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Musicians Are Getting the Blues

In an interesting new piece in The Atlantic, Edward Tenner discusses the rapid increase in musical virtuosity over the past generation, to the point where bygone masters would have trouble simply gaining acceptance to Julliard today. There is a downside, however — the flowering of new talent has been accompanied by a contraction in job opportunities:

[t]he vast number of people with the desire to perform will continue to greatly exceed the number of openings. New musicians or singers will have their best chance of landing a job with smaller, community-based performing arts groups or as freelance artists. Instrumentalists should have better opportunities than singers because of a larger pool of work. Talented individuals who are skilled in multiple instruments or musical styles will have the best job prospects. However, talent alone is no guarantee of success: many people start out to become musicians or singers but leave the profession because they find the work difficult, the discipline demanding, and the long periods of intermittent unemployment a hardship.

Bad as things are in the US, it bears no relationship to conditions in many developing countries where extremely talented classical musicians can be found playing in hotel lobbies: concert quality pianists and heartbreakingly good string quartets provide background music for the cocktail hour. In Thailand, I’ve heard beautiful pieces echoing through a mall as wonderful pianists performed in the midst of unheeding crowds.  Life in Russia is also tough for the dedicated musicians determined to carry on one of the world’s great musical traditions.

Teaching at Bard I have the opportunity to spend time with incredibly talented and dedicated young musicians from all over the world.  These kids know very well what kind of competitive firestorm lies ahead and some of them are thinking about alternative careers.  Others are thinking about alternative ways of managing a musical career.

Every artist — even a lowly hack blogger — has to face a basic and ugly truth: the arts are a risky career.  Blue model countries try to bureaucratize and systematize the arts as they do everything else: orchestra members joined unions, got steady pay raises, and government subsidies topped up any shortfall in the earnings.

This is all passing away now; artists are going to have to make their way in a very different world.

Great artists create the taste by which they are appreciated; they also change society by the way they live and make their livings.  They often have to take great risks and great suffering and sacrifice is part of the package more often than not.  The millennial generation is called to greatness and its artists are not exempt.

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  • Kenny

    Two points, Mr. Mead.

    First, “the rapid increase in musical virtuosity over the past generation, to the point where bygone masters would have trouble simply gaining acceptance to Julliard today.”

    No mystery here. In the past, only a minuscule percent of the population has the resources to try its hand at music. But now with all our influence, millions and millions more have joined the mix.

    Elementary statistics is so clear on this matter that even a public school graduate should be able to understand that the ‘virtuosity’ standards of the past are a joke today.

    Second, the fact that ‘talented’ musicians can’t get jobs is an indication that they are a dime a dozen relative to the demand for their services.

    As reality is showing, these classical musicians are not nearly as special as they have thought themsleves to be.

  • bentunder

    The success of a field as esoteric as classical music is dependent on a class of people wealthy enough to have the leisure and training to appreciate it.

    Most of us get some ‘training’ through exposure in popular media, enough to recognize and be moved by highlights. Real appreciation for a full length work by Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler, etc takes a commitment of time (hours and years) that the vast majority of us will never have the luxury to make.

    I have a performance degree from a music conservatory and don’t take the time for works of any length anymore. How could expect anyone else to?

    If you want to be a classical musician, become independently wealthy first. That way, you can do what you want, and you’ll be able to relate to your audience.

  • Jim.

    You mention Russia’s musical tradition — musicians in this country would do well to remember it.

    Lesson one: There’s no shame in a day job.

    Nor will a day job prevent you from writing or performing some of the most beautiful music ever written.

    Rimsky-Korsakov was a naval officer. Borodin was a talented biochemist. Cesar Cui was a military engineer. Mussorgsky was a lousy drunk, and that never did him any good.

    Lesson two: Just make the music.

    Music can never be a vocation for more than a very, very few. It should be an avocation for far more than it is.

    From 7-13 August 2000, audiences in Hong Kong welcomed the Moscow Philharmonic orchestra. The performances received very good reviews. But on the nitpicky side, the erstwhile satisfied concertgoers complained when they found out the performers were not in fact the Moscow Philharmonic.

    Just make the music. And if you need bread, bake it for yourself.

  • Corlyss

    I remember the same complaint uttered in 1978. Music schools and departments were graduating tens of thousands of students into an economy that could accommodate only a few thousand. The speaker declared that for every vacancy in an orchestra there were 100 applicants, all of whom were very good. Since then, many regional orchestras popped up. And not coincidentally, the number of music school grads expanded too. What is really missing is an Esterhazy family, i.e., a wealthy patron who can afford the cost of maintaining an orchestra and a composer. Ain’t coming back. Those days are gone forever.

  • Marion Kee

    As a near-lifelong musician, in my senior year of high school I had a choice to plan to pursue a professional music career or to leave music as an avocation and focus my college years on math, languages and history–important areas where my available prior education had been lacking.

    While I was pondering my options, one of my longtime friends, a promising pianist (and vocalist as well) was in a car accident where the steering wheel shattered in her hands. Her tendons and some bones in both hands had to be reconstructed. After studying piano since kindergarten, sometimes to the exclusion of other academic areas, she would never be able to have a performance career.

    My gut made the choice when I heard about her situation. I focused on straight academic areas in college rather than in fine arts. When opportunity presented, I also went on pursuing my semiprofessional music career on the side.

    That was all more than 30 years ago. I’m still making music on the side. I’m not picky about getting paid; I don’t have to be. I am picky about playing with people I can learn from, and with. My day job for a long time was a career in computer science, but I’ve done a lot of things to pay the bills. Day jobs are bread and butter. Music is jam.

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