The Juilliard Orchestra is no longer an orchestra made up of young talented musicians who all want to become soloists and have no respect for the orchestral canon. These students I worked with last week are all musicians who are sensitive to their colleagues and to the conductor. They move and breathe together; they share a wonderful work ethic and a sense of humor. If this is the future of orchestral music in the States, I am not worried at all.

So, let’s make room for them! I have conducted too many orchestras where individuals can’t play their instruments anymore. I know this is a very controversial statement, but if we want the public to love classical music as much as we do, we have to invigorate the field with these young, talented musicians. (I want to digress and clearly explain that younger does not mean better. While being the assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, I had the privilege of spending time with some “older” musicians. One colleague and friend comes to mind – Emilio Llinas who shares a stand with the principal second violin, Steve Rose. Emilio was actually hired by George Szell, and he continues to be one of the most dedicated and passionate players in the orchestra. I learned so much from his experience and I joke with him that he has been my main conducting teacher!) Obviously, there is a bigger picture to this argument and it’s easier said than done. We can’t play God and tell people when to retire, still, I’m hoping that some changes may come to the system in the near future to encourage the timely turnover of orchestral chairs. As much as it’s a touchy subject, these days there are too many talented musicians and too few jobs.

-James Gaffigan

You can’t comment over at Mr. Gaffigan’s blog entry, so if you want to comment here instead, feel free.

Mr. Gaffigan has opened the blog entry to comments since this blog was originally posted.

Update #2
Comments have been closed again.

Some of us have talked about the retirement thing. (Of course we also discuss the fact that our retirement plan isn’t exactly something we could live on.) Many of us fear hanging on longer than we should. Some of us make pacts, saying we will be honest when “it’s time”. But should there be some way to let people go so that the orchestra can “invigorate the field with these young, talented musicians” because we have to bring in a younger audience and everyone knows they don’t like to hear and see older people? Mr. Gaffigan at first seemed to be suggesting that we aren’t playing well and should quit, but then he says “older” (his quotation marks, not mine) musicians can be mighty fine players. It seems, instead, that he’s suggesting we owe these younger players a position in an orchestra and should stop down so they can have a gig. (Hmmm. Will these younger musicians kindly help us out financially, then? Or maybe we’ll just be put on an ice floe.)

Is this something we oldsters should be pondering? Am I misinterpreting Mr. Gaffigan? Or is this more ageism?

(For the record, Mr. Gaffigan is 31.)


  1. If a career in music actually paid well then this issue would be less touchy. Many ‘older’ musicians have worked for peanuts for years and can’t afford to retire!

  2. Too darn true, Paul! We piece together our careers, receive very few, if any benefits, and now perhaps we should retire early? Hmmm.

  3. So if there are a lot of talented apprentice plumbers out there looking for work, does that mean that any plumber over 50 should quit and go on welfare? I appreciate that Mr. Gaffigan is enthusiastic about the talent at Juilliard, but this is not the solution to the problem. I don’t know what is; unfortunately we are training far more talented young musicians than there are chairs for, especially now that there are fewer orchestras and smaller budgets as time passes these days. If we were to seat all the graduates of major conservatories and music schools in this country in professional orchestras, as Mr. Gaffigan seems to wish, I think the average job term would be just a few years, since there will be more and more young qualified musicians graduating. Then what would those washed-up old thirty-year-olds do for income when they quit to make room for the talented new grads? Train more new musicians?

  4. I propose that, based on rules of fair play, this conductor be prepared to shorten his career as well. Hope he had a double major and is keeping up with changes in it so he can support himself when he’s had a few more years of shaving under his belt.  If not, with his leadership skills, he could probably start as manager of McDonald’s so he can skip asking about the fries upsell.  Also, his social skills are clearly a mite dubious, so contact with the public should be minimized. By then, he should be humbled enough to apologize to customers who complain when the ones taking their orders always ask them to repeat it and, as conduc, er, manager he can that they’re not hard of hearing, they’re former orchestra members who are trained to repeat for accuracy.

    When should this happen for this conductor? Well, since there are so many young, aspiring conductors in the world to make room for and there are only, what, 2 per orchestra (have you seen the 3- and 5-year-old ones on YouTube?) – and since the conductor is the most visible to young, coveted audiences, I’d say 35 (leaving us with the memory of him as young and dashing like Zubin Mehta when we used to caravan from college with season tickets – this chump IS dashing, isn’t he? Knowing his thoughts now, I’ll never pay to be in his presence to know for myself) – or the first gray hair, whichever comes first (pray for young-looking genes). Enjoy your remaining few years, kid. (And, no, you can’t take it back when you emerge from late childhood and realize you’ve already written your own professional obit and notice, to your surprise, that you, too, are still alive, vital, and in need of the job you trained your whole life to spend the majority of your life doing.)

    Is this ageism? If he’d mentioned only “making room for” new, young musicians by weeding orchestras based on competence, it wouldn’t be. He has entirely fused competence and age, with a bit of gut(lessness)-questioning back-pedalling. Perhaps, to get the reflection of himself he really wants by looking at players his age, he should simply conduct with a mirror in front of himself. Something tells me he has plenty of practice at that.

  5. Musicians should be able to keep their employment in an orchestra as long as they maintain their skills at a high level, at whatever age. There usually are rules in place which protect musicians’ rights.

    I think that the real problem lies with antiquated, outdated ways of RUNNING orchestras, which is mainly the responsibility of Management and the Board. Fresh, new ways of marketing the orchestra and targeting various audience demographics need to be found and implemented. Otherwise everything else becomes moot.

  6. Actually, re-reading his words, maybe “I’m hoping that some changes may come to the system in the near future to encourage the timely turnover of orchestral chairs” refers either to providing generous pensions to the “older” musicians, or to some sort of “Soylent Green” solution? I don’t think we can expect to work the line at McD’s, since there are so many bright, fresh faces out there that would be so much better at it than the forty-something geezers, and you KNOW who he’d be hiring in HIS McD’s. Perhaps he’s willing to endow a fund to pay for the retirement of all those he would like to see retire?

    Unfortunately, conductor salaries being what they are, he’d likely be in a far better financial position retiring at 35 than most of us would be retiring at 65.

  7. Generations of orchestra musicians have been graduating from the same dozen so music schools. In fact, some players who are decades apart in age and are on the job together studied with the same teachers. Gaffigan is optimistic in thinking that the most recent graduates of the these very same institutions are going to offer insights and performances that will put live orchestral music in a more stable position.

  8. FYI, I just had a reader point out that comments are now enabled at Gaffigan’s blog post although I have no idea if they are moderated.

  9. Yep, I saw that a few days ago, Drew. I should update this blog entry, eh? 🙂

  10. Drew, it appears the comments are back off at Mr. Gaffigan’s blog. I wonder if someone left something too hostile? I hope not … I hope discussions can be civil even when we disagree.

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