Friends come and go…

Many years ago I had a colleague who used to say “friends come and go, but enemies accumulate.” It stuck with me, that saying. On the way home from a dinner party at this colleague’s house, my wife Emily remarked “did you notice how often he said ‘they used to be friends of ours’?”

I’ve been thinking about this in connection to our business as a result, oddly enough, of weeding my email. I was a relatively early adopter re Gmail; I joined around 2005 and have managed to accumulate 61,000 or so messages in my inbox. I’d been looking for a particular one which no search seemed to turn up, so I decided to start from the back and work forward to see if I could find it that way.

It was more of a journey than I expected. In addition to deleting around 11,000 messages so far (and I’m only up through 2009), I discovered quite a bit of correspondence I’d forgotten, some of which still means a lot to me. But what really got my attention were the very cordial conversations I had with people who I now barely talk to. There aren’t a lot of people in that category – certainly far fewer than those I’m still on good terms with – but there were enough to remind me very sharply indeed of what my former colleague had said. Enemies really do accumulate.

This has implications for orchestra musicians that are a little unusual in today’s working world. Full-time orchestra musicians are among the last group of workers who can start working for an employer in their 20s and reasonably expect to be in the same small workplace decades later. This makes accumulating enemies even less healthy than it would be in a bigger industry where people moved around – or in and out of the business – far more than we do in ours.

All workplaces have some difficult people in them, some of whom are also very unforgiving of trespasses against them, real or imagined. Sometimes one has a choice between doing the right thing, or what seems the right thing, and pissing such people off. Lots of colleagues will eventually get over being pissed off; I know I’ve annoyed just about everyone in my orchestra at one point or another (and vice versa) without most of them holding it against me forever (and vice versa). But there are a few who will regard a wide range of things that piss them off as unforgivable and quite literally never forgive you for doing them.

The colleagues and professional associates whose permanent animosity I incurred mostly fell into that category. I thought a lot about what I had done to these colleagues to create such animosity, and whether I could have handled them better. And I concluded that, in some cases, I could have. But, with some, there was literally no way short of complete deference to avoid conflict and subsequent “unforgivable” acts.

I thought about what advice my older-but-wiser self might have offered my pre-Gmail incarnation to deal with these situations, or what I could generalize from this lesson. Perhaps the only useful thing I could say on this topic to a young musician (or perhaps any musician) joining a new orchestra is to lay low for a long while if possible – and it’s not always possible – and to find a couple of trustworthy people to help them figure out who the difficult people are and how to avoid pissing them off. But, at the end of the day, it’s not always possible to avoid them, especially for musicians who have to exercise some authority, such as principals, or those who feel a sense of civic obligation to engage in committee work. It’s extremely difficult for those musicians to survive long service in an orchestra without having accumulated some enemies.

The trick, if there is one, is to make no more than absolutely necessary.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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