Superstar cellist, Yo-Yo Ma.

Update 4/11/2012

This blog has been published at the Huffington Post. Please have a read there, (this link) while it is up, and add your remarks in the comment section there, in order to boost this discussion on to the national stage with a greater contingent of non musicians. Thanks for your support. The original blog follows here:

10,000 hours.

That’s the number going around these days when people spit-ball what it takes to master a skill: 10,000 hours of practice. I happen to think it’s on the low side, but maybe that’s because I wasn’t as gifted as some. Yo-Yo Ma, for instance. But then, someone of that level only comes along once or twice in a generation. He’s not competing for jobs against the masses.

Still, a number of years back, Yo-Yo Ma did joke that he’d never pass an audition to join the Philadelphia Orchestra. It’s a claim that’s hard to swallow, but not beyond the realm of possibility. Especially in today’s job market.

In fact, winning any job in a professional orchestra is increasingly like your chance of being there when lightning strikes. Even if you’re among the consummately gifted, the chances of winning that full-time gig are frighteningly slim. But don’t take my word for it, ask anyone currently in the workforce.

Make believe.

For the non musicians, imagine you’re graduating among experts from our nation’s top conservatories. You and your highly trained

The future is bright.

peers are similar to first-rate NFL newbs entering the workforce for the first time, all searching for your first big break. You, like your NFL counterpart, compete against an army of first round draft picks.

And this is where the similarities end. You, unlike Andrew Luck, face fiercer competition than the NFL, fewer jobs than the NFL, and vanishing funding for the jobs still available. Also, each year the number of jobs, and the charitable giving that sustains them, will dwindle further, consistently, without exception.

There will be no courtship for your expertise. No limos, lavish parties, enticing gifts or anything like that. All expenses incurred for the audition process are charged to the musician. Cellists are responsible for their own airfare, and that of their cello, since the cello cannot safely be checked as baggage. In the rare occurrence that there are two jobs open this year, you’ll drop a significant chunk of change just  to show up for the right to compete against the 50-100 others auditioning for the coveted spot. You’d happily practice the 10,000 hours for that single audition if it were possible. The stakes are that high. And when you’re done, maybe, if you’re lucky, and lightning strikes, you just might earn the right to work.

The very next day after graduation. Wait! Did that attractive young woman just become a middle-aged man?


You see, no orchestra is a sure thing. When you finally do land that first job, nearly every orchestra out there will cut your work. It’s what they do. They can’t really afford you, even the great orchestras.

In fact, the United States of America is home to some of the finest orchestras in the world. At least, I think it still is. I’ve been out of the business for a couple of years and am unclear on which orchestras are still breathing. Ah, well. Give it a few years and I’m sure we’ll rip those revered institutions to shreds and besmirch their good names, just as is happening right now, elsewhere in the country. Politics will be exercised at the expense of flesh and blood people who want the right to eat (don’t worry, they’re fat anyway) raise children (how dare they?) or put roots down somewhere (not in my town!). These Americans, as I’ve written about before, are clearly subhuman, as determined by our free market system. Granted, they’re not throwing themselves from buildings like those Chinese people building your iPhone, but give it time.

Even the Philadelphia Orchestra hasn’t cut it in these tough economic times. They’re currently mired in legal hell with the American Federation of Musicians and Employers’ Pension Fund as they struggle to settle past due payments. You heard that right; the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the finest in the world, a national treasure, is bankrupt. But who cares? Most young musicians aren’t going to win an audition for the Philadelphia Orchestra anyway. And orchestras are about “handouts.” Musicians need to get a real job. The market has spoken.

What are they thinking?

How is it that our country’s Beethoven-worshipers feel entitled to steal your hard-earned money? (Or, why do they expect you to “give,” by way of taxes, to the National Endowment for the Arts, or privately, to your local orchestra?) To understand their audacity, you’ll have to look at the shape of their careers.

They look so happy.

Most aspiring orchestral musicians crawl up the ladder from the bottom: the regional orchestra. Regional orchestras may pay anywhere from $500 a year to $4,000 a year. They do not provide health insurance, and most “gigging musicians” will not buy it themselves. Once a musician earns a contract to play in a regional orchestra, they naturally commute for extra work to help make ends meet. Some will commute from Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Bowling Green, KY, and every flea-ridden orchestra in between. Without a car. (For real.)

I should stop there for a second before anyone gets too excited about the possibility of cobbling together multiple $4k a year jobs for a livable wage.  There are two reasons this isn’t going to work.

  1. You’ve got to play every concert to get the $4k. Most members of a regional orchestra aren’t hired for every concert, as the orchestra is reducing its size for most of its season in an effort to save money.
  2. Even if you’re offered the full $4k, scheduling problems arise in your effort to include those other orchestras offering $500 or more, annually. You’ll commute to the highest bidder on your “free” weekends, but, since you’re not playing every concert with those other orchestras, your earnings are significantly limited. At the end of the year, you’ve played all your “free” weekends, and you’ve boosted your annual income by another $1k, all told. Give or take.

So how do musicians live?

Well, they don’t, really. The ones who don’t exist as figments of your imagination (that is to say, however the non musician might

The Principal Cellist of the Syracuse Symphony? KIDDING!

imagine the musician’s lifestyle) barely scrape by. The lucky ones have family money. The rest will never see a vacation. (Or, if they go somewhere, it’s with their instrument so they can practice.) There’s no such thing as weekends. Since they don’t have healthcare, or they’re buying some horrible package for an obscene price, they’re unlikely to start families. Most live like gypsies. Some even beg on the streets for your loose change when they’re not teaching your child how to play the violin (who can eventually grow up and not like classical music either).

Many of these highly trained professionals are in considerable debt, because they went to Juilliard, Eastman, or some other expensive conservatory. They have no money to invest in the stock market, but they’ve heard from others that this might be a way to make money. For them, rubbing two one dollar bills together isn’t going to do much, and they might need one of those dollar bills to put gas in someone else’s car so they can carpool to work.

The full-time gig.

Despite the long odds, a select few will manage to win an audition for a full-time orchestra. These musicians’ accomplishments are always tempered by the economic reality of their chosen profession. If they’re in a B-level orchestra, their jobs are insecure at best. Many of these orchestras have vanished, flooding the marketplace with still more workers looking for gigs. If your B-level orchestra is still kicking, you live in constant fear that death is waiting around the corner for your orchestra.

If you’re in an A-list orchestra, such as Philadelphia, your job probably isn’t going anywhere even if your employer did file for bankruptcy. Still, most of your six-figure salary is going into your mortgage, since you live in or near Philly. Add the expense of a fine cello or violin into the mix, and you’ve not got a lot left over.

(Any non musician who doesn’t have an idea of what a good violin can cost should Google it. I don’t want to ruin your surprise by telling you here.)

But, now that you’re in that full-time gig, you’ve become embroiled in the politics of players’ negotiations with management, who, after all, also want to continue to provide an orchestra. They just have to get to sleep at night knowing the bills are paid. And they’re sweating bullets to do it. That death rattle invading your dreams bugs them too.

Back to handouts.

Sometimes politics between management and players derail contract negotiations, as they have recently in Louisville. In comes the musicians’ union, the AFM. And, against the backdrop of our national debate on unions, many in the community will naturally assume the musicians are gaming their employers. Discussion of how the Arts requires “your help” will fall on deaf ears as much of the public shrugs their shoulders and puzzles over why they’re asked to “give handouts.” They’ll clear their throats and delicately suggest to the lot of lazy beggars that they should “get a real job.” They’ll say things like, “the economic reality is that there’s only so much money. You’ve got to divide what’s there.” (As if there was never a thing called development. As if there were ever a time that was economically “good” for the arts.)

Sign says it all.

Of course, the gems, who are passionate about classical music, already give with their hearts–generously. Until, one day, they look around to find that, they’re all that’s left. People who used to give in smaller shares, the “real world” givers, can no longer afford it. Discovering this alarming state of affairs, the high roller patron gives more of her money, but now she’s also giving her time. She serves on boards, even sponsors auctions or other clever ways to drum up cash. Finally, she can no longer afford to prop it up  for the rest of us. She can no longer sustain it on her own. Her portion of the burden is too large, or maybe she passes away, and the orchestra declares bankruptcy.

Sounds too fatalistic? It’s happening now. It’s been happening for years. If you live near an orchestra, you know. And if you don’t–who cares?

Free Market; Service without value.

If there’s no orchestra near you, I can understand why this seems like a service without value. That point is often argued when cities are on the brink of losing their orchestra. But those who frame the argument in that way really don’t understand what they’re saying. You see, Art has to be “productized” in order to sell, and a development director who doesn’t understand that ought to be let go before ever you fire the first musician. To understand this phenomenon about the productization of art, watch what happens when Josh Bell, one of the most “in demand” violin soloists in the world, performs on his Stradivarius in the subway. No “productization,” no one cares.

Intrinsic vs. free market value.

Musicians point out how they’re helping your kid’s SAT scores, or how your kid is more likely to go to college because s/he takes violin lessons. They point out how “studies have shown . . .” then insert some arcane bit of data related to classical music. Yet, those arguments are typically met with “Look around. No one wants to give to your orchestra. No one wants to listen to Beethoven.” They argue that the free market is working, since there is little perceived value, we’re culling elitist art from our culture.

To them, I point to “the clear value” of American Idol.

To them, I point to “the clear value” of internet porn, as determined by our free market, and its virtuous impact on our society.

To them, I point to “the clear value” of all those without homes, and buried under crushing debt, after the housing bubble collapsed.

Slash and burn.

So, as I look to my friends in Louisville, whose families are suffering in the wake of the unconscionable decisions of the management of the Louisville Orchestra, and as I read some of the ignorant and hateful remarks in the comment section of various news pieces I’ve read over the past few years, presumably made by some Louisville residents, I have to wonder how that community’s classical musicians have become so vilified. How did it happen that they’ve been characterized as lazy, greedy, over paid, conniving and ruthless? (“Eat their young” was one quote that comes to mind.)

I can only think it is related to the tenor of the national debate about politics in general, and unions and free market values specifically. And if that’s true, then the conclusion I make is that the remaining full-time musicians in the LO are losing their jobs because of the conviction that “one size fits all” for our nation’s talking points. Non profit is fundamentally different from Big Business. Always has been, always will be. And the American Federation of Musicians isn’t exactly like the auto union. The two industries are completely different.

As orchestras continue to fold across the nation, musicians too join the ranks of the unemployed, attending to our national self-loathing and self-fulfilling prophecy, “collecting handouts,” and creating more lazy, smelly, good-for-nothings to carry a sign and march on Washington. Smacking down your local orchestra taught someone a lesson, for sure. What the lesson was is anyone’s guess.

122 thoughts on “Slash your Local Orchestra

  1. I am always baffled by the short-sightedness of so called fiscally responsible folks. Arts and education are on the chopping block before anything else, it seems. We have no clue about how to invest in future generations and don’t even bother to utilize well-documented research that music and math go hand in hand. Yet, we moan about the lack of people to teach in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) disciplines. The logic escapes me.

  2. Hey, David! Great article…all joking aside, David LeDoux (another Frenchman from Oklahoma 😉 is one of our new cellists in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra; he is the former principal of Syracuse.

    1. LOL. Tell him hello. I met David a few times on the audition circuit and figured I’d have his blessing on the caption, in a pinch. Glad he’s “gone to a better place.” Tell him “hello” from me, and thanks for your comment!

  3. So true and well-said, David. Here in AZ, I’m amazed at the number of trained orchestral musicians who are willing to rehearse and perform for free! I have joined their ranks, although I was once vehemently opposed to the idea. While I still find it insulting, I realize it’s the only way, in this economy, to secure an opportunity to perform regularly on a part-time basis. And as I see music programs, and arts education programs in general, being eliminated from public, charter and private schools, I wonder if accomplished musicians may, in 20 years or so, be valued again when those orchestras that survive begin to realize a shortage of qualified players.

    1. Hard to say. The musicians will be there; their dedication is unwavering. I suspect 20 years down the road, this country will be rebuilding from its current tumult, and orchestras will be peripheral then, as now. Who knows?

  4. Do you think the kids entering/graduating college have any real idea what kind of market they are entering? I never really felt like my college talked much about this harsh reality or prepared us for the inevitable job hunt. I always felt demonized when I tried to chat with fellow students about these issues, I must have appeared to them as some sort of dream killer. Looking back, a STEM degree looks rather appealing right now.

    1. I’m not sure, what expectations of college grads are these days. I think traditional career paths are harder and harder. Those who are inclined to blaze new career paths (youtube fame, American Idol, or something like that) may find an “easier” career in music, but who can say?

      Thanks for your comment!


      1. Hi David,

        Funny that you mention “those who are inclined to blaze new career paths…may find an easier career in music”… I am one of those for sure and it’s just as hard as every other route in the arts. Getting a “real job” AND gigging to keep your dream alive is an example. Getting a “real FULL TIME job” means giving up those dreams and settling for something that clearly doesn’t fulfill the pursuit of happiness (for most musicians).

    2. Part of the problem is that colleges have been swept up in this “free market” phenomenon as well. I’ve witnessed the best teachers in a music school slashed and burned by a new administrator because they cost more than they brought in. (You only teach 5 students? And you’re only here how many hours a week? And we’re paying you what?!) I’ve been told by the head of a music department that I, as a student, did not matter because I did not take a lot of credits, despite the fact that, you know, I’ve been in finals in multiple major orchestra auditions. (Good luck getting any money from me in the future, buddy.) In the midst of major budget cuts, music departments (and most other departments, I suspect) no longer exist to turn out great musicians, they exist to bring in as much money as possible, which means getting enrollment up.

      1. Interesting. Some administrators at IU had a similar attitude towards some students when I was there about 15 years ago. Wonder what school you are talking about.

        At any rate, thanks for your comments!


      2. I agree! I am a graduating masters student and felt my graduate school used me for orchestra nonstop but didn’t care about educating me. The academic classes were a joke. I have also brought up to colleagues, as mentioned in a comment above, about how I could never do a DMA because to pursue a career in college teaching is to contribute to the problem of dropping another sucker in the mess (because most people aren’t good enough). People look at me like I’m crazy- maybe it’s just because I was being the downer in the room.
        I did my undergrad at IU and did not have the feeling of them using me. I am proud of the education I have so maybe things have changed. However, I wasn’t an AI so I don’t pretend to know what that would be like.
        Thank you for this post- although depressing for an incoming New World member like myself, it would be an important read for a high school junior wanting to do music.

    3. Colin’s is an excellent point, and it goes beyond even the professional performing musician’s world. Let’s say that you know your chances of getting in an orchestra are slim to none, but you still want to make music for a living in some way. What do you do with that DMA (or PhD, if you’ve gone the theory/musicology route)? I know, I’ll get a job teaching [insert instrument/subject here] at a university. But of course, those of us who have been “out” for a few years or more know that those jobs are just as scarce. Even so, schools continue to churn out amazingly qualified doctors of various musical pursuits into a completely over saturated market. But at least the school can say “we’re doing a good job because we graduate X DMA/PhDs per year. Good for us!”

    4. Part of what is troubling about the conservatory system is that, if you study under the best performers, they often had the exceptional careers–orchestral job before their mid-20s, established solo career, etc.–rather than the more meandering path that many young musicians will have. In this way, they often cannot help mentor us as we enter the workforce.

      With all due respect to my wonderful teachers of the past generation, only a precious few of them ever had to be that ‘entreprenurial’ or go back and forth between a desk job and performing the way many of us do. Or, at least, it’s verboten to talk about it if they did.

      1. Oh Elizabeth, your last sentence really goes to the heart of something so important. When “we” write our press releases, concert notes, biographies, etc., none of us show the whole story. We record all the passages which lead to success. Along the way there were so many closed doors, stumbles, and frustrations! It’s tough for every generation to see their mentors as anything other
        than super-people. After all, we work so hard to achieve that stage presence! Some mentors do talk about the road they took (which may have involved a desk job, or Broadway show, or who knows what). Others can’t find a way to balance that candor with the role they have to fill.

        You might be surprised to know about some of the entrepreneurial efforts of your teachers!

        There is a fascinating book, “Composing a Life” by Mary Catherine Bateson, which addresses the choices, twists and turns of a career, and even the odd phenomenon of the scoured-clean biography and its effect on a younger generation. I learned a lot from that book.

  5. Back in my high school days (the 1970s) I was a good enough trombonist to where my band director talked about me majoring in music performance. My oldest sister, also a musician, chose not to major in music, and never regretted it; even then she had monstrously talented friends and teachers who could not get a job even with a regional orchestra. And this was the 1970s!

    1. It’s interesting. With all the extra music performance programs that have sprung up across the nation since your day, I sometimes wonder where all these people find work. Obviously a lot of them don’t, but I think we must have a lot more regional orchestras today than in the 70’s. As a string player, I’m aware that there are far more string quartets these days than even twenty years ago. Probably more brass ensembles too. Most musicians are employed by the “freeway philharmonic.”

      Thanks for your post, Andrew!

  6. You’re pretty pessimistic, which is probably fair enough, but you perhaps fail to take into account a number of organizations that are thriving. The Houston Grand Opera, Houston Symphony, and Da Camera are all doing great here in south Texas, and it’s due in part to innovative approaches to marketing and outreach. (I mean, look up the HGO’s oureach program HGOco. It’s amazing. I’m a composer who’s been here less than 9 months, and I already have two commissions from them.) The HGO is working in partnership with the Houston Rodeo, of all things! Add to that the smaller music scene: two local opera companies doing cool new productions, two local orchestras, two period ensembles, and a number of chamber groups. What musicians here realize is that it’s not an affront to our talent or skill set to play in a club, like Houston’s Avant Garden or NYC’s le Poisson Rouge. There’s a great audience there who grew up on MTV and indie rock, and they love to hear new stuff. There are videos on youtube of them loudly cheering stuff by David Lang and Julia Wolfe — and people like Tom Johnson and Xenakis. That’s a far cry from the polite applause the old people offer for the mummified Beethoven in the concert hall

    A few weeks ago I went to a seminar led by Claire Chase, director of the International Contemporary Ensemble. In a few years Claire has turned ICE from a college startup into a million-dollar nonprofit with about 50 employees. All it takes is flexibility, innovation, and the understanding that you can’t pander to people: you’ve gotta do your own thing, and the audience will come. The problem with orchestras is that they’re these big, monolithic dinosaurs afraid of anything new. On the one hand, the unions demand a lot of unreasonable things, things the orchestra management just doesn’t have the budget for. On the other hand, the orchestras dilute their product by doing cheesy pops concerts. Seriously, my generation really isn’t interested when an orchestra does a John Denver tribute concert (I’m lookin’ at you, HSO). Orchestras have to be willing to cut expenses (read: number of concerts in the season), innovate, market to today’s active audience (my generation), and make use of subsets of the orchestra. There’s lots of great chamber pieces for more than 8 players, from Bach to the stuff I write.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Mark. I don’t believe it’s pessimistic to point out national trends, consistent for the past 40 years, or so. There are always aberrations to national trends. I’m all about thinking creatively and taking risks–and agree that orchestras need dynamic and innovative approaches to survive. Your comment about musicians being willing to play in a night club confused me; I don’t know too many musicians who are unwilling to do stuff like that. Most are game to try anything, in my experience. You’re fortunate to have found such success there, and I wish you all the best.


      1. Speaking of trying new things, the Louisville orchestra has a wonderful history of commissioning and recording new works. I went to many of the “New Directions” concerts, even as they dwindled, and until they cesed to exist anymore. I think this was in part due to the notion that “regular-non-music” audience members dont “get” new music, and also that ticket sales were not high enough. It is heart breaking for me to think the LO is in such bad time and place right now. A wonderful documentary of the LO’s history called “Music Makes a City” was premiered in Louisville in 2010, and no action was taken to use that as a marketing tool, to say “look how amazing this organization is and its history! Lets make sure it keeps working!” I was born and raised in Louisville, and am now getting a masters from IU in Baroque violin performance. I took lessons from Michael Davis, the (former?)
        concert master of the LO throughout high school. I was on the auxilary list of the Louisville orchestra in college, and have been attending their concerts since I was 5. Now entering the “real” world of music, I hope that I can be innovative in marketing myself and the groups I hope to form/perform in. Thank you for this great article, I have shared!

      2. Thanks so much Alice. I’m also heartbroken to follow the news in Louisville. I wanted to try and write something that shared what this looks like from the musician’s perspective. Are you studying with Stanley now?

        Good luck to you!


  7. I grew up playing the cello and the piano. I started cello lessons when I was 3 years old and by middle school was studying with my professor at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Though obviously talented, I made the conscious decision not to continue my studies in college (I actually dropped out of IU before my first year was up) and I moved to NYC to pursue non-classical music. Being at IU it was quickly apparent to me that hardly anyone at that giant music school was ever going to make a living playing classical music (or sadly jazz for that matter). The reality of the situation is that classical (and jazz) are dying right before our eyes. My personal opinion as to why that is rather simple: there are no “stars” anymore, no one to capture the general (non musically-trained) public’s attention. There is no Leonard Bernstein, Isaac Stern, no Miles Davis or Duke Ellington or Dave Brubeck… when was the last time you remember a classical or jazz musician on the cover of Time or Newsweek. You have to have more people than just the ones that studied music growing up to be interested in order to progress an artform. The only time you really hear about Yo-Yo Ma or Joshua Bell is either when they record non-classical music (ie Appalachian Waltz or West-Side Story) or when they pull off some viral stunt as Bell did in the subway in DC. It’s sad, but I believe it’s true. Until someone or some new group come along and are able to capture the public’s imagination (the general public) the demise of orchestras and jazz venues will only continue. I hope something changes, but sadly I see no reason thus far to believe it will. Hopefully someone will prove me wrong.

    1. Thank you for your comment. Though, I should point out that many IU Grads ARE making a living in music, just fine. I think your assessment of IU is probably accurate, statistically over a span of time, as opposed to one single graduating class. The market expands and contracts just as some classes come through that are particularly strong and others that are particularly weak.

      Thanks again for your comment!


  8. Good article David. Did you happen to catch the 60 minutes story (Joy in the Congo: A musical miracle) this weekend about an amateur musican orchestra in the Congo? I was so touched by the piece… you can view it here (hope the link works);topnews

    What struck me is the joy that music brings in opposition to their harsh living conditions. Why don’t we have that joy? Probably because of all the things you listed in your article. Even I, as musician, have struggled with negative feelings towards music because of the lack of support, concert attendance, etc… I have asked myself many times “Why do I do what I do?” Because the music touches me just like it is touching the people in the Congo.

    1. Hi Erin!

      You’re right, of course. Musicians are a dedicated army. Most don’t come around to fully look the beast in the eye, in my opinion, until they’re out of it completely or cast out of it, as the case may be. We naturally want to consider these issues through a tinted lens, since it’s our livelihood. How can anyone go to work, day in and day out, and look at their colleagues like they’re zombies or patrons like they’re ATMs? Since that is abhorrent, we double down on our passion for making music–and the product improves, miraculously, despite the human toll the industry creates.

      Thanks for your comment, Erin!


  9. David, there are many well spoken truths in this. There was a superb and disturbing article on the same subject in the Frankfurter Zeitung. It’s a problem for musicians the world over. I might post a link to it on my blog and will include a link to yours if that is ok.

    Thanks again for this – enjoyed reading it for the truth in your article, but it is terribly sad.


    1. Hi Alfred,

      I’m unfamiliar with the Frankfurter Zeitung. Please link, I’d love to read. I agree it is sad, but think it’s important when another orchestra comes to the end of the line, to air these things out. The closet gets musty.

      Thanks for your comment!


  10. Best article on this subject I’ve read in some time. Of course I’m up having a panic attack in the middle of the night because of this whole situation. I am one of those idiots who was ‘urged’ into a music career due to my ‘talent’ etc. etc. Currently am working so many jobs to pay for an underwater mortgage that I cannot think straight and feel guilty for every student I encourage and help to improve through way too much teaching. There’s now a teaching turf war going on where you’ve got to watch out for scabs coming to the various campus’ to steal the students you teach at the multitude of part time music ‘schools.’ They don’t even hire faculty full time faculty any more. It’s just another cost saving/life ruining measure to drive music degrees out of the picture as well in my opinion. However, with the state of the job market, I believe these degrees should be driven out of part time faculty schools that shouldn’t be giving music degrees out in the first place, knowing full well there aren’t jobs for these ‘graduates’ of crap institutions anyways.

    I do think that the politics of unions/government has made the situations worse in the sense that it is difficult for Americans to differentiate between people like musicians (who actually work extremely hard for a living), and public employees, horrible public school teachers, Greeks, crony green capitalism (Solyndra et al), the latest GSA Vegas scandals, etc. etc. All working Americans are so busy trying to scrape by these days that they do not have time to get down into the differences between the good use of tax dollars and the ones going to all the crap. Especially since it is all funneled through Washington. Even the NEA has to pick ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ as they say, which one can only hope is done fairly, but anyone who trusts the way the sausage gets into the casing is really very foolish.

    So then it comes to the dwindling big rollers, rich high donors, board volunteers, fund raisers, the ‘I need something to do with all my free time since I don’t have to work for a living types.’ They have traditionally been local and took an interest in supporting as much as they can, something in which they believe. However we have now come to a point where these rich people have become demonized, villified, by mostly people who aren’t really interested in working anyways, and politicians who are interested more in harnessing that energy for votes rather than allow healing of the economy and promoting the creation of new wealth that can be donated in the future. Bernie Madoff took a bunch of money off of the donors in my state as well…while the SEC had lunch with him rather than investigate and arrest him for 12 years or so. It’s pretty simple. There is either going to be a growing pot of wealth and wealth creation that can go to culturally important institutions such as orchestras, or there is going to be temporary shake downs of rich people-who are smart enough to get the hell out before it happens anyways-for a fleeting feeling of fairness before all that money is gone and we go through the dwindling of funds all over again. Washington isn’t smart enough to fund the arts either and they’re completely broke and overburdened with debt and unfunded liabilities. An orchestra is the last thing on their mind because it is never going to be a voting issue. It is probably not a coincidence that the thriving Texas institutions mentioned above aren’t happening in ‘shake down’ cities like Philly, Chicago, ‘insert overly publicly unionized broke city of your choice here.’ As far as musicians unions…don’t even want to go there. My local, never did a single thing to protect a musician from ‘unfair labor practices.’ And yet they want almost 200 a month so I can make maybe 10K a year in gigs, if I kill myself on the highway. So where is a musician supposed to get money for that monthly bill that doesn’t really do anything for you in the end. No thanks I’ll pass.

    It pains me to hear people becoming used to playing (working!) for free and getting used to it/enjoying it! You are not promoting musicians as professionals when you do this and you empower these organizations to try and get away with paying less and less for more and more real work. Of course volunteer to play at a dear friend’s wedding if you want. Or for a religious organization that you have deep personal ties with, etc. But for God sakes, stop marginalizing yourself and our ‘profession’ by being unprofessional. You only promote the perception that our ‘product’ is not valuable by doing this!

  11. A few weeks ago I went with my partner to see our “Relationship Manager”.. (insert smirk) at the Westpac Bank.

    We must have spent 90 mins with a very gentle, affable fellow who tried to persuade us as best he could in what was in fact, the ‘idea’ or ‘notion’ of financial advice – which as you may or may not know is complete guesswork at the best of times. To go with this promotion, or switch our mortgage to that idea of an improved service.

    This person relies on people like myself and my partner to switch services, take advice, use an offered plan, take up this or that Portfolio with one’s spare cash.

    This person has a degree most likely, and is doing very well on the 20th+ floor, thank you very much.

    This person has what most people consider a Job as they understand it. Frankly I don’t. So this guy’s job is for all intents and purposes to convince people to buy an idea.

  12. A few weeks ago I went with my partner to see our “Relationship Manager”.. (insert smirk) at the Westpac Bank.
    We must have spent 90 mins with a very gentle, affable fellow who tried to persuade us as best he could in what was in fact, the ‘idea’ or ‘notion’ of financial advice – which as you may or may not know is complete guesswork at the best of times. To go with this promotion, or switch our mortgage to that idea of an improved service.

    This person relies on people like myself and my partner to switch services, take advice, use an offered plan, take up this or that Portfolio with one’s spare cash.

    This person has a degree most likely, and is doing very well on the 20th+ floor, thank you very much.

    This person has what most people consider a Real Job as they understand it. Frankly I don’t. This guy’s job is for all intents and purposes, to convince people to buy an idea.

    And a musician’s work is not taken seriously??

    It really is attitude, and my input to your blog would be to maintain that Musicians are just too nice to their fellow beings – especially those that suggest we get something for nothing. Musicians must unfortunately be more hardnosed, and TALK OUR WAY back in to the opinion poll of attitude; defend our profession as a profession, not just earning money from ‘something we love doing’.

    What our profession gives IS tangible – each concert it is an Event, occassionally witnessed by thousands of people, managed by unseen people behind the scenes.

    We must defend ourselves – rhetoric and put-down must be attacked. Orchestral Musicians Do have real jobs, it is only attitude that separates the importance of one job from another in the eyes of Sponsors, Politicians, and even the Public.

    1. Adrian,

      Also very well said. Jobs come in all shapes and sizes. What people really mean when they say, “get a real job” is “get I job I value.” Fair enough. If someone says that to a musician, that someone is in the wrong place, and the musicians would likely do better to cut loose from that person and find others who “get it.”

      We like to say that “classical music is for everyone.” We say it because we’re conditioned to promote a perceived “elitist” art form to people who we might not reach otherwise. This is good policy, but we forget ourselves when believing we can “sell” to someone who is inherently unreasonable or hostile. No amount of selling can win those folk over.

      Thanks for your comment!


  13. David,

    This is a very thoughtful article and of course I will share it. I think some of this was going on back in the 70’s, but the debacle of failing orchestras is certainly new. The chamber music market seemed saturated with quartets but it was possible to find orchestra jobs.

    Music Schools are fervently promoting their “Music for All” type programs, citing entrepreneurship as the hot new career in music. It’s true that most of us need those skills, but it would be of equal benefit to know what we are investing in from the start of a music program. What is the outcome of a music degree? How many students from school X find full-time jobs in music? How many find full-time jobs in music education, in performance, teaching in a university, etc.? How many are attorneys and medical doctors?
    Those statistics are nearly impossible to find.

    If those statistics are offerered from one school, the others will soon be expected to follow. Curriculur and programming changes would also follow. I believe that music education can change generations of children and communities, and performers who go on to teach at universities can change their students and future arts administrators. All of us have an effect on the patrons, either in music education or in universities.

    All of this is just from my perspective as a former faculty member of a music school. The boards of orchestras, management, and others have their own roles in this challenge as well.

    Keep up the great work!


    1. Thanks Pam!

      I believe people such as yourself have done immeasurable good as a teacher, colleague, friend, and promoter of classical music. My time at Eastman included some of the happiest days of my life, and the faculty there continued to lend a helping hand long after I’d gone, whenever I picked up the phone and asked. Eastman was money well spent for me, personally, because it was about more than just my musical education. It was also college, where people go to grow, learn, meet people and learn, learn, learn, etc.

      I’ve found that, after my focal dystonia, I could sit back and look at all this from a new perspective. I found that I’d long been in the habit of “staying positive” about a career in music, because, after all, I love music. But, when I couldn’t do it anymore, and not because I felt I failed, but because of an honest disability, I grew to realize that there are things about music careers that are deeply tragic. In my experience, people musicians don’t often get to the meat of these things, preferring to remain positive and full of positive conviction for the arts.

      I’m hoping to air out the musty closet with these blogs because I see my friends suffering. I read the comments on news articles about LO, and Syracuse before it, and am stunned by the lack of humanity when someone says “musicians eat their young.” I don’t know what the solution is, but I hope someone who stops by here might have a good one.

      Thanks again for your comment, your share, and being an all-around lovely person, Pam. 😉


  14. I’m sorry, Dave, but using the Washington Post/Josh Bell experiment as proof of “productization” (a concept with which I fundamentally agree) hurts your argument. Josh was playing at a Metro station at the peak of the morning rush hour. To expect anyone to take time out of their morning to listen to Bach, regardless of the musician performing, is a bit unfair and will produce skewed results (of course, most polls do that anyway).

    I don’t know the answer to the conundrum of how we are to make our living as musicians in the U.S. You think it’s tough being an orchestral musician? Try being a composer! I consider myself lucky having been able to make a living at it the last ten years, and being able to make a living at it SOLELY for the last year and counting. And still my living isn’t exactly enviable or at a financial level approaching the expectations of the American middle class (then again, whose are anymore?).

    I do know one thing, though: orchestras are archaic museums which have not adapted or changed in over 100 years now. Yes, this repertoire is timeless. Yes, it’s worth performing and yes it’s DEFINITELY worth listening to and introducing others to it. But I can do that easily, comfortably and cheaply in the comfort of my own home. Granted, tickets to an average orchestra concert are considerably more affordable than your average rock concert’s (a great irony, certainly). But your average rock concert has an aura of EVENT around it. Your average orchestra concert feels downright routine. Musicians in tuxes. The High Priest waving his/her magic stick leading the initiates in the proceedings. A rapt or bored congregation. Do you really want to pay money to experience something like that?

    Benjamin Franklin famously defined insanity as performing the same act expecting the same results indefinitely. Orchestras have been doing this for generations now. Bemoaning the vagaries and realities of the market helps no one. We must adapt. Adaptation takes time, certainly, and effort, and money (or not, actually, if you’re willing to sacrifice and have a clear enough vision and are lucky enough–and here’s the rub– to find willing supporters to give you a chance), and it’s extremely difficult. But if we don’t do it–and do it now–that will certainly be the death knell of our art form and our livelihood.

    1. Hi Armando!

      I don’t envy the plight of the composer. I’m glad you’re making it work.

      Re. Josh Bell. When and where he’s playing are also part of productizing art, and suits the argument perfectly. There’s nothing so intrinsically awesome about Josh Bell and a strad that it can survive outside of the “productized” bubble of classical music performances. Included in that bubble are all manner of things: When, where, attire, repertoire, type of audience, context, etc.

      So there. 😛

      Thanks for your comment, Armando!


      1. David, I agree wholeheartedly about the Josh Bell thing, and its relevance here. I’ve heard the argument that “well, it was rush hour, and everyone was on their way to work,” too, and my response has always been to ask what the atmosphere would have been like if Slash had decided to set up in the corner with a Les Paul. People would have been late to work — it would have been, exactly as Armando says, an EVENT. (I say this as someone who loves both Webern and Guns N’ Roses)

    2. greetings
      I do have a response to
      “orchestras are archaic museums which have not adapted or changed in over 100 years now”
      and goes to the heart of my comments about how attitude frames our thinking, and a musicians defence of the profession we provide

      Being a Policeman is still the same job it was 100 years ago.
      Building a house is still the same job it was
      Being a Prostitute..
      Going to a museum..
      Playing with Stocks and Bonds..
      Running a Bank..
      Going to war.. and getting injured or killed.

      The technological framework of our professions have all altered – The crimes are still the same.

      I could point out by example that Symphony Orchestras provide the backing to 90% of the Blockbuster films ever watched.

      Devaluing a Musicians profession is not logical, and merely a matter of attitude.

    3. Personally, I find it difficult to put a lot of stock in the “orchestras and opera houses are museums and therefore must adapt” argument.

      What is wrong with museums all of the sudden? I’m sure it takes a lot of money to heat and cool the cavernous spaces of the Louvre and to employ its staff of curators and preservationists. And it seems to me that there are plenty of people who are wandering the halls of l’Hermitage who are there out of a vague sense of duty to “culture” and have no idea of the significance of the works of art they are looking at. But no one argues that the French or Russian government should demolish the buildings and put digital pics of all the exhibitions on line because it’s more modern, or cost-effective.

      Those of us who perform art music are in large part conservators of one of the greatest artistic traditions in the history of mankind. Yes, orchestra concerts have changed very little in the past 100 years. That is a big part of the point.

  15. David,

    While I agree with most points in your article, I will say that one thing that has to change is how the union protects its musicians. Organizations and musicians talk all the time about the need to be innovative and to re-shape the traditional orchestra. However, union rules often prevent any flexibility. Have a great idea that will reach lots of potential donors? Sorry, not on the official schedule. Have a group of musicians that will volunteer their time in support of the innovative program? Sorry, musicians are not allowed to volunteer their time except for limited programs, as the union has determined that reckless volunteering devalues the musician and thus they must remain united in their demand to get paid for anything outside of a few approved volunteer programs.

    My point is, unions need to be willing to have a LOT of flexibility when it comes to reshaping and innovating the traditional symphony. They do need to protect their musicians, but not at the cost of the entire organization. Naturally, management needs the same flexibility in how it operates, if not more. Unfortunately, in Louisville it sounds like management is steadfast against any innovation and is determined to drive the organization into the ground.

    1. Very good point! In fact, others have been saying in this thread that orchestras are anachronistic museums (or something like that) that need to adapt. Adapting is twice as hard if you’ve got an AFM shackled to your ankle, huh?

      Thanks for your comment!


      1. Very interesting piece David; thanks for putting this out onto the interwebs. Many of my friends from my Master of Music program have been posting about the Louisville situation. Heartbreaking as it is, we’ve been watching organizations fold one after another for the past few years.

        Solutions… I have none. However, I wanted to comment on two threads.

        1) I like unions (as a singer, I’m in AGMA), but the most significant way that the AFM is shooting themselves in the foot is with the video restrictions. European orchestras/ensembles have flooded youtube/vimeo with high quality videos, raising their profiles above their American counterparts. I know that it costs money to train as a performer, but the days of making significant $ off of a video of a performance are over. Video is a vital marketing tool now, not a revenue stream, and the AFM needs to let go of it 🙂 IMHO…

        2) Amid the criticism of those who encourage young people to pursue music in light of the awful professional prospects, I have two thoughts. Yes, of course, it is criminal, but only if you are selling your student the false hope that they could be an international star. There is an entire class of excellent yet not famous performers out there who are making a decent living. BUT, what is missing from this conversation is that studying music makes you a better/more interesting/more fulfilled human being. In a way, it would be like suggesting that no one study philosophy unless they could make a living at it.


  16. I find the situation in orchestras today deeply troubling, although I happen to be an IU grad with a full-time gig (unfortunately I can’t go into greater detail). As a former teacher, as well, I would have mixed feelings about encouraging students to pursue music full-time. There just aren’t enough jobs to go around, and even highly talented string players I know from NEC and other schools are realtors or have other jobs on the side.

    I feel for friends and colleagues who’ve gotten doctorates, expecting to land teaching jobs, because there seems to be a growing trend (at least with my instrument) of music schools foregoing formal searches for DMA holders for tenure-track positions in lieu of players with a Master’s degrees for adjunct jobs. One top-30 music school in my area just replaced a teacher who’d been there for over 20 years with someone who freelances in the local orchestra but has no university-level teaching experience or national renown – and they’re hoping she can recruit. Yet I know several amazing musicians with Masters from Juilliard and DMAS from.SUNY who can’t even get interviews. It makes no sense.

    1. I’ve seen that also. In fact, I’ve been on both sides of that equation as an adjunct, and as a “Lecturer.”

      One of the advantages I’ve enjoyed in writing about this stuff, is that I can no longer do it professionally. I can afford to stick my name on it, and see that many musicians find it tough to do just that. (For good reason.)

      Thanks for your comment!


  17. I enjoyed reading your article because I find it pretty rare for musician-writers to approach the problem with as broad a perspective as yours. Unlike many other nations, our arts are not signifigantly subsidized, so the problem quickly becomes acute. The entire NEA budget here is about equivalent to what’s granted to the Vienna Opera. That skews the whole system toward selling product, and dumbing-down quality, as you described. But it’s also apparent as a trend in symphonic music from abroad. Andre Rieu presents orchestrations of Chopin etudes that edit out those “annoying”, dramatic, dissonant parts. Small groups that only perform on film soundtracks call themselves “orchestras”. Celtic Anything (Woman, Thunder etc.) Ensembles of singing monks, presented with computerized, rock-concert-style strobe lighting. I always have disinfectant and a shovel in my car when going to concerts, just in case.

    1. Re. “disinfectant and shovel” LOL!

      I’m often surprised we still have an NEA. Many of my Republican friends would like to see it gone, and not only because of the aberrant “porn” that is often cited as “where your tax dollars go,” but simply because they believe such things should be privately funded, period. Pointing out that the entire sum of our NEA is equivalent to what is granted to the Vienna Opera won’t win points in the national debate either, since you’ll be characterized as “wanting to be like Europe,” whether you do or don’t.

      Our country is so entrenched in its politics. We’ve all been backed up against the wall, defending our turf, and we often forget that others live here, too. For every political issue, such as this one, there are real people’s lives at stake. The internet makes it too easy to dehumanize these people, reduce them to an insignificant statistic, and blow them out of the water with a shocking video expose of that one person who did something wrong, then assume everyone has similarly “gamed the system.” (Voter fraud, social programs to help the poor, funding public schools, the arts, whatever the flavor of the month is for where your tax dollars are going.)

      Orchestras are, by and large, isolated from our society. They exist as a relic inside a culture that largely feels not blood-related. In that sense, it is the ultimate “conservative” institution, since it is the music of our great-great-great-great grandparents. The last I researched, (about a year ago,) 30% of Americans go on to earn degrees past high school. Of those, 16% will become classical music concert-goers. Not bad, when you consider it’s roughly half of those who’ve earned higher degrees, but terrible when you look at it in the larger context of our total population.

      Of course, arguing statistics is a slippery slope. Once you’ve shown just how “insignificant” those numbers are to our total population, they’ll inevitably be used at the expense of flesh and blood people, just as we’re seeing in Louisville.

      Thanks for your comment!


  18. Excellent article, David.

    We do need to ask the question, how did we get to this point? How did we get from school and city leaders funding arts and arts education in the 1970’s, to the slash-and-burn climate we are seeing today?

    One major factor–with severe long-term consequences–is music education in the public schools. When school music programs began getting slashed in the 1980’s, that meant that children began growing up without classical music. At all.

    That generation of children is now making the decisions; they are now government officials, CEO’s of major corporations, members of school boards. And to them, music is either Lady Gaga or video game sound tracks. They were not taught as children that classical music could either be beautiful or an important piece of our culture. They were basically taught that it is boring, and they are teaching that themselves.

    Here in Pittsburgh, the board of the city schools has decided that they will not bus children to the Pittsburgh Symphony’s SchoolTime Concerts unless the concert is DIRECTLY related to that week’s academic lessons. Education/outreach departments (who are underpaid and overworked as it is) and conductors who choose concert repertoire have no formal training in child development, education, or children’s theater (which is basically what a children’s concert is). Usually they have a background in music, not in marketing.

    So what ended up being “performed” for the students of the Pittsburgh city schools was background music to a extremely dull lecture on the life of Andrew Carnegie. 5,000 or so students were taught at that concert that classical music is so boring, it doesn’t even deserve their attention at a concert, but can only serve as background music for something else that is even more boring.

    How many of those students do you think will want to fund the arts when they grow up? How many will even want to attend a concert?

    How many school boards have been presented with reams of evidence–studies, articles, statistics–showing that music instruction IN THE SCHOOLS produces higher test scores, better academic performances, etc., yet still choose to cut such programs in favor of more standardized test prep?

    In addition to fixing the current disastrous situation in Louisville, and in cities everywhere who are continuing to throw not just classical music, but all the good that goes with it in the garbage, we need to ensure that this can’t happen again.

    1. Hi Alison,

      Thanks for your comments. I agree that eliminating school music programs has been harmful, but think what we’re seeing now is more complex than just that. Also, I think it is important to remember, when looking to the future, that retaining our nation’s cultural heritage transcends our politics. People on the right and left of the political spectrum give to the arts every day. My feeling is that those who are promoting the arts should cultivate specific language that, as much as possible, isn’t attached to “hot spots” politically. The minute the act of supporting an orchestra becomes a “liberal” endeavor, we’ll have lost a significant portion of patronage. We tend to get shuffled to the left anyway, since we’re “the arts,” but as things heat up in our national hyperbolic nightmare, the orchestras and school music programs will continue to be placed up on the chopping block. I’d like to say we “need to ensure that this can’t happen again,” because I don’t want it to happen again, but I’m too resigned to the knowledge that it will happen again, no matter the best effort of those who struggle to secure their orchestra’s future. My feeling is that we need to look into ways to invest in our future. Slashing the arts, when done in congress, is consistently a Republican position. I think the argument could be made that classical music is inherently “healthy” for our culture, the spirit of our culture, and our children’s educations. If our government is going to fund anything, this is something that can “heal” people from within–which is where a lot of GOP legislation is coming from. (Morality legislation.) Just a thought.

      Thanks again for your comments!


  19. Great article! This really resonates with me.

    At the risk of sounding anal, I’m going to go ahead and say that you should correct your spelling of “Juilliard.”

  20. I have great sympathy for musicians, actors, dancers, singers. These are very difficult times, not just because of the state of the economy but also because the world of entertainment has and is changing. That is true for the classical as well as modern art forms. In fact, many worlds are changing not only the arts world but also the world of journalism, teaching, social work etc. All are rediculously underpaid and yet are so important to our society. Nobody seems to know what it is changing into only that the funding and support and audiences are dwindeling. What you see happening in Louisville is reflective and no different as to what is happening in many cities accross the nation. Now having said that, there is one particular problem with the Louisville Musicians that never gets mentioned but that is the big elephant in the room. As much as they would like to think of themselves as a world class orchestra, they really aren’t. They are not even a mediocre orchestra. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very fine musicians in the LO who have great talent AND are very professional. Unfortunately most of them have left. Most of what is left are those who would have been fired or would not have gotten a gig if they had worked in any other profession. Over the years the balllet, the opera, and so many other organization in town had to deal with these mediocre players, who come to the rehearsal not knowing their music, who play terribly and out of tune, who come in late, who pretend that they are playing etc.. It is those musicans who scream the loudest and who don’t want to change and bring the level of classical music in Louisville to a professional level. There is a lot of blame that can be thrown around, mismanagement is certainly one of them, but so is the inability of the musicians to see the plank in their own eye. They have contributed to this sorry state of affairs as well and refuse to deal with the mediocrity in their mids.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I have to say, as to the level of the LO, or any of its players specifically, this situation is pretty common. Orchestras are either measured by their strongest performers or their weakest, depending on who’s doing the measuring. I like to think that the orchestra is the sum of all its parts, and prefer to measure it from the strongest performers, of which I know several in the LO. For me, the strength of their musicianship and technical expertise is more than enough to earn my good will, and my sympathies for what is happening there now.

      Thanks again for your comment!

    2. Perhaps “termd” will elaborate on just why he or she has an axe to grind concerning the quality of Louisville Orchestra. Ask any guest conductor who has come on to the LO’s podium in the last 10 years as to the quality of the orchestra and you will get a quite different description.

  21. This almost made me cry. I’m from Jordan and our only orchestra, the Amman Symphony Orchestra, is facing a very real threat of disbanding, which will probably happen in two or three months. The musicians have been playing benefit concerts, gigs in restaurants, gigs for schools, begging the public to save the country’s cultural symbol, begging the country to fund its only orchestra and only small conservatory (whose level is going down because of the need to accept more students, any students), and no one cares. Lots of foreign musicians who have been brought to raise the level, to play and teach instruments that no one plays or teaches here, will go home.

    1. Ran,

      I’m heartbroken to hear your story. Thank you for sharing it here. I can’t imagine only ONE orchestra, and the prospect of losing it. That is a very dire situation, and while I’m not knowledgeable about the politics of Jordan, I can guess at what the Amman Symphony Orchestra means to those who struggle for its survival. Best of luck to you, and thank you for posting here!


  22. Well written article. Making things better sometimes involves staring at the problem through a filter of honesty combined with passion. To me, you have a passion for describing things in easy-to-understand terms. It’s a start at least.

    Philadelphia Orchestra musician

  23. This is absolutely brilliant and exactly articulated my feelings, having worked as a musician (and continuing to live) in a Florida city that has had a checkered relationship with the arts. However, when I feel bitterness starting to creep into my life, though, I have to remind myself that no one ever made me play the oboe, and a lot of people gave it their best to let me know exactly what I was getting into when I entered this trade. Still, it is sad to see “the end of something,” especially since I used to just write this phenomenon off a as a provincial Florida thing, but it seems to spreading nationally.

    1. Hi Aaron,

      Thanks for your comments. I think this is a topic that came into focus for me when I could no longer play the cello. Looking back on a career in music is liberating, because you’re unencumbered by the armor you’ve put on to “fight the good fight.” That fight must be fought, I still believe, and hope that it isn’t really “the end of something,” as you put it.

      Thanks again,


  24. Great article and discussion here. I can speak ( along with my wife’s experience) from experience at all levels – regional orchestras, B-level, A-level and college teaching from 20 years in the business. We’ve seen first hand the trimming of services, or folding of entire organizations juxtaposed
    with some of the most vibrant organizations in the country. We have both stopped college teaching in part because we felt we were doing a disservice to the students who have an even lesser chance for success graduating from anything below a top tier music school.

    I personally am troubled by the number of music majors being churned out by our colleges and universities. We’ve seen quite a few students graduate that have no idea what they are getting into. Would not some of these students be better served by majoring in something else and minoring in music? Some of our friends – top of their field in classical music actually majored in another subject, but later pursued their instrument for masters or doctorate.

    We certainly want our two young children to enjoy classical music and play instruments but are not hoping for them to make a career out of it at all.

    I commend you for keeping this apolitical.

    1. Hi Brent,

      Yes, these smaller schools offering performance degrees are a troubling new trend. In some cases, the faculty at these institutions have been unable to successfully execute their own performing careers. Your decision to stop teaching is quite a commentary on this phenomenon.

      By the way, my wife and I are both cellists. We’d also prefer our son to enjoy music, learn the repertoire, but select a profession that is meaningful but also valued by more of our society.

      Thanks for your comment!


  25. This is the most depressing thing I have read in a long time. I am all for creating awareness about the slide in support for the Arts but I would much rather read inspiration and ideas for how we can improve the situation to balance the bleak figures. After reading this I just feel like giving up and that can’t be a good a thing. There’s always going to be a good chunck of the population that just don’t ‘get it’ so we must appeal to those who do and slowly convince those who don’t. It’s a never ending battle but one worth fighting. See:

    1. Hi Karina,

      Thanks for dropping by. I feel conflicted about writing a “negative” piece for exactly the reasons you mention, and I enjoyed the Benjamin Zander link. Thanks for sharing that here.

      Two things I want to respond to in your post.

      One: Benjamin Zander is extraordinary. He delivers these things with such grace that it’s as if he’s speaking from the clouds and you just want to find a way to climb up there to be with him. If more people were capable of doing events with similar grace as the link you’ve shared, I’m sure the arts would be generally healthier than they are. But this is an artificial construct, as compared to the health of the arts on the national stage.

      These “musical talks” are given essentially from a little known rural suburb of the national neighborhood. We rarely have the opportunity to put a Benjamin Zander on CNN, Fox News or prime-time television.

      This is what I meant by an “artificial construct.” Who are the people in the room when Zander is talking? What are their backgrounds? Why are they there? Did they buy a ticket?

      If we’re going to reverse the national trend of folding orchestras, slashing arts funding and public school programs, we need to put Benjamin Zander, and those as eloquent as he is, in front of people who are not already buying tickets to events like the one in your link. But that brings me to my second point.

      Two: The framework of his presentation is geared towards those who are already familiar to classical music concerts. How would his eloquence hold up to the lay person, as characterized in the national media. “Joe the Plumber,” or the real “pro-American” portion of the country (as Sarah Palin would put it). What happens when you put a Benjamin Zander in front of a Sean Hannity or an Ann Coulter, and have him speak passionately about the arts and the NEA? Would our culture eagerly demonize a good man?

      If we’re going to preserve our cultural heritage, these are issues that need to be considered and addressed. It isn’t enough to talk about the merit of classical music to people who are already coming to a concert. It isn’t enough to go into public schools and talk to kids. My opinion is that we have to make it relevant in the way that a “war on Christmas” is relevant, if we want the arts to survive. We need to grab the national microphone and shake people up. Suggest that Chopin can help in the healing of our national pysche, just like “respecting religious freedom” or any other piece of so-called “moral legislation” that gains traction in Washington.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Karina.


  26. Greets. I don’t think classical music nor orchestras are part of the American cultural landscape. It’s a Europe thing. Where are the majority of the composers that we actually still care to listen to, from? As much as it is unfortunate that relatively well trained musicians are struggling for work, they are by no means entitled to it, when there is no demand for the product. Adapt or perish. Much of the music is simply too long and too tedious to really sit through on a regular basis, especially in this rapidly beat-sliced world of multi-multi tasking. You can’t demand that the public and the public sector fund an art form that there is no demand for. This is not the fault of the Americans. It is the fault of the classical institution having been culturally isolated for the past 60 years without really paying attention to evolving the art form in a way that is relevant to the American cultural psyche. America is more of a meritocracy than Europe, and thus, if the quality of a product does not pass muster, it will perish and be swallowed up by competitors. Art is not something that can be encapsulated and standardized. It should be an expression of the social and political events of the time. How has classical music expressed these core topics in the past 30 years in a way that is fun, makes you want to dance and shout? That is the point. It is an overly formalized art form that is a relic of the aristocracy of old Europe. Where is the rhythm section? Percussion section? Fugghet about it. That ain’t rhythm. Classical music is great, but until musicians find a more relevant (restructure the institutions and form in various fundamental ways (details that will take much to long to write here, unless a debate ensues) Wake up! Your time is done. Change your art and get over it.

    1. <>

      crooklyn: What you’re expressing is your personal opinion of the narrow slice of history and culture you happen to have been born into and then projecting that personal opinion as some sort of inarguable universal. Many agree with you. But here’s the point: many do not. There is no argument that the arts can and often do reflect and comment on the social and political events of the time — the argument is whether or not the arts can do MORE or LESS than become another tool in passing socio-economic-political realities and fantasies. To put it in either/or terms: is the fundamental value of the arts instrumental (as you seem to accept without further reflection) or intrinsic (as I believe most musicians would argue – even the old hardened, cynical ones) For those who believe music’s sole value is as a soundtrack for the movie constantly running in their heads, they are so self-absorbed that there is no way that I or anyone could convince them of even the possibility of music’s intrinsic value. I can only point out that there are other views in the world beside utilitarianism. Musicians generally are not very good at defending their art-as-art in part because theirs is a non-verbal craft. But we can turn to another art form for some help. Novelist John Fowles gives a few hints:

      “[A] process of retreat from the normal world – however much the theme and surface is to be of the normal world – is inherent in any act of artistic creation. . . . And a part of that retreat must always be into a ‘wild’, or ordinarily repressed and socially hidden self: into a place always a complexity beyond daily reality, never fully comprehensible or explicable, always more potential than realized. . .”

      Sorry if all this seems so far off topic from the theme of the main post, but that animal called the “audience” really needs to sit down and do a lot more thinking about what will be lost — what THEY will lose — if they continue in the attitude about music must adapt to something-or-other. One more brief example from crooklyn that I believe is widely held:


      So let’s get political if that’s what you want. I believe this attitude is the prevalent one of conservatives toward the middle and lower economic classes. President Obama called it precisely what it is: Social Darwinism.

    2. “[Art] should be an expression of the social and political events of the time.”

      crooklyn: What you’re expressing is your personal opinion of the narrow slice of history and culture you happen to have been born into and then projecting that personal opinion as some sort of inarguable universal. Many agree with you. But here’s the point: many do not. There is no argument that the arts can and often do reflect and comment on the social and political events of the time — the argument is whether or not the arts can do MORE or LESS than become another tool in passing socio-economic-political realities and fantasies. To put it in either/or terms: is the fundamental value of the arts instrumental (as you seem to accept without further reflection) or intrinsic (as I believe most musicians would argue – even the old hardened, cynical ones) For those who believe music’s sole value is as a soundtrack for the movie constantly running in their heads, they are so self-absorbed that there is no way that I or anyone could convince them of even the possibility of music’s intrinsic value. I can only point out that there are other views in the world beside utilitarianism. Musicians generally are not very good at defending their art-as-art in part because theirs is a non-verbal craft. But we can turn to another art form for some help. Novelist John Fowles gives a few hints:

      “[A] process of retreat from the normal world – however much the theme and surface is to be of the normal world – is inherent in any act of artistic creation. . . . And a part of that retreat must always be into a ‘wild’, or ordinarily repressed and socially hidden self: into a place always a complexity beyond daily reality, never fully comprehensible or explicable, always more potential than realized. . .”

      Sorry if all this seems so far off topic from the theme of the main post, but that animal called the “audience” really needs to sit down and do a lot more thinking about what will be lost — what THEY will lose — if they continue in the attitude about music must adapt to something-or-other. One more brief example from crooklyn that I believe is widely held:

      “Adapt or perish.”

      So let’s get political if that’s what you want. I believe this attitude is the prevalent one of conservatives toward the middle and lower economic classes. President Obama called it precisely what it is: Social Darwinism.

      1. To appreciate how an orchestra, and orchestral music can touch the inner being, one must first be present. I don’t think the NFL would be so rich and famous if you had to go to the stadium and shell out 90 bucks to watch the show. I saw the NY Phil do American in Paris on PBS and it blew me away. But that’s me. Lots of people like Rap. I’m still waiting for it to die. For me the wrong genre is dying. I’m part of the problem. Just as I don’t do enough for the community, I don’t attend my city’s wonderful orchestra. Its a shame some people must be faced with dire consequences before they act. I need to drag myself, and my friends ( I live 2 mi from downtown) to the concert hall and support my orchestra, before its too late.

    3. It’s easy to be dismissive of Crooklyn’s comments, but he is absolutely right. What is clear to me, though, is that you can’t insult your community’s intelligence and taste through pandering. People see straight through that. I don’t know what’s coming next for the medium-size city orchestral markets – I’ll leave figuring that out for the younger, brighter, less cynical minds. But beating our collective chests about the “value of culture” and telling people that they should want their city to have an orchestra has accomplished very little. I think “change your art” should be the mantra of every music program in the country. Unfortunately, given my experience in musical academia, they too, are mired in the same mid-20th century mindset that is hobbling the orchestral world.

    4. Crooklyn,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I disagree with a lot of them. For one thing, your arguments seem to be framed from a “one size fits all” construct. Musicians are inclined to promote classical music to everyone, because we believe profoundly in its cultural value. But, the fact is, it isn’t for everyone. There are people who think as you do, and I suspect that no amount of “adapting” will convert you into a fan. While it’s true that classical music must adapt to survive, it is also true that it must retain its heritage, those qualities that have sustained it for this long.

      Most things of real, lasting value, require investment. Our “rapidly beat-sliced world of multi-multi tasking” keeps us moving fast. Some people find it necessary to go to church to slow down, once a week, and reflect on things that matter. Others put down their iPhones or iPads, turn off their TVs, and read a book. Quiet time is necessary to develop your mind, grow, reflect, and learn. For many people in our nation, a Beethoven Symphony is a good way to do precisely that. But you have to invest in it in order to reap the rewards. This is the law of nature, and the law of any kind of mastery. Just as you can’t skip ahead to the last chapter of a good book and know the contents without reading everything that came before, or have the wisdom of a 90 year-old at the age of 16, so too can you not just magically have a Beethoven Symphony happen at the speed of text. This isn’t about Europe, American Exceptionalism or evolving art. It just is.

      You mentioned our “meritocracy” of ideas in this country. The trouble w/sorting out “merit” of ideas in something as complex as what we’re seeing in the classical music sector is that, with the age of the internet, any person, from any location geographically, and of any income bracket, has a voice for what’s going on in YOUR community. The minute the issue is drawn into the national conversation, someone from half way across the country, or around the world, for that matter, can chime in and derail progress towards a solution for what’s going on in the LO. Often the most damaging remarks are the ones with the least merit. After all, “a lie travels around the world before the truth even gets out of bed.” The lie didn’t need “merit” to tear anything down. It just needed to be uttered.

      Thanks again for your comment,


  27. Great article! You rightly point out that it’s easier to get into the nation’s top conservatories than into one of the few full time orchestras. Loved the NFL analogy (and I usually LOATHE sports analogy), but you could have added this bit: the turnover is far great in the NFL than in an orchestra. A violinist can play for DECADES before retiring, have we ever had a football player to last that long?!

  28. David. I enjoyed the read.. and following debate. I founded and run the Perth Symphony Orchestra based in Australia… we are six months old and growing at a rapid rate. or

    A case of “if you build it, they will come” and they are!

    Whilst I am very aware that the musicians will fight me on certain topics, because sometimes I will make commercial decisions to ensure the future of the orchestra, before artistic ones. But the players know they come first, that their opinions matter to me, that I will listen to them (I used to be one of them) and that there is going to have to be a balance if they want an orchestra to play in for the long term…

    I am sad to read so many US orchestras are struggling – as are orchestras around the world, but there ARE solutions. And ways forward. And as long as people engage everyone (from players, to technical staff, to admin staff, to audiences), then it doesn’t have to mean the end…

  29. Maybe the orchestra isn’t the epitome of all musicianly jobs afterall. However, with less bitching and more practicing, you can make a decent full time living playing music. Even if you don’t want to teach (I don’t, and I’m not teaching). You are all basically griping that nobody is coming along and making it easy for you. Tough fucking shit. Try being flexible and creative and positive, and go learn more than one instrument. You are basically just lamenting your own narrowmindedness.

    1. Hi Josh,

      Actually, I’m no longer in the workforce. When I was, I focused on building my career and trying to leave each job better than I found it. Important to me is blazing a creative path through the challenges life throws at you.

      I’m sorry if you felt this was “griping.” My intention is to shine a light on the real problems facing musicians in this country. If these problems fall outside the realm of your personal experience, it doesn’t therefore make them not real. I wrote this piece because I have friends in the Philadelphia Orchestra, Louisville Orchestra, Detroit, Syracuse, Honolulu, etc. and know and appreciate the struggles that face these good people, talented and hard-working (they even practice!) musicians. I wrote this piece in an effort to answer some who comment in the online news publications that musicians are undeserving in society, or overpaid, and all kinds of things. (“Eat their young,” is one that is seared into my memory.)

      I wish you the best in your career, and hope it will be one unencumbered, (as mine largely was, I somehow managed not to join an orchestra that died, or a string quartet that lost its gig,) of the pitfalls that beset so many of us in our pursuits.

      Thanks for your comment,


      1. Hey David,

        I apologize: I didn’t mean to come across as attacking you and your article (which I find painfully accurate and well put) so much as the “second person plural” of those aspiring orchestral musicians who chose (knowingly or unknowingly) one of the most competitive, volatile, financially unrewarding professions available to mankind, and somehow manage to maintain their sense of entitlement. So many musicians react with bitterness and blame towards society and it’s under-appreciation of art, when they don’t get what they want out of their career chasing the orchestral unicorn. Choosing the occupation of “artist” is one of the most surefire ways to not make a living: a truth well documented throughout most of human history, regardless of the political or economic constructions of the times.

        If you win that fantastic symphony gig, and expect everything to be just dandy for the rest of your career, then you probably have another thing coming, somewhere down the road. The problem is that the Orchestra and the Broadway pit have achieved an undeserved mythical status of being “the one safe path” you can pursue in the field of performance. It was no better in previous decades. In fact, you stand a better chance to get into one of those orchestras now than you ever did — only in the last 30 years did auditions even begin to matter in American orchestras, due to the rampant nepotism in the top tiers. I can’t say for sure whether that nepotism is entirely gone, either.

        Most humans are worthless sacks of shit, and we just need to get over it. They are all going to have their idiotic opinions of what we do. So it goes. Art is above that, because great art outlasts the individual.

        Orchestras are folding because they generally tend to be run by either washed up performers who have little to no business acumen, or by elderly conservatives who don’t have the aesthetic fortitude to program anything other than Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler. When Mozart was alive, the audience wouldn’t have it if an orchestra played music that was more than 20 years old. Nowadays, they are beating a pile of dead warhorses. Put on your Strauss programs for the boomers, but acknowledge that there is an entire generation of young people who are interested in new experiences, and who love to see new music performed by top notch orchestras. Problem is, those people do not have $40 to throw at an orchestra ticket. There are a million ways around that, and orchestra programmers are just being lazy and uncreative.

        And so are we. People have been lamenting the imminent death of classical music and the orchestra since onset of the Classical era. It’s not going to die: it just sucks right now. People just need to continue writing good interesting exciting new music, struggle to get it performed, and champion the music of others that they deem worthy of the effort. Performers have to be willing to play something other than endless Bach (and I love Bach as much as the next person). I know of a number of contemporary music ensembles, even full orchestras, that are thriving in major cities. These are generally run by young, creative, energetic, savvy musicians who try to keep their fingers on the pulse of what is great new music.

        The money isn’t always there, but you find ways around that. I graduated from a major conservatory, and I am currently making most of my living freelancing on my secondary instrument. Don’t get me wrong: I slog through the bullshit every day. There is never enough money, and it is always uncertain. It’s difficult to pay for an education, after the fact. But I’m only a few years out of school, and the bottom is the only place to start (unless your parents stapled you to a piano bench when you were 3 and it actually somehow took hold).

        Like everything else, it’s the luck of the draw, I guess — I wish I was more in control of what I was able to perform on a daily basis, but I would rather be playing in music theater pits than working a desk job. And really, you never have much of a choice of what you get to play anyway, once you are in that major orchestra. And not having the desk job gives me the luxury of time to compose and study the music that I really do want to eventually play. Any work you do as a musician has the potential to make you a better musician. After studying and teaching briefly at the conservatory level, I only have a few brief observations for anyone who wants to become a professional musician.

        1) Conservatory undergraduate degrees are a waste of time. Their academics are generally anemic, and you are basically consigning yourself to being useless in every other subject. Go get a liberal arts degree. Even if you study music at a liberal arts college, you are probably better off: find a small college with great teachers, and you will get more attention, and it will be a much more productive, positive environment than you would ever find elsewhere. Practice your ass off and go to grad school at a conservatory.

        2) 90% of my jobs I receive by email, and not by audition. Learn how to write. See #1.

        3) Broaden your horizons. History, theory, and ear training are more important than your primary instrument, no matter how much you may love it. You may hate it in 2 years, and if you didn’t learn how to sight-read or play a second instrument, sing a tune, or perform a quick harmonic analysis on the spot, you may end up with nothing but that spurned love. Don’t pigeon-hole yourself.

        4) Be prepared to impotently hate most humans. It’s ok, it’s natural, and they deserve it. Just keep your head down and work constantly at something that you love, and stay away from the ordinary b.s. *cough* TV, as best you can.

        5) Never ever ever ever ever ever ever EVER do gigs for free, unless you are allowed to play with someone like, I don’t know, Keith Jarrett, or unless the exposure is great and absolutely nobody else is making money off of you. People need to learn their damn lesson and stop selling snake oil disguised as experience.

        I’m glad you are stepping in and trying to help defend us in an intelligent way, and I can tell that you definitely know how it is. Way to be proactive…I appreciate it! However, musicians have to realize that they are entirely on their own, and should expect nobody to fend for them — that is the most difficult part of being an artist, but it can also be the most fulfilling.

        All the best,

  30. A difficult read for a passionate high school cellist. I simply don’t know what to do with this information! I suppose I’ll have to join the ranks of all the other music majors who can’t see themselves doing anything else but can’t find a job :/

    1. Daisy,

      You can blaze your own path. If you’re passionate about music, and want a career: also take business courses, public speaking, non-profit, study development, learn all the latest technology and social networking platforms. Do these things, AND practice like crazy. It isn’t enough to be good. One of my former students is all over YouTube and seems to be doing very well (Kevin Olusola).

      Your generation has to carry the torch into the future. Your job is harder than ours. You have to learn to play at the “standardized” level of excellence, but you also have to embrace all of these seemingly tangential disciplines. (e.g. Business, development, public speaking, etc.) Why? Because you’ll be prepared when someone needs an idea on how to save the orchestra, or what new direction your string quartet needs to go in, or how to leverage social networking to boost your solo career, etc.

      Good luck to you, and thanks for your comment.


    2. Daisy – I would like to say that David is right on point with this one. Don’t give up your dream, but go into it with open eyes and aware of what is going on. When your peers might be partying, be practicing, networking and creating your own path. If you want it, then work for it. Success in the arts is rarely given to anybody, to have it, you must earn it.
      I would also like to point out, that you have begun your journey already. You are a high school student, in the middle of the afternoon reading and replying to “Slash your Local Orchestra.” You are already a step in front of the rest of your peers, that are sitting in front of the television set playing video games, texting, or reading Facebook.

  31. Great article, and great comments. There is definitely a vicious cycle – students major in music that have neither talent nor work ethic (but plenty of attitude) and are pushed through the system and become awful public school teachers. Why are they accepted into a college music program? Because the departments are desperate for students so the adjuncts with doctorates who are often paid per student can eat. The awful graduates in turn not only teach poorly (and often replace better teachers encouraged to retire early because the new teacher comes cheaper), but stroke their students’ egos, making them think they are God’s gift to band and deserving of a full scholarship to the university of their choice.

    Then you have music departments who decide to add graduate programs. These graduate students are given the work in the department that the highly qualified and starving adjuncts should be paid to do (and would do much, much better).

    1. These grad students are given such work so they can “get experience and be more marketable”. They better hope their department chair at their place of employment after graduation has a different philosophy (if they are lucky enough to get a crap adjunct gig). They are also pushed through the system (failing someone at the grad level is taboo) – often their research documents take only a month or two while those of us who have real degrees spent at least a year on such research. I speak from years of experience. I still love playing and performing, but I was so happy to get out of the business and have music be my hobby, not my means of making a living.

      1. Hi Suzie,

        Thanks for your comments. I’d love to “brighten up” your remarks, but, the truth is, you’ve hit on a very real problem in this country. Music performance is, by definition, a performance related activity. The notion that any second, third, or fourth tier school should graduate students with performance degrees is tricky; not all the gifted students go to first-rate schools, for various reasons, but most of the ones graduating from third-rate schools will not be able to cut it after graduation. Performers need “masters” to teach them, not the type of faculty you describe, which, as you aptly put it, creates a vicious circle. Hack teaches hack, who teaches worse hack, and so on.

        Thanks for your comment!


  32. Mr. Beem! Insightfull article. Thanks! I’m a trumpet player/high school band director that considered the professional musician path, but as I was finishing my undergrad (in Seattle) and starting to get out there and work in classical/dance/latin/jazz/brass quintets etc… I decided that I would stick to my music education path. I wanted a modicum of stability and I definitely wanted a family. I did not see that in my future as a freelance musician, and I came to the same conclusion you seem to have come to, that I shouldn’t depend on getting a major gig at any point, no matter how well I played (or “politicked”).

    My path of becoming a professional educator also turned out to be problematic. Schools all over are cutting music programs. School administrators are extremely unsupportive, (I only got about halfway through your comments, but someone did mention how Universities are more focused on quantity than quality… it’s the same in many of our public schools), and many parents don’t see the vaue of music for music’s sake. If they (parents and/or administrators) do support music, it’s because of all the advocacy issues that you mention, higher test scores, blah, blah, blah…

    The reason I decided to comment is because, ironically, I ended up joining the Army to play music and that has offered me much more stability, benefits, and (say it ain’t so!) even some musical satisfaction. Playing for a bunch of guys who’s bad day at the office may include loss of life or limb is immensely satisfying, they really, truly, and ultimately appreciate music for what it’s supposed to do. There is the small piece about sometimes getting shot at, but that’s why we’re trained. I’m hoping for a turn around in society that will soon include musicians as important to our “whole.”

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    1. Wow! Your comments are deeply moving, thank you for sharing!

      I’ve heard about this before, and even considered that path myself at one point when considering it as a means of paying back student loans. I thought about it as far as the basic training aspect. 😉

      I’m VERY happy to hear that you’ve found a place that’s satisfying, artistically as well as humanistically. Thank you very much for sharing, and thank you for your service.


  33. The bottom line to this entire classical music (and arts) situation as a whole is ignorance and exposure. With music being pulled out of every public school under the post Reagan bumper sticker, ‘the government is evil, does not produce anything, cut programs wherever you can, even if it saves the taxpayer a dime’ it seems the next politician will outdue the other in ‘ill cut your taxes more, vote for me’.
    I have taught music to make ends meet for quite a while now. When taught correctly and with enthusiasm, I can testify 9 out of 10 students, of any age and background, got seriously interested, bought classical cd’s, went to concerts.


    government bailouts and donations by the rich to keep sinking orchestras alive will accomplish nothing but employ gifted musicians to keep keep playing to empty concert halls. This is nothing but putting your finger on a leaking crevice on a sinking boat; a simple panic delay of the inevitable.
    Simply brining in a orchestra to do a school assembly or a performer to do a master class may inspire one student out of a hundred, but having it from day one in kindergarden yields more a sample space for successful results.
    Dont think in music terms, think simple math, the more exposure a product has, the more use it, the more potentially like it, the more sales it produces.
    Sales? in classical music? It can be done, it has been done. Is it disturbing Jerry Springer got higher ratings then the Presidents address to the nation the day we invaded Iraq, of course; however classical music can compete on the level of american idol, it can compete with internet porn. The free market system works; people buy things they are interested in, and people produce and manufacture what a paying public wants. The more exposure yields more interest.

    1. I agree with your sentiment that the merit of what we’re peddling is competitive to anything that’s out there, in terms of measuring against the free market. I’d encourage you to take your ideas and share them on Huffington Post, where they can be balanced against the lay person. Most people who have found their way here are musicians, or sympathetic to musicians. I would love to engage the lay person with the question, “What would bring you into the concert hall?” A simple question, but with no real predictable answer. (As opposed to “why don’t you go?”)

      Thanks for sharing your remarks!


  34. David, I received a link to your post from a graduate school friend and immediately remembered you from UE. I was a senior when you were starting there, so you might not remember me. In any case, this is a great article and I am working on some research that cuts right to heart of your comments. Please email me so we can discuss offline.

  35. Hey David,
    Thanks for one of the better articles about our lives that has been written. The one conversation I seem to have a lot it this one about the STEM disciplines and how important people feel they are. “We need more mathematicians and scientists…” they say. No. We don’t need more of them, we need better ones. What makes people in math and science better is to see things creatively and from different angles. The reason why the arts “help test scores” is because they force people to think with both sides of their brains at the same time, not just regurgitate answers and formulas they have memorized in class or from a book. There is a reason they (or at least used to) combine the terms, and had the colleges “of Arts an Sciences”. When people are put into a situation that THEY WANT TO BE IN (not because the market dictates that these jobs will make you more money), and are given the right to be creative, that’s when you have great leaps in productivity, and to be honest, in happiness.
    Keep up the conversation.

    1. Agreed, Rene. Work that is done with motivation is a thousand times greater than work done without. If you’re driven into a field (STEM) in which you lack brilliant aptitude, you’ll contribute less to the field. Same is true of any field. I would encourage you to take your comments to Huffington Post and engage the lay person there with a simple question, “What would get your butt into the chair at your local orchestra concert?” I’d really like to know. Usually we hear “what’s wrong,” but don’t often get a chance to search for suggestions from administrative folks, who are often failed performers, and under trained as execs.

      Thanks for your comments, Rene. Glad to hear from you!


  36. Well written, Dave an I’m very glad so many folks are discussing the educational industry side of the issue here as that is something I’ve had to grapple with more and more every year as I take on more teaching duties. I often feel as if I am not doing students justice if I don’t say something about the prospects for a career in music, at the same time, do any of us really want to just smash a budding young musician’s dreams?

    My policy is usually to just wait for a student to ask me specifically about the field rather than volunteer the information. Most of the kids I work with already understand that I’m not a Symphony musician anyway, and that I was a full time performer well outside of the classical music world before I settled back in the Louisville area. That makes it an easier transition from the gloom and doom to finding positive ways of reinforcing a desire to pursue music!

    1. Hey Jon,

      Yeah, no one wants to smash the dream. (I have a funny story on this I’ll share in private.)

      The public story I’ll share is from my former teacher, Janos Starker. He is famous for boldly dream-smashing those who clearly had no business (and sometimes perhaps not so clearly had no business) being a professional musician. When I was younger, I intrinsically knew that he had good reasons for doing it that way (“under no circumstances should you ever harbor any dreams of becoming a professional cellist,” he said to a high school junior who’d plucked the nerve to perform for him one Saturday afternoon,) but I found it shockingly inhuman. These days, I still find it shockingly inhuman–there are better ways, you could take the kid aside and tell him in private, for instance. Nevertheless, inhuman or not, he did that particular kid a favor. He hadn’t a shadow of talent, and he was a straight A student in everything else. What kind of teacher would send him into that situation?

      I’m friendly with my students. I occasionally have some performers, and find that they intrinsically know they’re performers. But those kids already have a sense of the industry. They already want to talk about it. In that context, it’s easy to level with them.

      Thanks for your comment, Jon. Glad to hear from you,


      1. Yes, Exactly Dave–the students who know they are performers often already do have some sense of the industry so that does make it easier to respond. Good to know you also have had this experience.

        Love the Starker quote–and sounds, not surprisingly, exactly like a comment I would expect him to make! Sometimes I wish I had that kind of gall–but I think it takes the reputation and background that he has for it to have the right kind of force. Would love to hear the funny story you have.

        And thank you for getting this wonderful discussion started here — I’ve wondered how many people felt about Universities churning out the performance grads and how that has affected the classical musician pool!

      2. I believe the exact quote was, “Even if you plan to practice 7 hours a day, every day, for the rest of your life, do not harbor any dreams of ever becoming a professional cellist.” Not kidding, I think that was EXACTLY what he said. I ran into the kid later and he seemed unfazed and I wondered if he just seemed that way or if, hopefully, he never really had aspirations to begin with, nor understood, really, what had just happened.

  37. There’s an aspect to this story that I haven’t seen explored in any of the comments above: the possibility of uprooting yourself and looking for work elsewhere, even if it means leaving your comfort zone. The posting from the head of the new Perth orchestra perhaps hints at this possibility. But even then, the cultural differences between the U.S.A. and Australia aren’t exactly so great as to make moving to Down Under such a huge undertaking.

    Thirty-six years ago, when I was 24, I was fresh out of music school, living in Minneapolis and I dreaming of playing in a professional orchestra. I paid a certain amount of “hard knocks” dues by playing in a slew of non-paying community type orchestras (some of which were of at least acceptable artistic quality), all the time making ends meet by having a day job in a music shop. The community orchestra experience served me in the sense that not only was I playing all the time– thus maintaining my chops–, but my knowledge of repertoire was also being expanded.

    After two years of this routine I realized that I would need to start auditioning or my dreams of a professional career in music would soon be dashed. The pace with which I was running my life was not one which I’d be able to maintain for very much longer. On a lark–and at the suggestion of a fellow community orchestra musician–I decided to audition for a new orchestra in Mexico. The biggest advantage was that I wouldn’t even have to spend money on airfare, as the audition would be held in Minneapolis. I went, played, and was immediately offered a contract. I didn’t speak any Spanish so I had someone look the contract over to make sure there weren’t any strange stipulations in it. When I was assured that everything seemed to be in order, I signed the contract, gave 2 weeks’ notice at the music store, and started getting my affairs in order to make the big move.

    That was 34 years ago, and I’m still in Mexico. That first orchestra turned out to be something of a turkey as far as musical quality is concerned, but I gained experience by playing in it, and most importantly, I learned the language to the point of absolute fluency. I was also able to adapt myself culturally, something which would be invaluable to me in terms of being able to audition for–and get into–other Mexican orchestras, orchestras which would prove to be much better than that first gig was.

    My point in all this is to say that if you’re a classical musician and you take a chance by moving to and adapting to other country and its culture, you might be surprised (in a good sense) at what you’ll eventually find. Government subsidies for the arts in Mexico–both at the federal and state/local levels–are a given. There would be an enormous outcry on the part of the citizenry if these subsidies were to be removed, as not only do they provide musicians with their salaries and orchestras with enough money to budget their seasons, but they also maintain ticket prices at levels that won’t empty out Joe Everyman’s wallet. For the most part, pops concerts are the exception rather than the norm, as far as an orchestra’s programming goes. If a conductor wants to program seasons that are 100% Shostakovitch or Mahler, he can do so without having the board of rich people who control the orchestra’s finances saying “Nobody will attend the concerts. You can’t do this.” The same thing goes for programming avant-garde works.

    Are the salaries on a par with those of, say, the Big Five orchestras in the U.S.? Well, no. But then again, as a musician there are ample opportunities to earn additional money by teaching and/or gigging (pop recordings/live shows, etc.) and generous paid vacations are part of the package, as well as medical coverage. In short, it is possible to have a pretty good life and you’re not wondering from one day to the next if you’ll still have a job within a year.

    1. Great point Matthew. Also, I wonder how much further you can stretch your earnings in Mexico than in the US. I never had the courage to do what you did. Also, I didn’t want to live so far from my family.

      Thanks for your comment,


      1. It did take a certain amount of courage, but then, youthful chutzpah took care of that. Not sure if I’d been able to do the same thing if I’d been a few years older. But I’m definitely glad I DID do it. By the way, I didn’t mention it but outside of free-lance orchestral playing which I do quite often, I don;t even play in an orchestra on a full time basis anymore and I haven’t done so for several years. I’m in a state-subsidized string quartet. Our salaries are on a par with what principals get in (Mexican) orchestras. Again, SUBSIDY is the key word.. And yes, one can stretch one’s earnings further than in the States.

  38. When I moved to LA (where the LA Phil actually still makes a profit) to study music with one of the best teachers in the entire world, it was the first city in I have lived in (as opposed to east coast cities), where the endless geographical expanse of the city shows classical music as nothing more than billboards for “something that goes on in 2 blocks of downtown LA” – a part of town no one really goes anyway unless they work for a bank or see a Lakers game. If you play classical music in this city you are not a part of the cultural texture. You are very clearly a part of the subculture.

    Not only that I was shocked to see when I entered the business side of music in “popular genres” that classical music degrees at the college level CHEAT their students. We may have learned about Gregorian chants but nothing on how pop/hip-hop/r&b/rock changed this country and the world to become the foremost listened to musics. We never learned that as orchestras die, these genres are all multi-billion dollar industries. The question as to why this is case is insignificant to any student trained to practice an instrument.

    The business side of music is simply left out unless you go out of your way to take the class (but this time is “better spent” taking a worthless class so you have more time to practice). Music technology, and all the various VERY REAL tools used every day by artists are almost laughed at, because the integrity of making $30,000 a year for no one to listen to you is much more important than being a part of the music movements that are currently driving culture. The fact that schools still have composition departments in my opinion is just to make money because honestly the last Mozart or Bernstein to come around was probably a DJ or Producer, not a classical composer. All in all I feel CHEATED after sitting in music school for 6 years, and the people who don’t are living too deep in the bubble of their practice room to realize this.

  39. A great and honest post from someone with the career background that gives it unassailable credibility. This should be required reading for all HS students considering performance careers in music. It’s even worse in jazz, where the gigs have either disappeared or are paying less than they did 30 years ago.

    I would also highly recommend a book that I think everyone in the arts should read entitled “Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding” by the late Alice Goldfarb-Marquis.

    (This is from a blog post of mine on the Detroit Symphony Orchestra-DSO):

    In the book, she details how a surge in public funding for the arts occurred in the middle of the last century, which created an artificial demand for artists and arts organizations of various types (dance, music, theatre, etc.). Thus, in current parlance, an “arts bubble” was created which relied almost solely on donors, both public and private. She also identifies how those benefactors began to move away from arts funding in favor of other charitable donations (hospitals, education, etc.) that provided them with the visibility and cachet that the arts no longer provided.

    Brian Wise, writing online for New York City’s classical music station WQXR, wrote in an article entitled “Classical Music in 2010: Joyful Noise, Troubled Silence” in which he posited that the DSO is perhaps a harbinger for orchestras around the country. Gene Morrow, Executive Director of the Gotham Early Music Scene, commented on Wise’s article as follows:

    “Large-scale symphony orchestras populated by well-paid musicians in stable careers and heard/supported by musically literate patrons may be, like many other sectors of the American economy, a 20th-century aberration from the norm. Historically and in most other genres, neither musicians nor audiences had it so good.”

    An “aberration from the norm” is another way of saying that the last 75 years have truly been a bubble, which supports Goldfarb-Marquis’ analysis and thesis. Additionally, the historical aspect of this reading is correct–very few musicians prior to the 20th Century ever generated an income stream capable of supporting a family, much less the kingly sum of $130,000 (approximate average yearly salary and benefits of a DSO member). Those that were able to generate a meagre income, did so through the patronage of the church or the aristocracy.

    Goldfarb-Marquis’ book was published in 1995, at a time when funding was already waning. It seems that the situation is now exacerbated and accelerated due to the recent recession. The difference from previous recessions, if Goldfarb-Marquis was correct, is that the arts won’t recover as they have previously because the large public donors will not return in force.

    Thus, while the arts bubble bursts, and the tech revolution continues unabated, the music industry restructures itself; from record companies to retailers, new and profitable models are appearing. Pop music groups (and a few classical artists, mostly in the New Music genre, but some orchestras and opera companies as well) are also adapting. The traditional training grounds (colleges and universities), however, have yet to make any major changes to their curricula in response to these enormous changes in the music industry. How will these insulated and famously sclerotic entities respond to the inevitable decreasing enrollment in the coming decades?

    1. Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to this very thoughtful comment. You’ve given a lot here, and I won’t be able to address it all. (Out of my element!) 😉

      You raise a very interesting point on how musicians “have never had it this good.” I’ve often wondered, when naysayers come along and are critical of musical administrative types for being not business-minded enough, perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps they are consummately gifted in this respect, as evidenced by the successful productization of an archaic performance tradition, to the tune of 130k (your figure) average of the Detroit Symphony musician. Further, the sheer number of podunk orchestras around today, versus fifty years ago, would suggest the further inflation of the bubble.

      Still, these kinds of points play like a bow with too little rosin for those who have made their lives in the orchestral industry. They gotta eat, they gotta pay the mortgage, and our intellectualizing over the history/current economic crisis isn’t solving things for them.

      Funny, since I’m making a new career for myself, I’m willing to acknowledge the real scope of the problem in a way that I couldn’t before. When you’re in the thick of it, for many, there is only forward, or comparatively microscopic aberrations on the traditional career path. Other “reformed” classical musicians I’ve spoken with agree: once you put it behind you, you’re liberated and have an incredible perspective shift on the problems facing a career in music.

      Thanks for your comment FraKathustra! 😉

  40. As a harpist, I find I am in a better situation than most musicians…not excellent but better, I can do a lot of gigs solo, though I find myself having to cover Hp1 and 2 in the regional orchestras. I agree with everything you have written. It was really brought home to me when I tried to refi my house. No local bank would take me because I was such a high risk. Even the bank I have used my whole life, and had a car loan and 2 mortgages through when I was married, refused me as a single woman musician. My credit score is high but my income is not. The bank that finally approved me was across the country and my rep kept saying, “you must have some cash you aren’t declaring, right? There is no way you can live on your income!” My answer was that I do live on my income. Most musicians don’t notice the recession when it comes to our lifestyles, we have always shopped in thrift shops and discount stores. Cereal for dinner? Of course. There isn’t much more we can cut back.

    That said, I still have clients who are on a “budget” and want me to discount my services so they can afford a 250 person dinner reception with valet parking and a $5,000 wedding gown. It is very frustrating. Yes I do it because I love it, but I also have a mortgage and harp insurance and all the expenses most people have, I just happen to get to do what I love for a living.

  41. Pingback: Born for art
  42. Please STOP making the arguments that the arts have academic spin offs like NASA and tang. The arts are an essential aspect of modern communications. Once upon a time it was oration, then it was writing, and now it is multi media. If you want to tell someone something you are expected in today’s world to use images, music, layout, type face, most of all PRODUCTION, you do it with just words like your grandparents did and you should expect it to be ignored – what job will that get you? So Doctors, lawyers, engineers, you all rely on fundamental arts skills almost every day in your job unless your job involves no communication whatsoever. I am writing this post from an eye Dr’s office that my wife and child go to. I love coming here, the waiting room is gorgeous with art on the walls, beautfiully laid out furniture and front desk, even the music is excellent. Do these things matter in my family’s choice of eye doctor? Actually they probably do – every time she needs to go I am excited to take her, so if her primary ever suggests another specialist she will resist saying this Dr. is the best – you know a part of that calculation is how pleasant it is to come here. I would argue that an arts background has a lot to do with it – in fact this guy spent a large portion of his youth studying harp of all things. So I say arts and aesthetic training are not optional but NECESSARY for being a competative professional in ANY field today – ignore this in your child’s education at your own risk.

  43. Thank you so much for writin this hood Mr. Beem. I live this life; my husband is a core member of two B-list orchestras. It’s very hard, I feel bad all the time, because he doesn’t always seem to enjoy what he set out to do when he was 12 years old. The pay stinks, auditions to move up in the orchestra are “politicized”, and the running around is just hard on the body and mind. Not to mention, he has to work full-time as well. All you said in your blogs is well put. Thank you for letting the rest of the world know.

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