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.