children identified with the “gifted” label should assume that their offspring has been blessed with many talents. A general education offers the child an opportunity to explore diverse fields and decide on a focus at an age when he has the tools and maturity to decide what is truly appropriate for him or her.Yo-Yo Ma graduated from Harvard, Joshua Bell, from Indiana University, and the brilliant cellist Alisa Weilerstien a history major from Columbia University. All are acclaimed musicians, creative concert programmers, and terrific communicators. They exemplify broad education benefiting talented musicians who are getting the most out of their music education by studying with top teachers of their instrument while accumulating the base of information their most well-educated, interested, and supportive, audience will know. Their excellent education has made them more competitive, not less so.
There’s a curious sense that conservatory study makes students more competitive, but I find that these narrowly focused schools teach few skills that are useful even to musicians. I was required to take a battery of music electives, including courses like late Beethoven string quartets, Wagner operas, and the sight-singing, music dictation, and theory courses.
Only later in life did I discover that math and music really do have a connection, which is lost on students struggling with music theory in a conservatory where not one quantitative course is offered. Why not include the basic skills of reading, writing, spelling, social studies, world history, and math that are necessary for everyday life?
Parents should find out exactly why their children became interested in music, and what they would like to do professionally after college graduation. Is it realistic? Perhaps they can help to focus it. A friend who has had a music-mentorship position for 35 years wrote to me after reading the book, that he is “met by looks of stupid disbelief” by parents when he suggests that their children receive a decent education, “just in case.” He also recalled that a substantial number of the “great hopes” he had known disappeared from the scene by age 30.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if those now-invisible musicians had taken a double-major in journalism, English, business, physics, computer science, biochemistry or history? Today, American colleges graduate 6,000 music performance majors a year who must find alternatives to the 250 auditions advertised annually in the union paper – many of those for part-time jobs. Those graduates would become the doctors, scientists, lawyers, businesspeople, and other professionals with the interest and knowledge to be our audience, and the enthusiasm and resources to serve as a new generation of arts patrons – for both financial and advisory support.

  • a Bell relative

    Josh did not graduate from IU. He received an honorary degree from IU

  • NYC Oboist

    Blair’s account is an inflated version of reality. She sensationalized everything to make a buck. The cartoon cover of her book is about as close to a real photograph as her story is to the truth. She exaggerated and capitalized on the stories of people who did not deserve to see their tragedies in print. Some of the stories she told were none of her business and any decent human would have felt compassion instead of the desire to exploit. She hurt people and smiled about it all the way to the bank. I am sure she doesn’t realize that not only did she hurt the people whose lives she exposed, but she hurt their children too. Unforgivable.

    Those of us that were her friends feel sorry for her that this is all she got out of our precious art form. We are musicians because God gave us a talent and He also gave us the intense desire to express ourselves musically. Our lives are fulfilled by playing the music we love. Sometimes we struggle financially and emotionally because of our choice to follow our art, but we would never seek to hurt anyone with our music. I hope Blair can be happy now in Hollywood with her new celebrity husband. (She finally found someone who would have her!) I hope she will not ever return to New York or the world of classical music. She hurt innocent people to earn her living. If she had ever really had the joy of music in her soul she would not have been able to do this to her friends.

  • anonymous

    Scientists– the biochemists and molecular biologists you mention are dealing with the same struggles you detail in your book. The “post-doctoral” position people move into after finishing the Ph.D. is an effective pipeline that keeps people in low-paying positions– dealing with financial and health insecurities. Take to the postdoc of 35 years who has no home, no savings, and works 60-80 h/ week– hoping to break in.

  • To Bell relative

    To Bell Relative:

    Very interesting that you claim to be a relative of Josh Bell, and that you defame him to not be a graduate of IU. Because he IS a graduate, and says on his own web site “In 1989, Bell received an Artist Diploma in Violin Performance from Indiana University.” He is a graduate of Indiana University. Perhaps he also received an honorary degree, but an artist diploma is an earned credential. He is celebrated in Tindall’s book, perhaps you might try actually reading her tribute to him??

  • Samuel Sukaton

    As a musician and college student, I feel that Ms. Tindall’s treatment of the career prospects of conservatory trained musicians was evenhanded and very effective.

    There are certain books talking about the distance between (blank) and the general public–Alister McGrath decries academic theology in his book The Future of Christianity, and let’s not even get into all the accusations aimed at colleges and universities across the nation.

    However, music is something that actually DOES affect all of us, so misconceptions about the way that musicians live and work need to be cleared up.

    I read Mozart in the Jungle my senior year of high school. While I agree with NYC Oboist that her work may have hurt people back in New York, I was more concerned with the underlying message presented in the statistics:

    The disconnect between the professional music scene and the American public damages both.

    While Tindall’s introduction to this world hits a lot of unnecessary nerves, it brings up an important issue that music educators and music professionals would to well to start talking about.

    I wonder if the AFM had/has any reactions to the book?

  • Timothy Grant

    NYC Oboist! Are you one of the oboists mentioned in Blair’s book? If so, which one please? Don’t hide behind your anonymous moniker!

  • bettiola

    I think it’s too bad if people reading this book are led to believe that Blair’s experiences are typical of the classical music world. Speaking as a classical musician myself, the classical music world I know is not sex- and drug-crazy.

  • BB Baron

    I really enjoyed reading this book and I salute you for your honesty and frankness. If some people cannot handle it, it’s their problem. I think it was very courageous and daring.

  • hw

    9/5/2011
    I nutured concert music and the love for the oboe in my son quite early in his life. He could be considered perfect for music. He understand the nuances of the genre something I can’t even comprehend. He plays the oboe with a magic touch.
    In spite of his talent he cannot find a job to make a living at his craft. Why? Because here in the U.S. concert music is not fostered by most Americans, and when they do get it, it is too late.
    Western music or as some call it “Dead white Europeans” is something that must be maintained, yet sadly, very little government funding is funneled into it. Too many orchestras are declaing bankruptcy and when music and art disappear, so is the society.
    Tindall’s book, aside from the sensationalized sex and drug scene is a wake up call to all those who want to become professional classical trained musicians. Prepared to live a live of poverty!

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