Death and the orchestra musician

A very sad story out of Houston got me thinking about mortality in a different way than I usually do.

One of my hobbies for the past few years has been posting news articles
on orchestra-l, ICSOM’s email list. I’ve got a pretty good search term
set up in Google, so I see a lot of articles. Some of them are
obituaries. I  think I’m seeing a representative, albeit anecdotal, slice
of information about who leaves the community of orchestra musicians in
the most final possible way.

The raw suicide rate for the United States is about 11 per 100,000 (it’s higher for men and lower for women). If one assumes a population of 10,000 professional musicians making some or all of their income by playing in US orchestras, that would translate to around 1 death by suicide every year. But, in the 30+ years I’ve been playing in orchestras (and the 5-10 years I’ve been actively tracking news about orchestras), I can recall exactly one suicide prior to this one. Can this be correct? Are orchestra musicians really that little at risk from suicide? Why? And does that mean that the incidence of serious depression amongst orchestra musicians is correspondingly low?

About 10 years ago my father and I wrote an article for Harmony that has become somewhat notorious in the field. One of the claims we made was that the nature of the orchestral workplace would tend to lead to high rates of depression amongst musicians, due primarily to their lack of control over their environment. I wonder if we were right. If we weren’t, I wonder what the explanation is.

Going back over the past two years, most of the deaths of active orchestra musicians were due to natural causes (usually cancer). A few were due to transportation accidents, and a handful were due to other accidental causes. It would appear that, at least as far as mortality goes, we’re very white-collar.

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One Response to “Death and the orchestra musician”

  1. patty Says:

    Hmmm. Interesting to think about this. I do think we might tend toward depression. Or maybe we go into music because we have that tendency. I never thought my depression was about the lack of control of my environment so much as lack of control over reeds and feeling I never measured up (I guess I’ll always feel that way!) as a musician. And just general depression that I suspect runs in my family’s blood. If you know what I mean.

    But I ramble.

    I wonder if maybe it’s that we learn to handle our depression, just as we learn to handle or live with (or even embrace?) the stress of this bizarre life we live.

    I’m probably not making sense. But you do have me thinking! In my shallow little way! 🙂

    (Had a concert tonight and now It’s “come down time”. Takes me a while even after all these years. Go figure.)

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