money, money, money, money

before i get to the business of this post, a little news (& it partly inspired it but i’ll get to that in a moment). i found out on thursday that i had been accepted into the Ph.D. in Historical Musicology program at Columbia University. needless to say, i’m ecstatic. i’ve been on the phone/emailing with the area chair all day today to talk about their offer and as great as all of that is, it’s just nice to know that there is a plan. i still have three more schools to hear from and i welcome their decisions (i am by no means decided) but the knowledge that there is a place for me is, well…comforting. (go lions!)

now to the post at hand. this acceptance, conversations with friends & professors and the state of the american economy have made this post pretty much inevitable. i am part of a new generation of musicians, one that has to deal with very specific issues. this is not to bitch about those problems but to point out a divide that i can no longer tolerate.

in my first year at peabody, my (bassoon) teacher and i had a very important conversation that changed the dynamic between us drastically. he asked me why i wasn’t making as many reeds as my peers. i looked at him point blank and told him that i did not, at that time, have the money for cane. (for those who don’t know, prices for cane can vary depending on the state in which they are bought and can tend to be very expensive for very few pieces) he looked at me with shock and a face that communicated to me that this was not a sufficient answer. i, however, was the one who was shocked — shocked that he could not understand my situation. i then told him, very frankly, that i am the one supporting myself, paying for my tuition, paying my rent, bills, food, car insurance, the whole business and while i would love to spend all of my money and all of my time on bassoon-related activities that i could not or i would be homeless.

we never had that conversation again.

it was after that that i had to understand where my teacher was coming from. he’s from a generation of American (orchestral) musicians who went to school with the sole purpose of getting a job, graduated at 21 or whatever age, went out into the world and won jobs. and of course, the chances of winning another job rise exponentially after winning the first so, in his case, he won a job and kept moving up until he got his current gig where he’s been for almost forty years. this is an easy scenario to diagram: the “American conservatory” was a mere enfant, struggling to find its way through the world of academia, schools were sparsely populated and employed teachers who taught in the tradition of the Conservatoire because they themselves went there. there were great American orchestras with a fairly average turnover rate and more were emerging. so while my teacher, who is amazing, won a job, lots of other musicians, who varied in skill, won jobs as well. as the social stock of the American orchestra began to rise, many orchestral musicians saw a career laid out for them, especially as the base pay increased. and it was then, that those musicians who had won jobs decided that they would stay put for as long as they had life in their bodies.

fast-forward to today. most orchestras that would be formed have been formed and those musicians who, in the ’50’s, ’60’s and ’70’s decided to never quit their jobs are still there. and who could blame them when the base pay in one of the “Big 13” orchestras is $100,000, double that if you’re a section leader, principal wind player or concertmaster? but now there is a music program in every major school in the country and more and more students are encouraged to apply. this is all well and good even though we all know that that our schools are populated with people who will not make it as musicians in any capacity. luckily for me, i went through an undergraduate program that based itself on weeding people out (my first history class had 40 people in it, my last history class had 6) but this is not always the case. so the number of people graduating with music degrees has multiplied by who knows how much and the number of jobs is the same, or actually less. all of these people are competing for a job that will never exist.

so what does this has to do with my first point? well many of us in my generation have been taught by people from my teacher’s generation. and because most of us will never understand what it’s like to graduate from college and win a job, we have to make certain decisions. many of us choose to stay in school for years, many of us choose to leave. but those of us who do stay have to pay exorbitant amounts of money to better ourselves as musicians and i’m pretty sure that, like me, most students just don’t have that money laying around. so we throw ourselves into debt to work at our craft but at the same time, we have to hold down what i like to call “real person” jobs just so we can feed ourselves and have a place to live.

and people wonder why our work is shoddy, why we don’t improve, why art is suffering.

for the first time in almost ten years, it looks like i may be experiencing a respite from all of this tomfoolery. but even while i may be able to pull myself out, i know it’s still happening. so many teachers have never felt what it’s to struggle so hopelessly monetarily while trying to educate ourselves. and out of all of the things that it is, it’s frustrating the most. so is this a rant on the problems of conservatories, American higher education, the repressive orchestral structure? well it could be, but mainly, it’s a plea to those who are, hopefully, trying to educate. if we could have the life that you had, we would, but we don’t. we face a new set of problems that affect us as people and as musicians. the sooner you come to understand that, the faster we can focus on becoming the best musicians we can be.

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11 thoughts on “money, money, money, money

  1. Doug says:

    Warning: This could be very controversial. I would suggest that the current model is not designed for students’ benefits at all, and that the path a student is asked to take is primarily for the teacher’s benefit. So many students with orchestral aspirations shell out thousands of dollars to apply and (possibly) attend summer programs, graduate programs, and youth orchestras. They’re hoping to get important experience and networking, but often the only people profiting from the interaction are the experienced musicians collecting their paycheck.

    I’m not necessarily faulting any individual person for making sure there is food on their table, but I think there is a systematic problem if the only way that some classical musicians can survive is by profiting on the next generation. I know I don’t have the solution, but the system does not seem to be sustainable.

    To a degree this extends to all disciplines that expect post bachelor education… A sociology phd friend of mine told me that he will be lucky if he can make enough money to support a single child with his wife. I am sure his professors did not have the same financial stress put on them.

    • Imani says:

      i agree and the thing is, i think, that everyone knows it. but every academic institution is set up this way, music or otherwise. it’s a model that is only harming American students.

  2. Paul Barrett says:

    This is a thoughtful piece, Imanai and your points are quite good. Let me be a bit of a voice of moderation and perspective coming from a boomer who was trailing edge of the boom.

    First, I just counted (based on the latest ICSOM wage chart- for the 2008-2009 season) and there’s actually only 10 orchestras that are over $100K. A look at the remaining ICSOM Orchestras is a bit more illuminating. In the $50-$100K range are 18 orchestras. That leaves 17 orchestras under $50K. The lowest one makes $26K. This isn’t much cash to pay for food, housing and other living expenses much less the supplies needed to maintain the professional standards required for our profession. Recently many of these orchestras have taken freezes or cuts, that’s not reflected in this chart. A look at the history of orchestral pay is also a bit chilling- although there is indeed a gradual rise in pay overall, there are definite winners and losers. Bankruptcy is hardly a new concept. The currently well-heeled Dallas Symphony went bankrupt in 1972, as did the Grammy-nominated Nashville Symphony (currently base scale $51K) ten years ago. The list of bankrupt orchestras is actually fairly long, as is the list of orchestras that have taken substantial cuts over the years.

    My point here is that even if you get an orchestra job against all the odds, you still won’t make as much as an entry level computer programmer. Your salary as a musician will never reflect the years of professional development, practice and sacrifice you’ve put into it. Unless you realize this fact going into it, you will quickly become disillusioned and I can assure you that the ranks of many orchestras contain many bitter and unhappy musicians.

    Iroically, my experience has been that frequently (not always) the lower paid orchestras contain more contented musicians- not that they’re happy with the low pay, but they really have to want to be there, doing what they do, or they move on to more lucrative sources of income.

    As far as your projection that the boomers had it made, let me try to disabuse you of this notion. It wasn’t that long ago that only one orchestra had a 52 week season. I remember hearing stories of Cleveland Orchestra musicians selling cars in the off season! Seasons were frequently only 20 weeks or less.

    I did get a job in a freak circumstance in 1972 when I was 17- however that job only paid $2,500 for the whole year. This was in an orchestra that is now an ICSOM orchestra. At the job I’ve done for the past 33 years (which is currently bankrupt), our peak year for earnings (adjusted for inflation) was 1981- it’s been down hill, drip drip drip ever since. Even your BSO is currently experiencing many financial problems and I know for a fact that many BSO musicians are quite apprehensive that the BSO itself may fold. This is not a secure profession.

    When I went to school (the same one as your bassoon teacher but about 4 years later) there were many students, and we didn’t enjoy many of the amenities that are now offered. My last year there was the first year that there was a dedicated reed room, for example, and it was just a bring-it-yourself room where people could work on reeds. No profilers or other school provided equipment. I transferred to another top music school in the midwest and there wasn’t even a reed room. We were on our own.

    Although from this perspective it may look like most music students of the day walked into jobs, the truth is that only a small percentage of the music students back then got orchestral jobs, just like today. Most went on to other careers, after hitting the audition circuit and getting the picture of just how competitive it is. You just don’t see them because they’re out of the picture, but I know who- and how many of them- they are (and thanks to FB, know where many of them ended up!)

    Music is a cruel mistress. It’s a terribly insecure profession, and always has been (look at Mozart and Beethoven’s finances, for example!) I’m not trying to downplay the problems of the current generation, and the rising cost of bassoons (and other instruments) is a real problem.

    My point is not to downplay your story, I’m really glad for you that you’ve gotten into such a good school! What I’m trying to say is that these kind of struggles have been a part of this profession and the educational process for generations. Sure, the details differ from decade to decade, but we’ve all struggled and suffered to get what little we’ve got, and have to continue to struggle to maintain that little bit.

    • Imani says:

      paul, you’re absolutely right and of course you have a viewpoint that i have not, obviously, experienced. maybe my words were a little too excited because i in now way meant that that experience of the older generations applied to all. i think the main point is that those people who did go through that, like my teacher, teach many of us at higher level music institutions, hence my personal experience.

      music has never been easy and it never will be but it think it’s fair to say that there was a point in time in the American 20th century when things weren’t as complicated and didn’t look as dismal for the orchestral musician on an individual basis. i hope that makes sense and thanks for all of your insight!

  3. patty says:

    “we face a new set of problems that affect us as people and as musicians. the sooner you come to understand that, the faster we can focus on becoming the best musicians we can be.”

    I’m not going to argue with that, Imani. Every generation faces different problems. And I won’t bother with telling you about the advantages you might have now. It is what it is, and you have to deal …

    What I’m trying to figure out, though, is “what do you want from us, then?” It seems that you are saying you want understanding. That your instructor should want you to spend the time on reeds that he/she is asking? And that it’s because you have to work to make money to pay for your education. Am I understanding you correctly? I’m just trying to understand, since I’m also in education. Should we ask for less? If so, should we also be honest and say, “You can’t make it if you play at this level”?

    What I’m trying to do with students is be very honest about how difficult it is these days to make it into an orchestra. I got in during that wonderful time when orchestras seemed to be thriving. Now so many are dying. There are more musicians being trained for fewer jobs. I encourage students to get an education that allows for the possibility that a music gig may not be in their futures. Because that’s just a hard fact. I truly wish I had been encouraged to look at other possibilities as well … I feel completely incapable of anything else, and if our ballet/symphony/opera companies fold I’m in serious trouble.

    Sorry for the ramble … just trying to understand what you think my job should be!

    (My “story”: I’ve been a professional musician since I was 18. I was a sophomore in college when I landed my first symphony gig, and it lasted until the symphony died about 8 years ago. I play in three different groups now, none of which provides benefits, and between then three I don’t make enough to live on. I teach as an adjunct at UCSC. I teach privately at my home. My husband and I raised three kids and put all three through college on our pieced together incomes. I can whine, but I love the life no matter!)

    • Imani says:

      no patty, i understand what you’re asking. i’m not asking that teachers demand less from their students, far from it. and the question that my teacher asked me was an incredibly reasonable one. my problem was that he couldn’t grasp my answer. obviously, i had to make it work and i have over the last eight years but at that *one* moment, i was in a financial crisis and those tend to happen to students who are living on their own and trying function as adults in society.

      the one thing that school does is blur the line between child/student and adult. we are asked to focus all of our time on our education (and as musicians, our craft) which, believe me, i would like nothing more but it’s really impossible to expect that any person in their mid-20’s can do that without having to sacrifice just a little in order to live. that starving musician thing is bullshit. that’s all fine and good when you’re trying to find a job and you can maybe have another job in the meantime but when you’re in (music) school where you commit 12 hour days, most of those to rehearsal, every day and somehow have to find a way to be employed by someone (who understands, this is most important) and make enough money to not be homeless…and then your teacher is aghast when you have a moment where you can’t pay for cane? it’s the most insensitive.

      but in many people’s cases, it seems, they have teachers who honestly can not relate to that situation. i’d like to think that as the years go on, this situation will diminish. until then, i just feel it’s necessary to put that out there so that way teachers don’t jump down their students’ backs when it comes to financial matters.

      hope that answers your question!

  4. […] money, money, money, money « another musicology blog. […]

  5. […] Filed Under: Uncategorized by Imani — Leave a comment Mar 08, 2010 so in my post money, money, money, money, i talked about the financial disparity between musicians of my generation and that of those before […]

  6. Christina says:

    I came back to read this post after I read your follow-up… Once again, I can TOTALLY relate to what you’re saying. I can completely relate to your feelings, and I completely understand why you thought your professor was so insensitive for not understanding that your choices were “cane” or “starve.”

    My college (flute) professor did not know what it was like to want/need and not get it. She could always afford things, one of the lucky few. I had a very similar conversation with my professor one day… I cannot remember what we were specifically talking about my needing to buy, but when I told her that I couldn’t afford it for all the reasons you had listed above, I basically got the same reaction, which was basically, “well… why not?” Like you, I had to explain that I was the only person supporting me and paying my bills, and that purchasing this piece of music/recording/instrument/accessory/etc. would render me unable to pay my other bills. I was barely scraping by, just to stay in school and just to study what I love–I felt like I was being told that what I was doing to get by wasn’t good enough, or that it somehow wasn’t the “correct” way of doing it.

    I immediately resented the fact that the professors trying to give me a professional education couldn’t at all relate to me (nor did they seem interested in trying). I realized that there was a genuine generation gap between us, and that they would never know what it’s like to be a college music student of our generation.

    I liked Patty’s questions about what you (Imani) were asking of your professors in your post (although I understood your intention, it was interesting to read a perspective or two from the other side). You wanted understanding from your professor that day, the same way I wanted it; you wanted to feel safe, validated, and you wanted to be reassured (at least a little) that everything would be okay and your hard work really would pay off.

    Additionally, I would ask that professors be point-blank honest, as Patty suggested. Fresno State does NOT have a program that weeds people out–any bumpkin who wants a music degree from Fresno State can get one, you barely have to be able to play your instrument. So, 30+ per year graduating with music degrees from Fresno State floods the local job markets, and it forces me to compete with people for work that I shouldn’t even have to compete with. I wish someone would just tell them that they will never make it, and they should find something else to do in their careers. I also wish that opportunities and jobs came to people with talent, not just the people who had the money to make the best connections in the professional world (that means that auditions and everything related to finding professional musical work would have to be opened up fairly to people with lesser income–Skype, YouTube Symphony anyone??).

    Finally, I wish someone had been real with me from the very beginning. I grew up idolizing people like Sir James Galway and Jeanne Baxtresser… both have amazing professional careers, and their lives are made. Our band directors in elementary school all the way through college tell us that if we practice/dream/work hard enough, we can be the next Galway’s or Baxtresser’s… No one tells you about the endless hours you have to spend in practice rooms on Friday nights while all your friends are out socializing and being normal people; no one tells you about how to budget so you can afford to pay your bills while growing your manuscript/recording collections; no one tells you how to be a REAL musician in TODAY’S society. I resent that about modern music programs in schools–be real with me, and let me decide that I WANT to suffer.

    I love music, and I could never quit. But, sometimes I wonder if I will ever stop suffering for it; if I’ll ever be able to quit the job I hate to chase the job I dream of.

  7. patty says:

    Christina … oh please don’t say “nobody”! Pretty please? I DO tell my students. I also tell them that if they can’t learn to play in tune they won’t keep a job. And I tell them that they can be the better player and still lose an audition, due to one tiny flub that somehow nixes them in a particular audition. The music biz is incredibly hard to break into. It’s also incredibly difficult to keep a job unless one understands the etiquette required. Teachers should teach that as well, yes? And students should also be taught that whatever they put up on the web can come back to haunt them. (Nothing is a secret if it’s on the web!)

    There’s SO much to learn. So much to teach. I’m far from being a perfect teacher, but I do my best. I try to be understanding. I also ask that students be understanding as well. That’s helpful too!

    And yes, going to Fresno doesn’t guarantee a success. But it doesn’t mean you WON’T succeed either. One doesn’t know. Going to Julliard also doesn’t guarantee success. I’m sorry people of younger generations grew up learning what I call the “Great Sesame Street Lie”. The “You can do it if you try” or “If you only work hard enough it’ll happen” thing simply isn’t true. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes it doesn’t. The only guarantee, I think, is “You won’t KNOW unless you try!”

    Sorry to be such a downer. But I think a music student need to face this harsh truth early on. Especially now, when orchestra after orchestra is crashing and burning. It’s a very tough time!

    By the way, some of my students “hear” me. Others don’t. Sigh.

    • Christina says:

      Patty, you are the type of music teacher that we need more of. I just wish I had been given accurate pictures of the music business so that I could have REAL expectations; if someone had been totally honest with me about how difficult it is, I don’t think I’d feel so… bitter?… about having such difficulties at this juncture. I think a lot of people from my generation, in one way or another, has become disillusioned from the “Great Sesame Street Lie.” It’s a hard transition to make from childhood and adolescence to adulthood. It feels harder to cope with too when you don’t have people who understand around you (no one else in my family is “musical”). And, when you feel like money is the only thing holding you back (and when you feel like you’ll never catch up or break even), it becomes almost unbearable. Unfortunately, life isn’t fair (but my generation was raised believing that the world SHOULD be fair) and sometimes we don’t get everything we want (which is a really hard reality to face when you’ve been raised to believe that all hard work always pays off the way you want it to). Maybe I won’t be a world famous concertizing touring flutist, but I feel confident that I can continue teaching privately and foster a generation that has realistic expectations and ideas, based on my experiences. I love music, and I will teach with joy (but I’ll be realistic and honest too).

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