Saturday, January 28, 2006

Orchestras are "boozy cultures"

Orchestral musicians may appear, as they mould performances of consummate skill and artistry, to be paragons of grace and harmoniousness. In reality they can be prey to a range of physical and mental problems, from bullying, burn-out and stage fright to hearing damage and dependence on drink or drugs. The problems are so serious that this weekend the Association of British Orchestras launches the Healthy Orchestra Charter, creating a code of practice to help tackle or prevent the afflictions. Orchestral musicians have a notoriously unhealthy lifestyle, including working long hours in difficult or cramped conditions, spending lengthy periods on the road, and encountering the stress and tension associated with performing.

Mental and emotional problems, according to the ABO's Joanna Morrison Mayo, are widespread - but difficult for musicians and orchestral managers to admit and deal with. "We are hoping this charter will open some people's eyes. We think there is an ostrich effect with some of these issues," she said. Andy Evans, who trained as a double bass player before becoming a psychologist, specialises in working with musicians. Social problems in orchestras can involve individuals being bullied or victimised. "Players can harbour grudges against certain people - think they come in too late all the time, for instance," he said.

And, despite the fact that professional musicians appear on stage day in, day out, performance anxiety is common, affecting, he estimates, up to two-thirds of players at one time or another. Serious stage fright can mean string players getting the shakes. Or it can mean musicians become irrationally terrified of vomiting on stage.

Seeking help is relatively rare, however, and many players tackle problems of stress and anxiety with alcohol or drugs. Paul Russell is a psychotherapist who runs the Smart Treatment Centre, a clinic specialising in substance abuse by musicians. Orchestras are "boozy cultures", he says, where beta blockers or alcohol are often used. "The culture in orchestras is that if you can't deal with it, the weak go to the wall," he said, adding that these attitudes go back to colleges and conservatoires.

Physical problems are better documented in orchestras - the risk of hearing damage from exposure to high volumes means that steps are being taken to change rehearsal practice and to programme concerts with awareness of volume levels. Hazel Province, the director of the Royal Opera Orchestra, said she encouraged players to have hearing tests and that the pit at the Royal Opera House had received acoustic treatment to try to minimise potential damage. The new charter will also discourage exceptionally loud pieces from being programmed together and very loud passages from being rehearsed at length.

From article by Charlotte Higgins in today's Guardian. Pliable says highly commendable initiative - but would the Rite of Spring (or other much louder pieces) have got through rehearsals to first performance under this code of practice?

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Image credit - BBC National Orchesta of Wales via The Blake Theatre

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