Tag Archives: orchestras

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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the big o

do standing ovations mean anything anymore?
(and did they ever mean anything to begin with?)

i do not particularly enjoy attending concerts given by major orchestras. it has to be music that i like, am interested in hearing (which happens much less) or a date of some kind. with that being said, i obviously don’t go as often as i used to. now there are lots of reasons as to why i don’t enjoy these concerts that could, and will, be saved for many other posts. this post is about my fascination with the oddest of habits — the standing ovation.

according to good ole’ wikipedia, the ovation originated in ancient Rome to commemorate those who were not worthy enough for a triumph. the word itself comes from the Latin ovo, or “[i] rejoice”. now just when the standing ovation crept into the habit-laden world of classical music is beyond me but the two seem inseparable. i would like to think that somewhere in that history, the standing ovation was rare and only used for the most moving of performances. given the history of public performance, that’s a pretty safe claim to make (also allowing that some cultures probably never gave standing ovations and were just as likely to throw tomatoes, leave, or start a riot). so why do we give standing ovations now?

i was at a concert recently that was okay, and as soon as it was finished, an older man in front of me leapt to his feet, clapping wildly. the rest of the audience soon followed. now if that gentleman was so moved by the performance then far be it from me to begrudge him his praise. but what ended up happening was that i looked like the biggest douche ever when i was the only one left seated. now, i know what it’s like to be on the other side of that, to receive standing ovations when they were wholly undeserved (and usually the performer has a good barometer as to whether or not a concert was a complete and utter failure) and to receive them after really giving something that you as the performer think was transmitted. i hate when people just stand for me. like, please. i don’t need your pity party and i don’t need to be placated. if i think i just gave the performance of my life and you don’t feel the same way, i still will.

i have only given three standing ovations in my life that i can recall. the most profound were the two i gave in one concert. let me preface this by saying that when i was in NYC as an adult, i hated the new york phil. this was mainly directed towards Lorin Maazel but it extended to the orchestra at times (this hatred has now diminished significantly with the beginning of Alan Gilbert’s tenure but looked dire after a dreadful performance of Britten’s War Requiem this summer). however, i have to give credit where credit is due. the season closer in 2007 consisted of Strauss songs, performed by Deborah Voigt, and Mahler’s 7th symphony. first off, a concert of Mahler and Strauss will do some serious things to me, let’s be clear. but after Voigt finished her set and returned to the stage to sing an encore of “Zueignung”, there were tears in my eyes something powerful. i rose to my feet and clapped wildly but not consciously. it was an out of body sort of experience, as if i had no control of my physical being. the same could be said of the end of the Mahler. there i was, crying, probably shaking a little bit over how much this piece had moved me. i had been so transported that it took me hours to get back to 66th street.

i will never forget that moment and i don’t know when i’ll have one like it again. in a way, i’m glad about that. i don’t know what life would be like if i was moved to tears by every piece and every performance. life doesn’t work that way and neither should music. so i will stay in my seat, it suits me just fine. if you want to stand up, stand up. if you want to cheer, then cheer. but don’t ever feel like you have to be a sheep, a slave to habit and tradition. though i will say, if i’m in an audience where they’re throwing tomatoes, i’ll probably join in.

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