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Monday, January 18, 2016

Review: Mozart in the Jungle by Blair Tindall

I couldn’t wait to read this memoir after beginning to watch the eponymic series on Amazon.

Tindall began playing the oboe, a difficult but hauntingly beautiful instrument when played well, almost by mistake. When they were handing out instruments alphabetically by last name in band, by the time they got to T there was only a bassoon and oboe to chose from. The oboe being smaller she chose that.

Somewhat intimidated by her academically overachieving brother who went to Exeter and with poor grades not to mention a boyfriend who would be closer, she opted to attend NCSA a new (founded in 1960) school devoted to teaching professional musicians and ballet dancers. Regretfully, she focuses more on the unwanted (sometimes) sexual attentions of her teachers (this was a time when sexual harassment was more than prevalent and teachers would use the subjectiveness of musical grading to get what they wanted) and boys, not to mention drinking and drugs, than on the intricacies of the oboe. As someone who has played the piano, organ and french horn, I have no knowledge of woodwinds and would have liked to learn more. But, nevermind.

The musical education at NCSA was apparently quite good if at the expense of other academics and when they went to take the SATs some students had to ask was the SAT was. A test given on Saturdays? They were prepared for little else. “The noble intentions of NCSA encapsulated what would later plague classical music in America: explosive growth without a realistic mission, few accessible resources, and the simultaneous isolation and elevation of a foreign art form above the comprehension of those who were expected to support it.”

Unfortunately, while in her early twenties in NY she was having affairs with several other oboists and being the principal players they controlled hiring of oboe subs and arranging for other gigs. When those affairs fell apart (inevitably as they were married and everything was always supposed to be kept secret) the jealous reactions would lead to her lack of employment. Coupled with many of her friends and acquaintances dying from AIDS (this was the early eighties and at one time the list of dead friends topped one hundred when she quit keeping track) it was a discouraging time.

Much of the book details the trials and tribulations of the orchestral world in general and orchestral musicians in specific. Orchestras had proliferated during the sixties and seventies as federal grants provided the seed money, but soon it became apparent, especially during economic upturns and downswings, that paying musicians from revenue derived from ticket sales was often oxymoronic. Another problem was too many musicians, often uneducated except for their instrument, were chasing too few gigs. Those privileged few who made it through the auditions to get a position in an orchestra were usually life-tenured so few positions ever opened up. Positions that did pay well like those on Broadway could be mind-numbingly boring, playing the same music over and over and over again; some players could read a book while playing the music. As stages became larger and more front row seating was added to sell more tickets, orchestral pits became hellish holes, dark and removed from the performance and audience, almost an afterthought, as the music was piped out through speakers. For long-running shows (she played for Les Miserables and Miss Saigon among others) it was at least a dependable source of income, health and pension benefits.

Eventually, by her mid-thirties, Tindall realized she had to make a change having been unable to find a long-term relationship and becoming totally bored. A job satisfaction study revealed that Orchestral musicians were near the bottom, scoring lower in job satisfaction and overall happiness than airline flight attendants, mental health treatment teams, beer salesmen, government economic analysts, and even federal prison guards. Only operating room nurses and semiconductor fabrication teams scored lower than these musicians…. It took a couple of strange men who didn’t know anything about classical music to make me realize I wasn’t nuts after all. I was in a narcissistic industry that was stuck in the nineteenth century. At that moment, I gave myself permission to escape.

One rather dispiriting piece of information she writes of was a study done “in 2001, [in which] Harvard researchers would challenge this assertion [that studying music helped academic performance], combing 188 studies published between 1950 and 1999 to evaluate the effect of arts education on general learning. Their results were shocking: No reliable causal relationship was found between music education and academic performance (except for spatial reasoning). Creative thinking, verbal scores, and math grades were all unaffected by studying music.”

The movie is sooo different from the book. About the only common thread is the oboe. This is a book that probably won’t be of interest unless you play an instrument or love classical music. I liked it, but the movie is better.
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