As a member of the ICSOM Electronic Media Committee, I have been involved in the AFM’s Symphony, Opera and Ballet Audio Visual negotiations since last November. These negotiations were put on hold for several months while the Managers’ Media Committee (MMC) and the AFM had “framework discussions” to explore the possibility of some type of integrated media agreement, which could include Radio, Internet, and A/V all under the same agreement and might simplify media projects for all parties. The final framework discussion was on June 30, when the AFM and the MMC decided to move forward into negotiations for an integrated media agreement.
As symphonic musicians, we hear again and again that managers are using media to try to force concessions from musicians at a local level. It will probably come as no surprise that the managers involved in these national discussions want us to do more media work for less money. They argue that we should give them media for free or for token payments in order to help support and promote our institutions and to build audience. They’ll share revenue—why shouldn’t we be happy with that? And besides, turning microphones and cameras on for a service that we’re already being paid for (live recording) isn’t any extra work. You’re already performing! Don’t you play your best anyway when you’re performing? The managers say they should be able to capture that performance for no additional compensation. Why should they pay us twice for the same amount of work?
It is this argument that rankles the most. As a member of the San Francisco Symphony, I have done quite a bit of live media activity over the past few years. My management has come up with some very innovative and creative projects that we are all proud to be a part of. However, most members of the SFS feel that cameras and mikes add an enormous amount of stress to our jobs. (Full disclosure: I am the piccolo player for the SFS, so while I may feel “high” pressure more than some, I have had extensive conversations on this subject with members of all sections of my orchestra.) Our jobs change significantly when we’re being recorded, and we should be well compensated for recording services.
Many of us feel that as musicians we are only as good as our last performance. We want to sound great all the time. But how do you play at your peak when you have three, four, and sometimes even five concerts a week for so many weeks of the year? Performance anxiety is a serious issue for most musicians: we all know the stories of celebrated artists who have to be pushed onto the stage, or talked into going out in front of the audience. What we do is extremely precise, requiring intense concentration and very highly developed coordination. And then there is that pesky artistry issue. Just going out and playing the notes perfectly and with a beautiful sound is not going to cut it. You need to be able to transcend the difficulties of your instrument and play with creativity and freedom in order to spin out gorgeous phrases and conjure a performance that will really move an audience. It is not enough to be a technician—you must be an artist.
When I perform, I try to tell myself: “Cathy—this is not brain surgery! No one’s life is at stake here if I flub the run in Tchaik 4, or play a giant clam in this gorgeous, lyrical Shostakovich solo!” But perhaps it really is more like brain surgery. As a classical performer, you get one chance. If you make a mistake, there it goes, out into the air, out to the audience of 2,743 people (in my case). You can never get it back—it’s gone. You can’t erase it, readjust, or try it again. Most of us can probably picture, in alarming detail, the concerts where we have made major errors—plowing in with gusto on a fortissimo entrance while the rest of the orchestra is wrapped up in the GP that you somehow forgot to experience, or flubbing a note in a major solo (like not having the final pianissimo note speak in the Elegia movement of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, and having this low hippo death call come out instead while the whole orchestra is in tears around you trying to muffle their laughter—not that this has ever happened to me).
If you blow it, not only is it embarrassing for you professionally, but it reflects poorly on the entire ensemble. You’ve blown it for “the team”—you’ve let everybody down. Making an error in a concert feels so bad that we do all we can to try to avoid it: we take drugs to slow our heart rates down and keep our hands from sweating and our mouths from drying out, all of which seriously affect performance. We try exercise regimes, yoga, change our diets, meditate, or bring our lucky whatever with us on stage as a talisman. We do the exact same preparation we did for a “good” performance, hoping to get the same result.
This pressure to be perfect has only increased over the years as recording has gone digital and people in the editing room are able to create technically perfect recordings with no bloopers. Many people who attend concerts seem to remember these blooper moments when discussing a concert afterwards. “Didn’t the horn player make a mistake?” “My Beethoven 7 recording doesn’t sound like that.” This adds to the performance pressure that musicians experience. I’ve heard section string players describe the nausea they feel when the cameras are on them because of the pressure to be perfectly unified. Their bows must be exactly in sync; they must not lose concentration and play in a rest. They see the camera coming out of the corners of their eyes and are very distracted. Chasing after perfection inhibits artistic freedom and makes us less likely to take artistic risks in performance. This, I feel, is detrimental to our mission to give audiences great live concert experiences as our ensembles sound more careful and cautious instead of more exciting and energized. The cameras only make this trend more inevitable, adding to the already extraordinary performance pressure that musicians feel.
Perhaps in our local and national negotiations we should try to get our managers to imagine doing their jobs while being recorded. How would our managers feel if they were doing a normal but difficult part of their job—for example, giving a presentation to their board, or participating in a tricky negotiation?
Let’s picture an executive director sitting at a table in the board room. There is a microphone on the table in front of him or her, recording every word. As he begins his presentation, he is aware of a camera on a boom above his head. He doesn’t see it, exactly…but he can feel it over him because it creates a slight breeze that makes his hair move a little bit, and he is aware that it is casting shadows on the paper he is referring to on the table. Our executive director notices that there are two cameras on either side of him, but they are far away. There is a person operating each one, moving it back and forth, but it’s not so bad. He can get used to it. He notices as he is speaking that the several bald men in the room are wearing pancake makeup on their heads, which is slightly distracting—but shiny heads don’t look good on camera. Our executive director has an irritating itch on his nose that he’d really like to scratch before he continues, but he’s on camera, so he doesn’t. He is distracted enough by the itch that he makes a mistake, but gets back on track quickly, reminding himself to concentrate. He moves on to make a key negotiating point, slicing his hand in the air for emphasis. It’s dramatic. At that moment, he is distracted slightly by a low mechanical whirring sound—it is our new, good friend, the robotic camera! The robotic camera wants to be right in his face to capture this special moment—but please, executive director, make your point strongly and well, with feeling. Don’t let that camera distract you.
Now let’s imagine that all this captured material will be edited with no say from the executive director. (The most dramatic section of the presentation was done particularly well, but one of the bald men in the room sneezed, so the material will have to be edited out.) The finished product will be viewed by critics, colleagues in the field, and lovers of classical music all over the world. If you are wearing a stupid tie, your mascara is running, or you say something that is incorrect or controversial that wasn’t edited out, your moment could be viewed by millions on YouTube.
Somehow, I don’t think the managers would think this was “the same” work.
But I think I know what they’d argue next (okay, I have a lot of experience with this). They’d say that if the cameras and mikes were on all the time, we’d get used to it. And perhaps we would get used to it, but something would really be lost in the process. To be able to create a great performance, musicians need “down time” in order to “rise to the occasion” for the mikes and cameras. SFS musicians had the experience last winter of having three straight weeks of concerts and most rehearsals taped (concerts were A/V; rehearsals were audio only, in what SFS’s media oversight committee feels is an abuse of the current A/V Agreement). I can emphatically say that at the end of the three weeks there wasn’t a musician on stage who was getting used to it. Everyone was completely exhausted. Taping rehearsals is a bad idea. There is no opportunity to “play” with a phrase, or try out a new idea, or experiment with a fingering. There is no opportunity to “save it for the concert” because you’re giving 100% all the time. The intensity leads to more exhaustion, which leads to more mistakes, and the fear of mistakes leads to more careful and boring playing. Yes, bring the media activity on—but with limits as to what material and how much material can be captured.
With the explosion of web sites like Facebook and YouTube, the managers are more interested than ever in A/V product, and as costs for A/V projects come down as technology changes and improves, musicians from more and more orchestras will be hearing these arguments from their managers. While I agree with our managers that media activity is desirable for orchestras and we need to have a major media presence in the new media frontiers of the 21st century, the workload and stress of doing our jobs is much greater when the digital wheels are spinning. Musicians need to be protected and compensated appropriately.