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Andrew Mellor

Wellbeing is as important in the office as on the stage

8:30, 24th May 2018

It is good to read that the ABO’s Healthy Orchestra Charter extends to management as well as musicians, but it was not always thus. When the charter was launched in 2006, there was barely a mention of administrative staff, while the tie-in with the Musicians Benevolent Fund made it abundantly clear that this was about people playing instruments on stage, not those pushing paper in the office.

That year, one junior staffer at an orchestra’s back office wrote a letter to this magazine begging the charter’s authors to consider the challenges facing administrative as well as performing staff, and the resulting implications for general wellbeing. ‘Hours far beyond those for which you are paid, non-existent HR structures and abuse from highly-strung patrons on concert nights all have the potential to cause health problems,’ wrote the peeved underling, ‘though most quit for better-paid work long before they do so.’

I’d like to think things have changed since I wrote that letter. I’m sure, in many ways, they have. But one situation that appears to remain stubbornly constant is the exodus of junior staff at opera houses, orchestras and festivals after a couple of years on the job. There were four of us of a similar age on the management team of the chamber orchestra I joined straight out of university in 2002; none of the other three remained in the sector. These days, interacting with orchestral and festival marketing departments as a supplier, I am saddened by the regularity with which my established contacts fire off a ‘thank you and goodbye’ email.

One of the reasons working in the marketing department of a symphony orchestra was such a frustrating experience for me – and I must admit it was a very inspiring one too – was the loose definition of ‘work’. Junior staff should be prepared to work an eight-hour administrative day with a four-hour concert shift on top with no subsistence, we were told, because some of the musicians will be working 13 hours too (it didn’t seem to matter that, this being a London orchestra, those musicians were paid by the hour while administrative staff were not). Another source of frustration was the total absence of professional training. Yet another was the impossibility of progressing within the organisation.

Some of those are universally recognised features of working in a relatively small organisation. Others were probably symptomatic of the time. Management styles at many orchestras appear to be changing. Many have adopted a more open, caring, emotionally engaged approach that naturally feeds off the experience and input of younger employees. The age of social media might just have helped bridge the bizarre gulf that long existed (at the orchestras I worked for) between the administrative staff and the musicians.

But the high turnover of staff – particularly in entry-level positions for which little training is offered and salaries remain inexcusably low (often, ironically, in fundraising roles) – remains a problem. Those are the very staff members who are expected to work out-of-hours, frequently giving up evenings and weekends to follow their orchestra or opera company many miles around the country. Are these conditions, and the relative lack of reward for putting up with them, responsible for a brain drain in our industry? The situation on the ground would suggest they are. Do the implications stretch as far as health concerns? In my experience, yes, they have the potential to.

Of course, the most stressful experiences associated with working for an orchestra will generally be those resulting from playing in one. Hearing loss, music performance anxiety and the sheer physical and mental strain of performing at a high level – knowing that a loss of technique or nerve means a loss of livelihood – are terrifying realities faced by our orchestral musicians and they must never be taken lightly. That is where the ABO’s Healthy Orchestra Charter has had a serious impact and continues to negate the many dangers associated with the profession.

But we’re all in this together, and a truly healthy orchestra, opera company or festival is one that is alert to factors that can cause stress, anxiety or disenfranchisement anywhere in the organisation. It is in everyone’s interest to think hard about how we can do better.

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