Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Drinking habits of freelance musicians are a response to job demands

When we pore over biographies of Cobain, Mozart, or Shakur, are we getting a true insight into the psychology of musicians? Doubtful; dealing with rare figures whose musicianship is confounded with celebrity, the psychological autopsy is inadequate for understanding this ancient and valued profession. The stereotypes it can reinforce, such as the 'mad genius', are often dispelled by more rigorous investigation: a study of psychopathology in a sample including artists, writers and scientists revealed that composers had almost the lowest rate.

And how about the other stereotype, that musicians love to get trashed? It's true that jazz greats often got high, but their reasons were more varied than simply hedonism; many used drugs to deal with pressure from the job and from peers. A recent study suggests our current jazz and string musicians, in a similar spot, find themselves deep in the drink.

Melissa Dobson from the University of Sheffield conducted interviews with eighteen freelance musicians, half string players and half jazz musicians. Reviewing these reveals that a key professional capability for these musicians is social expertise with peers. If looking to draft in a cellist for an event, differences in talent between candidates may be too minor to matter for the audience, so the job may swing to whoever's a better laugh to hang with during the breaks. In their informal economy, musicians know the power of these fickle decisions and do what needs to be done to maintain a reputation that they “get on with people”.

Typically, that involves drinking. Partly a generational legacy, as hard drinking is tied into the subcultural furniture, it's also a fact of the environment, as venues for live music typically serve alcohol. It fills dull gaps between sets in unfamiliar places, and after the show offers a form of psychological detachment from work. Ultimately, it's socially self-perpetuating: if everyone drinks, then you need to develop a habit too. Some interviewees had mixed feelings about this: “lots of players that haven't been offered jobs.... [are those who] won't really go out for the whole sort of socializing thing... a bit sad, but that's sort of the way it works”.

As well as alcohol, the interviews revealed the highly political nature of the freelance music world, where musicians both compete against and depend upon each other for work, and can find themselves trading disparaging judgements on absent peers to shore up their in-crowd position - another form of social currency.

Melissa Dobson concludes that the professional training that musicians undertake focuses on technical development over the challenges of navigating a freelance career, leaving them to figure out how to maintain reputation through a 'hidden curriculum' that operates out of sight of the convervatoire. Is this the only form of professional training that this critique applies to?

ResearchBlogging.orgDobson, M. (2010). Insecurity, professional sociability, and alcohol: Young freelance musicians' perspectives on work and life in the music profession Psychology of Music, 39 (2), 240-260 DOI: 10.1177/0305735610373562


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