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MU Orchestral Conference Focuses on Support Needed for Sustainable Careers

The fifth annual MU Orchestral Conference was held in Manchester last week. It focused on sustainable careers – from supporting musicians’ mental and physical health to reaffirming Orchestras’ fundamental place in society.

Photograph from the back of the MU Orchestral Conference, looking across members' heads to the panel discussion. Photo credit: Shutterstock
The conference focused on sustainable careers – from supporting musicians’ mental and physical health to reaffirming Orchestras’ fundamental place in society.

The conference kicked off on Tuesday 28 January with an opening speech from MU General Secretary Horace Trubridge, who celebrated the MU’s recent membership growth and set out his own personal ambition for the year, to see musicians begin to reap greater rewards through streaming platforms.

This was followed by an update from MU Live & Music Writers Official Kelly Wood – who covered topics for touring musicians that ranged from the MU’s latest advice for musicians transporting instruments by plane, to the new CITES exemptions and the MU’s Safe Space scheme.

Three panels were held over the two days. The first two looked at how to sustain a healthy performing career from conservatoire to retirement, splitting the discussions into advice for students and graduates, and advice for current professionals and those moving towards retirement. The third asked “How can we ensure that Orchestras are considered a fundamental part of the social fabric?”.

Sustaining a healthy performing career

The first panel featured BAPAM Practitioner Alison Loram, Leader of the BBC Concert Orchestra 2003-2014 Cynthia Fleming, and the Head of Health & Welfare from Help Musicians UK Joe Hastings. It was moderated by EC Vice Chair and BBC SSO Violinist Alex Gascoine.

The panellists discussed with members the high-levels of physical and mental stress that musicians can find themselves under from a very young age – and how important it is that their education incorporates strategies for prevention and coping with these strains.

Panellists and members described their own experiences from the perspective of teachers, mentors, parents and students. With both Loram and Fleming sharing their personal experience of what a difference the correct kind of help at the right time can make.

The second panel, moderated by EC Member and Violinist Eileen Spencer took the discussion on to examine similar themes for musicians more established in their careers and approaching retirement. The panel was joined by Co-Founder of Parents & Carers in Performing Arts (PiPA) Cassie Raine, and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO) Violinist David Rimbault.

Themes covered included the challenges of handling an orchestral career alongside caring responsibilities, such as raising children or becoming responsible for a sick or aging relative.

Panellist Cynthia Fleming talked frankly about the experience of grieving that she'd undergone, when issues with her hands meant she had to step back from her career in the BBC Concert Orchestra much earlier than she'd ever expected to.

Other members and panellists also raised how they’ve been affected by the culture of silence that often surrounds physical and mental health issues, as well as the trauma that can come with stepping back and retiring at the end of a long orchestral career.

We will be covering these topics and what we’ve learnt for them in more depth in an upcoming series of blog posts.

Orchestras as a fundamental part of the social fabric

The third panel was held on the following day. It was moderated by EC Chair and Horn Player Dave Lee, and featured Managing Director of the Orchestra of the Swan (OotS) Debbie Jagla, Chief Executive of the RLPO Michael Eakin, and Relationship Manager for Music at Arts Council England (ACE) Carys Williams.

The panellists discussed how orchestras are an asset to the cities they are based in and tour to, not just through the valuable cultural experience they offer their audiences, but also through their wider outreach work.

Eakin and Jagla discussed how outreach work not only fulfils wider visions of the value of an orchestra for larger organisations like the RLPO, but can also offer a valuable financial lifeline during periods of struggle as it did for the OotS.

Williams backed this up, saying orchestras across the UK are already doing an incredible job of engaging wider and newer audiences, and often its just a question of learning to bang their own drum to let people know about the amazing work happening.

Members and panellists discussed their concerns on the balance between overly diversifying an orchestral musician’s skill set, and struggling for funding. And there were some touching stories by people from across the room on reaching entirely new audiences for the first time.

We will be exploring this topic and the ideas discussed in more depth in an upcoming blog.

Looking to the future

Panel Moderator Dave Lee closed the discussion by reaffirming just how important it is that the younger generation is given the opportunity to get involved in the arts – and how it is essential that the Government invests in these educational opportunities.

Following the conference, MU National Organiser, Orchestras Jo Laverty reflected:

"I want to thank everyone who joined us for the Orchestral Conference. It was an invaluable experience to hear players from so many Orchestras bringing together their different views, and working to build a shared vision of the future."

Want to know more?

The MU will be publishing a series of blogs on our findings from these three panels, as well an article in The Musician Journal which will into the conference in more depth. Watch this space!

You can also read our live thread on twitter for highlights from the day.

Published: 07/02/2020

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