Are you a film maker? Are you a corporate buyer? Do you need music, not playback but LIVE music? Would you get 50 to 100 people to a venue and perform for you so that you look “atas” (~prestigious)? Let me tell you a stories about orchestras.
Originally, there’s the age old Singapore Symphony Orchestra, circa. 1979, the only professional full time local orchestra that continues to anchor the scene. SSO plays every other week at the Esplanade, plenty of concerts played to a regular audience of music connoisseurs and general public alike. The occasional pop concerts such as during the Christmas seasons are usually sell outs. Shortly after, MOE also started a “training” orchestra, Singapore National Youth Orchestra (SNYO, previously SYO and various other forms) which has continued to be the breeding ground for orchestra members on the island. They even have a youth’s youth orchestra now (Singapore National Youth Training Orchestra) – how young can you get
Along came more community groups, like the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra (1986). Not forgetting the assortment of other “orchestras” of non-western tradition, such as Singapore Chinese Orchestra, Singapore Indian Orchestra and Choir and Orkestra Melayu Singapura, which adds to the vibrancy of the scene, but not the focus of this article as they usually entertain a well differentiated crowd. You can see wikipedia for more. And wind orchestras too (in every other school, JC, poly, uni and up to 10 community centres)!
In the recent years, there has been a number of new stakeholders that tried to start orchestras in Singapore, especially the western type. Since 10 years ago, new orchestras have been springing up. Amongst them is The Philharmonic Orchestra (there was an assortment of previous names, such as Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra), circa. 1998 and more recently the Singapore Festival Orchestra, by MOE. I also heard someone going to start a film focused one soon although the details are still iffy. Not forgetting that some of the schools here such as NUS’s Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, NAFA, LaSalle and even secondary schools like ACS and Nanyang Girls all got a functioning, if not presentable orchestra too.
For the uninitiated, the typical “activity” these orchestra have, is that they perform in these things called concert halls, like the big durian you see in front of Padang or, say, a place where you form a political party. The tradition is for people to enjoy a good evening of music, with an extremely wide repertoire because orchestras, more often than not, play dead people’s music in the past 500 years or so. Because the group is so evolved, the same set (or a subset) of instruments are also used to accompany operas, musicals, theatre, and most excitingly, POP concerts too, like NAFA with 张信哲 （Zhang Xin Zhe), or soon, TPO and Aska. Ad hoc orchestras are also setup by companies like Gateway Entertainment when bringing musicals to Singapore. Even more uniquely Singapore, Dick Lee worked with PA recently to put together an orchestra consisting of the standard western instruments and local ones, and call it Singapore Pop Orchestra!
Ok now armed with this amount of background knowledge, here’re a few thoughts (i.e. the actual blog post):
Saturation of the Orchestra Industry – who’s going to feed the musicians?
When YST was launched, all these Symphony 92.4 broadcasters were either out of their mind or just reading an advertisement when they say YST has come to “rescue” the dying the market by producing more world class musicians. In fact, the market is flooded with players, with more and more players in school orchestras and bands deciding to take up music as an undergraduate degree. That’s the market dude.
But what does this spell? Are these musicians going to then need a full time job in an orchestra? I’m sorry to say this but SSO isn’t exactly making money yet. Can you imagine, the supposedly best orchestra in the market (by virtue of being a professional full time one), is still living on government IU, and here you are needing to feed batch after batch of new musicians?
But wait, maybe there is a surge of demand. Singapore is trying to attract tourist and they need entertainment. An average musician who played with, say, the recent Phantom of the Opera’s pit orchestra would have earned around SGD $10,000 for 3 months of no night and no weekends, performing it for around 70+ times. If each concert is 3 hours long, we’re still talking about a 10000 / 70 / 3 = $47 per hour, or roughly $3000 a month. Taking that being one of the more “successful” shows here, where else can the musicians go?
Here comes the punch – a lot of the musicians are “pimping” anyway. I do Say I join TPO (well I did), and here comes another group asking me to perform on a date where TPO doesn’t have anything on. Of course I’m going to sign up and do it if I have the time – it might be peanuts, but it’s better than nothing. This pimping sometimes cuts into the core of some of the non-profit groups mentioned above, because the non-profit one is usually the one being sacrificed when there’s a clash.
This pretty much put any musician into the case of being an independent agent, having to negotiate and hunt for “gigs”. It is not surprising that this is the tradition of the music industry in general where the two guitarist might go find some drummer they can “jam” with; however, orchestras are supposedly cohesive groups, groups that have spend a lot of time together perfecting their own language and style of working together.
Dilemma of the Part Time Musician – wah you got Degree one ah?
And thus, even as the market for orchestras are only mildly hotter than before, the increase in cannibalization of each other is starting to tear at its seams. The worst hit that I predict: part-time musicians. Qualifications will start to serve as a new means of differentiating between someone who’ll get the “paid gig” and not, perhaps with some exception especially if the player is really good or knows people etc.
Then come this sentimental argument: Aiya, these are people who paid for school and need to eat leh. You got full time job you play the unpaid concerts la, at least these poor music students / graduates can fetch something home. A pity! Not even having a proper musician union in Singapore and here we are talking about a communist system to keep all musicians fed! And unfortunately, like many other fields, the school doesn’t determine quality, and that’s assuming quality is what we’re looking for in the first place. It’s very demanding being a classical musician playing in an orchestra. Besides the technique that comes with a lot of time invested in practicing, one also have to have extremely good attitude and willing to humble oneself to work extremely closely with any conductor, any colleagues and any orchestra manager. How much that can be acquired from the school I don’t know. But I do hear of tensions between nationalities in YST, you know, the new bastion of classical music in town?
Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean one shouldn’t bother with a music degree. I didn’t get one myself originally due to a family reason but later due to the “part-time”-ness of the activity. And I’ve seen a lot of good in what a music school can do to the musicality and the attitude of a student. There are official barriers that require the degree too, like you’ll need a degree if you want a full time gig with SSO. As far as I know, that’s it for now, but it’s not stopping any groups from placing that kind of barrier of entry as well.
If you’re asking, why bother? Why don’t play music yourself and forget about joining orchestras? Then I think I should point you to the fact that the instruments we play are typically, not, piano or guitar. And the purpose of the activity is also not about strumming a few chords to a group of ladies. There comes a point in the development of a musician where the capability of that one instrument that we play cannot create an emotional impact of a given amplitude, but can easily be solved if we come together as a group. This is fundamental to orchestras as it has by 2 dozen types of instruments and yet an infinite number of ways to create beautiful sound in combination. One really doesn’t need a 4 year course to appreciated this emotional impact.
Survival of an Orchestra – pick up the phone or just hire the whole orchestra?
Put the previous two points together, and you’ll see a third: should orchestras just be empty bodies then, putting together a group of free-agents when there’s a need, disbanding when there isn’t. Well, certain organizations certainly think so. They have over the years compiled a list of locally available musicians who have been disciplined enough to show up for rehearsals and performances, so that when they need an “orchestra”, they call people up, get them into a place for a few days and keep their fingers cross that their mistakes will not be heard by the, after all gullible, audiences.
Others, especially those that grew out of a grassroots model where music is number 1, money is number 2, disagrees. Classical musicians spend lots of time together because we have to have a lot of mutual understanding on how to play a piece of music. There’s the rather one way communication from the conductor to the group, but there are also lots of minor detail between the members of the group to work out. It’s not possible, even if everyone graduated under the same teacher in the same school, for a gig orchestra to interpret music in the same vigor and understanding.
In other words, most orchestras would rather you hire the orchestra rather than the individual players, because it create a havoc when half the orchestra signs up and give up on a conflicting project. It’s normally not as simple as that, depending from case to case, and the dynamics of the people involved. But essentially, if you have a group, you stick together, even if you’re 60 man or 100 man strong. This is so far only possible for full time groups, as the contract clearly spells out the need to always be there even if you’re idling (as trombonist like me always do). For the grassroots, good luck.
Using classical economics, this is a case of a demand curve that’s slowly shifting out, but an artificially high supply of musicians pushing prices low, way low. If my last paid gig was to be used a gauge, I’m getting $20 for a 3 hour rehearsal. That’s ok, because I’m enjoying my time with the music and an eccentric conductor from US, but I don’t think that bodes well with some of my comrades who will need to find other means of keeping themselves fed. After all, I fetch some of these people home after rehearsals – is that fair enough?
Epilogue: I never had a chance to paint this picture to anyone outside the musician circle, because it’s hard. I hope by writing this you can throw me back some questions and ideas, perhaps from a fresh perspective if you’re not a musician or a musician not playing in an orchestra. I think many will be highly appreciative if you know how is it possible to, say, boost the demand for orchestras in town. So How?Share
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