By Brian Wise | From the November-December 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Booker Rowe hadn’t planned on retiring from his position as a violinist in the Philadelphia Orchestra when concert halls went dark in March 2020. After 50 years in the orchestra, he still enjoyed performing. But by the middle of that month, he decided he had hung up his concert tails for a final time. He is still grappling with the abrupt change.
“After 50 years playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and five years before that playing with other orchestras, I didn’t know what to expect,” he says. “Daily life is interesting but it’s not music all the time. I miss it. I miss that very much.”
Rowe, who decades earlier made history as the first African-American musician to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra, announced his retirement in July 2020, after polling family and friends about whether to make the leap. His decision was hastened by an unease with the pandemic-era shifts to online and socially distanced concerts. “I had to slow my life down too,” he admits.
Rowe, 80, was one of seven Philadelphia Orchestra musicians and stage crew who were honored in an online retirement party that summer.
In the past 18 months, classical music has seen a ripple of retirements as performers have re-examined their priorities in the midst of the pandemic. The effects can be seen from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, where at least ten players have retired, to the Cincinnati Symphony, where six have stepped down, and from the Emerson Quartet to the Endellion Quartet, both of which announced plans to disband, the latter effective immediately. The Artemis Quartet announced in May that it plans to dissolve its current lineup.
“Musicians who are playing into old age often have faster reflexes or, in some cases, are in better [overall] condition because they are maintaining a very high level of skill.”
According to research from the New School, far more older Americans have taken unplanned retirements during the pandemic than during “normal” years. “Since March 2020, the size of the retired population in the U.S. expanded beyond its normal trend by an additional 1.7 million people,” the report states. Concerns over health risks on the job are cited as a leading factor.
Although it’s easy to find elite soloists who have performed into their 80s and 90s—including violinists Isaac Stern and Nathan Milstein and cellist Pablo Casals—most players do find themselves at some point confronted with the slowing reflexes, arthritic joints, and fading eyesight that can take their toll on bowing arms or sight-reading ability. This raises some larger questions: When is the appropriate time for musicians to retire? And at what age do most players’ skills start to deteriorate?
Quite often, the very act of performing regularly, combined with good fitness attitudes, can stave off declines, says Bronwen Ackermann, a musicians’ physiotherapist and a professor of biomedical science at the University of Sydney. “We have this use-it-or-lose-it phenomenon with our brains and with our bodies,” she says. “Musicians who are playing into old age often have faster reflexes or, in some cases, are in better [overall] condition because they are maintaining a very high level of skill.”
Ackermann co-authored a 2018 study of 377 professional orchestral musicians from eight Australian orchestras. It concluded that advancing age “does not appear to exert undue negative impacts on physical and psychological health or performance capacity.” Musicians 55 and over do not experience greater performance-related pain, exertion while playing, anxiety, depression, days lost from work, or workplace satisfaction than younger groups.
There is one caveat: Musicians 55 and older comprised only 11 percent of the sample in the study, which was published in the journal Science & Medicine. This suggests a “survivor effect,” whereby those players who developed health problems left their jobs earlier on. Data was gathered through questionnaires assessing both physical and psychological health.
How to Tell When Musicians Hit Their Peak
Research in this field is limited. But another study, of 2,500 professional musicians from 133 German orchestras, offers a somewhat dimmer view of getting older. Participants were asked when they believe musicians generally perform at their highest level. A majority responded that maximum performance was attained between the ages of 30 and 39, and it begins to decline after this point.
“We should expect to see an age-related decline in performance after the age of 40,” the study says. “This is borne out by the answers given by the musicians surveyed. On average, 41 percent of orchestral musicians have noticed at least once that their performance has declined due to age-related factors.”
The study, published in 2014 in the journal Musicae Scientiae, went on to ask musicians whether they could use their experience to compensate for declining performance as they grow older. Half of the musicians under 30 said they could; this proportion grew to 85 percent among musicians in the over-60 age group. “Experience is clearly seen as a means of compensating for age-related decline in performance,” said the researchers.
Adam Stepniewski, a 63-year-old violinist in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, believes that musicians must develop a heightened awareness of any encroaching problems as they get older. “Sometimes our ability to play faster or in tune is downgraded and we don’t realize this,” he says. “Our mind is not picking up those small changes over time. It’s not like it’s happening from one day to the next. But this is a long process.
“For myself, if I see that something is going even slightly wrong, I’m trying right away to invent something to remedy the situation and maybe remember the qualities that were better [earlier in life].”
“You cannot deal with pain while improving something. The pain will kill any improvements.“
In 2013, Stepniewski took part in a PBS documentary series, The Embrace of Aging, which explored humans’ ability to develop skills later in life. He notes that too many musicians in their later years attempt to play through pains in their arms, neck, or back. “You cannot deal with pain while improving something,” he says. “The pain will kill any improvements. That’s why cultivating the setup from the very beginning, of this unnatural holding of violin and bow, is very important.”
Muscle memory built from hours of practicing earlier in life may help keep aging at bay. Rowe chalks up his longevity in the Philadelphia Orchestra to training in graduate school that enabled him to play with less tension. “I had to learn a whole different system of drawing the bow—a paintbrush system where the shock is not so severe on you when you’re changing bows,” he explained. “I had to learn a hand vibrato instead of an arm vibrato. And I had to learn how to not use so much pressure with the left hand on the fingerboard.”
Since retirement, Rowe has been performing chamber music in church and spending more time with his wife and grandchildren.
There are avenues for older musicians short of retirement. Some may step back from principal roles to less exposed positions in a section. Ackermann, the physiotherapist, believes that orchestras should offer more physical therapy and other care and enable players to move into part-time roles. “They could be a senior statesman of the orchestra and a solid, reliable player but just not feel they have to push so hard anymore.”
Section players may return as soloists or even conductors, especially in countries with mandatory retirement ages.
After Daniel Stabrawa retired as concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic this past May—as mandated by Germany’s legal retirement age of 65—he said that he wouldn’t miss the stresses of the job. “You always have to be on your guard,” he told Van magazine. “The best was always expected from me, and it was my aim to always . . . live up to that expectation. I don’t have to anymore. I am freed from this burden.” Next April, Stabrawa will return to the Berlin Philharmonic as a conductor, leading a program of violin concertos.
Retirement from a U.S. Orchestra
What can an orchestra do when a musician’s skills have declined below an acceptable threshold? A music director will typically notify the musician of specific complaints about his or her playing. With representatives from the musicians’ union and orchestra management present, the conductor will meet with the musician and offer a buyout or a severance package. Musicians frequently accept an offer, but if not, an evaluation process will begin in which he or she has a period to correct the issue. An anonymous committee of musicians will then conduct a peer review, which has the power to overrule a conductor’s decision.
Musicians rarely decline severance package offers, says Harvey Mars, a labor attorney who has represented musicians in age discrimination lawsuits. “Musicians will realize there are times when you have to hang up the cleats,” he says. “Part of the reason that these issues aren’t usually grieved is because management will offer a generous severance package or musicians themselves will realize they have to move on.”
Since the 1970s, a number of orchestral players have filed lawsuits alleging age discrimination on the part of conductors or management. The Indianapolis Symphony settled a lawsuit out of court in 2018, after its principal bassoonist accused then-music director Krzysztof Urbański of targeting older players. That same year, a group of over-65 musicians resigned from the Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra, alleging that disciplinary action was driven by their age.
Because discrimination cases generate negative headlines, orchestras will go to great lengths to strictly adhere to rules set by collective bargaining agreements. “Managements have learned their lessons,” says Mars, “that this is something that is extremely costly, more so in public relations and in [retaining] donors and patrons.”
Ultimately, retirements can be motivated by a variety of factors, whether a desire to pursue second careers or lock in pensions that are in flux. But for soloists, the desire to remain onstage can be particularly strong. After turning 65 in 2020, Yo-Yo Ma stated that he doesn’t plan to scale back his touring. “Doing what I do now with the people I’m doing it with maximizes my presence and engagement with the world,” he told David Rubenstein, author of How to Lead. “I plan to keep doing it as long as I can so my life will have maximum impact.”
But Stepniewski of the Detroit Symphony says that some musicians simply burn out on the standard repertoire by their 65th year. “Like my teacher used to say, some people look very unhappy when they play, like the music smells bad,” he says, adding that his own inspiration hasn’t lagged. “I’m thinking more globally about how I can play to the best of my ability. I believe that my playing ability is better now than in many years before.”