Vivace con Moto: Revitalizing the Symphonic Orchestra

410 South Michigan Avenue: Chicago’s Fine Arts Building. Walk inside on a Sunday afternoon, and you’ll be greeted by a Polish man. He’ll motion for you to get in the manually-operated elevator, one of the last of its kind in the city, and you will ask to go to the eighth floor. As he pulls down the lever, you rise up, observing aged yellow walls and dusty yet grandiose paintings; your ears reverberate with the mingling sounds of an opera singer and a jazz pianist. The doors finally open, and you can faintly catch orchestra music echoing down the hall.

You’ve arrived at a rehearsal of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra (CYSO), a collection of Chicagoland’s most talented youth musicians. Ranging from grades six through twelve, CYSO students rehearse for three hours every week and perform orchestral works ranging from entire symphonies to worldwide premieres. Two blocks away from the Fine Arts Building lies their performance venue: the Symphony Center, home to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. With CYSO’s professional caliber, it’s easy to imagine the scores of students who have become classical musicians, and certainly, many have landed positions in the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, just to name a few. Nevertheless, a large majority of students are there to simply relish classical music as a pastime, turned off by the idea of a professional music career due to considerations of low pay and job instability in the classical music industry.

While disappointing, these considerations are legitimate. In May, the Musicians’ Union in the UK published that “orchestral players…on average earn under $30,000,” with two-thirds having considered pursuing another career. Moreover, becoming a musician is a lifelong investment, from the cost of an instrument (prices for quality instruments often are in the thousands) to the cost of private lessons, and the long hours of practice restrict musicians from working additional part-time jobs. Additionally, younger musicians often take unpaid work to jumpstart their careers. These substantial costs illustrate that pursuing a professional career in orchestra is a long-term investment with both slow and little returns.

The orchestra industry itself is suffering from its current business model. As explained by an economic study by William Baumol and William Bowen, the greatest challenge facing the orchestra industry is “cost disease.” Orchestras are largely non-profit organizations, not for-profit businesses. Performances run losses by ticket sales since orchestras spend much more on marketing, touring, and venue costs. If tickets were to encompass these costs, they would be exorbitantly more expensive.

Moreover, businesses generally require productivity gains to improve sales, but with a set number of musicians in each orchestra, there is no effective model to increase productivity in orchestras (they can’t just increase numbers or increase ‘musician productivity’). Adding onto this deficit is inflation: as wages for musicians increase, orchestra income and subsidies do not. Rising wages are especially germane to orchestras as employees are highly skilled musicians, not dispensable workers who can make do with mild wage cuts. Unable to reduce the costs of labor, orchestras fall into the trap of this so-called “cost disease.”

Beyond the insufficient business model of orchestras, the composition of orchestras themselves must adapt to changing audience tastes. By focusing heavily on classical music, symphonic orchestras fail to recognize growing interest in alternative forms, such as jazz and contemporary music, thus losing out on a cohort of younger audience members. Furthermore, orchestras are perhaps one of the least racially diverse institutions; the New York Times reports that “African-American musicians accounted for only 1.8 percent of the nation’s orchestra players in 2014.” To draw more interest to their performances, which often take place in cities that are behemoths of diversity, orchestras need to prioritize this concern. Steps have already been taken as three national music organizations, backed by a $1.8 million grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will assist in training black and Hispanic musicians through the auditioning process.

Unlike its classical repertoire, which can be stolidly engrained in the past, orchestras must seek to change with the world around them. Conforming to orthodox performances in stuffy concert halls to a small, core audience will not garner enough attention for sales or philanthropy, nor will it solidify orchestra’s relevance in a world where classical music already receives little appreciation. Rather, orchestras must be in touch with their surrounding communities. With greater dependency towards donations from philanthropic organizations, it is essential that orchestras engage with local communities, whether that be staging free outdoor performances or teaching elementary school students the fundamentals of music. Above all, increasing access to orchestral works can inspire a renewed passion for classical music, a new audience in the seats, and revitalizing energy for the industry as a whole. Orchestras should leverage the power of music to uplift communities.

Let’s return back to the Fine Arts Building. Perhaps you’ve sat through the entire rehearsal on the eighth floor; you’ve taken a glance at the violin craftsman on the fifth floor; or maybe you’ve relished the view of Lake Michigan from the tenth floor. As you walk out the doors, don’t forget to look up at the engraving overhead: “All passes – art alone endures.”