The Myth of the Music Police

That got your attention, didn’t it? Drew McManus has a very interesting post about what’s known colloquially as “the music police” and how managements should deal with them:

The Music Police are orchestra musicians who, for a whole host of diverse reasons, believe they have an innate authority to determine what qualifies as acceptable musical standards within their respective ensemble. These musicians act alone or sometimes form one of the numerous cliques found in the vast majority of professional orchestras. It is important to point out that there’s nothing inherently wrong with one musician having an opinion about a colleague’s musical abilities (you’re more likely to find Waldo than a musician who doesn’t); however, when one or more musician decide to impose their musical standards on fellow musicians in a way that involves a manager is when the silent alarms should start going off through the office.

As an orchestra musician for most of my adult life, and a union officer for some part of that time, I’ve had to deal with this phenomenon. I don’t enjoy it. I also don’t enjoy being lectured by people in the union business on the subject (and I don’t mean Drew). The self-righteousness of those who want to impose their standards on their colleagues is just one more thing that can making going to work seem like a chore. It makes little difference whether those standards are musical or behavioral.

Those who preach that the Music Police are charter members of the Axis of Evil show very little interest in examining why musicians sometimes take it on themselves to engage in such conduct. I find it uninteresting to condemn conduct that is an inevitable consequence of a dysfunctional or poorly designed workplace. And I have little patience for people who reduce complexities to witch hunts.

There’s not an orchestra musician alive who hadn’t been driven to distraction by their own inadequacies. That’s how we get better. There’s not an orchestra musician alive who hasn’t been driven to distraction by the musical failings of some of their colleagues. And there’s not an orchestra musician alive who hasn’t been driven into a blind rage by the failure of conductors to hear those failings and not to at least try to fix them, if only by rehearsing properly.

But of course, as orchestra musicians, we are barred by taboo from trying to address problems in rehearsal; that’s the conductor’s job. Yet it’s our orchestra that suffers when the conductor doesn’t do it. We are the ones who end up sounding ragged, or out of tune, or just plain bad. And, being musicians, it’s very hard to detach ourselves, and our self-images, from a bad performance. It might well not have been our fault. But it’s still us that sound bad.

In the absence of any apparent effort by the conductor or management to address such issues, it is inevitable that many members of the orchestra will feel the temptation to try to do so themselves, and that some will actually act on that impulse. For my part, I’d hate to play in an orchestra where no one cared about how things sounded or were incapable of figuring out where problems might be. For the most part, that temptation comes from very honorable motives; professional pride and a desire for excellence.

Should musicians run to management, or the conductor, with their lists of who should be fired? Of course not. Over the long term, such behavior is very harmful to the orchestra – almost as harmful as the institutional failings that lead musicians to believe that no one else is going to address problems of poor playing. But let’s not pretend that we all don’t have a pretty good idea of where the musical issues are in our orchestras, or that we don’t want to see them addressed.

The music police are not the problem, and beating on them is not the
solution. In virtually every instance, the real problem is either that
the wrong person was hired for a position or that musicians are not
adequately supervised and their long-term performance monitored. Hire
the right people, let them know how they’re doing on a regular ongoing
basis – and the music police will vanish as a substantive problem for
managers, unions, and orchestra musicians.

Yes, that does sound a little like “buy low, sell high, and you’ll
make money in the markets.” I didn’t say it was easy. But it is simple.


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