Drugs, sex and 'Mozart in the Jungle'

5 minute read
928 Mozartjungle
Glass half empty or half full?
The angry classical musician's complaint


Scores of reviews have been written about the book that scandalized the classical music world three years ago. I finally got around to reading it, and so this is more a delayed response than a review. The oboist Blair Tindall’s Mozart in the Jungle made a splash because it sold itself as a revealing shocker about sex and drugs in the mysterious world of classical music. But as Tindall herself has admitted in various interviews, the book is really about something else. It’s a memoir, an autobiography, an op-ed, a protest about many things that are wrong about classical music.

Tindall makes a case against conservatories and against symphony orchestras, discouraging students from entering a world where music doesn't pay much, and is neither challenging nor fun nor interesting. Unfortunately, while much of what she says is true, Tindall allots a disturbingly meager amount of words to the great positive power of classical music and the good that it provides to millions. In her pessimism, she presents a rather narrow range of the possibilities available for a classical musician today.

As promised in its subtitle, the book grabs the reader with a few chapters about adolescent sex in music school, drunken parties, and inter-orchestra hookups. Tindall displays a remarkable and almost admirable degree of honesty in admitting so much about her sex life— how she slept her way in and out of gigs. Ultimately, it’s the same kind of sexual corruption that exists in every field, certainly not limited to the classical world. It’s only surprising to find it here because classical music is so often viewed as stuck up, pure and conservative.

A manipulative practice (thank goodness)

Tindall’s chapter headings are surely clever: Titles such as "Midsummer Night's Dream,” "Rite of Spring" and "Appassionata Sonata" will never sound the same. But as the subject turns to the serious afflictions of the symphonic world, titles such as "Rhapsody in Blue," "Twilight of the Gods" and "Unfinished Symphony" replace the gossipy subjects while still maintaining a light tone. At first, I was staggered to suddenly be hit with a bunch of history and financial figures. Tindall still weaves her personal story to keep the reader’s attention, but that reader will soon realize that the author uses sex only to sell the less heart-pumping content— a manipulative practice that Tindall herself complains about for several pages.

Nevertheless, I’m glad she employed that technique. Frankly, I wouldn’t have picked up a book entitled A Dying Art: Financial Injustice in the World of Classical Music. Tindall’s book was easy and fun to read, difficult to put down, and in the process I was informed about the gross overpayment of orchestra executives, and was reminded of the ludicrous amounts that spoiled maestros get paid to wave their arms in the air.

The real bottom line

Tindall makes some claims about philanthropy and the inflation of orchestra numbers and budgets that explain an art whose business side is in distress. Ironically, this is where her book takes its most distressing turn. The narrator becomes disenchanted and bitter about music in general because of the stressful professional aspect that inevitably must accompany practically everything in our society. As a free-lance musician, I too have felt such bitterness— but never to the point of losing sight of why I love music.

Tindall makes a telling admission in her "Danse Macabre" chapter: "Although I loved classical music, I had never honestly been interested enough in the field to make it my career. I simply got hooked as a teenager because it earned me attention." She ties this sentiment into the metaphor of a "Magic Dress" that every little girl yearns for. But in another telling symptom of the same problem, Tindall also admits that she never really liked listening to classical concerts, not could she understand why anyone else would "pay to attend such a boring event."

Why not try teaching?

This personal problem is also rendered obvious by Tindall’s glaring lack of any deep description about what makes music so great. She conveys no understanding of the harmonic and orchestral complexity that makes classical music worth the time (and money, which is the real subject of her book). No wonder Tindall found no satisfaction in the classical world and chose to blame it on the establishment.

While her attacks are often justified, there is little realistic prospect for change in the immediate future. Therefore, it behooves a critic like Tindall to look for viable alternatives. For instance, while she constantly complains about the lack of jobs and money, she makes practically no mention of teaching as a stable and respectable source of income for musicians. There is no shortage of demand for private music teachers for age groups ranging from babies to seniors. A private teacher makes his or her own schedule and pursues challenging and interesting work with a variety of people and situations.

Let's put on a show

What’s more, classical music opportunities aren’t limited to free-lance orchestras or audition-based professional ensembles. An enterprising musician needn't spend thousands of dollars on promotions and fancy recital halls. With a few colleagues and a network of friends in the music community, one can set up a local series of chamber music or solo recitals and perform in the
neighborhood church or community center. Suburbanites are delighted to find such things happening in their back yards, and often will gladly pay for it. All one needs is some initiative and a real love of music.

In Tindall's story, she finally gives up on music; but since she has only a conservatory training, she encounters difficulty finding other jobs. She blames her music conservatory education for being too narrow and limited. Conservatories have begun to realize the problems that Tindall raises, and they’re actually integrating more general education requirements. Assuming that conservatory students don't skip class on a regular basis (as Tindall did) and end up needing eighth-grade-level remedial math, it’s not difficult to transfer from a conservatory to mainstream fields. And even those music students who ultimately follow a different career path will always possess the skills and experiences that can only be gained from those unique once-in-a-lifetime havens for the devotion of art known as conservatories of music.

To read a related commentary by Dan Rottenberg, click here.

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