Me, and some great kids in 2007 after soloing Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote.

Today I read a Facebook meme that put my back up. It read: “If you possess minimum skills, minimum education, and minimum motivation, why the hell should I pay you more than minimum wage?”

This is among the most offensive policy-led generalizations I have read in a long time, and it’s common. It seeks to simplify the identities of the poor in America, and justify your right to hate them.

It gets me mad because I was once poor. I was once living below the poverty line. I am educated, skilled and motivated, and I am also a statistical anomaly; I am among the few working poor who managed to escape. It makes me mad because many of my friends were not so lucky.

Here is my story, in fewer than 800 words.

Once upon a time, I was a cellist. In 1998, I dropped out of graduate school. I’d grown disillusioned with a career in music and quit the cello for two years to take a job in the café at Barnes and Noble in Bloomington, Indiana.

In those days, I found myself serving coffee to people who were kind, and those who were cruel. I smiled when I could—which was most of the time. Even when serving coffee to the man who gave me a failing grade in orchestra because he didn’t think a professional engagement at Carnegie Hall was a good reason to miss a school orchestra concert.

That failing grade resulted in the loss of my scholarship and could not be appealed. Not even by my cello professor, Janos Starker, who was generally thought to have sway at IU. In his words, “I couldn’t keep him from failing my own daughter or son-in-law. I can’t help you.”

Eventually I came to miss the cello. Near the end of my musical exile, I organized my forty hour a week schedule into four, ten-hour shifts. I’d report to work early in the morning, and clock out at 6:30. By 7:30, I was in the practice building at IU, sawing away on the orchestral literature required to win jobs. When the custodian came to lock the building, I’d have myself deliberately locked in and practice through the night. The next morning I was back at the café, bright and surly, sucking down product, and striving to distinguish myself through an exemplary work ethic. At the end of the day, it was back to the practice room for more; a typical work day was 72 hours. I slept on my days off.

This is how I won my first job as Assistant Principal Cellist of the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra, roughly $4k a year. I boosted my income by another $6k by adding private teaching and adjunct college teaching. I had a regular five-hour commute, but that’s comparatively unremarkable in a musical career. I had a lot of college debt—so my personal wealth was in the double negatives.

When the Principal Cello position opened up in Evansville, I took the audition. To my good fortune—I won. Now I was pulling down $25k, but the extra gigs and solo opportunities rounded my salary out to something just north of $30k.

Yet, now that I wasn’t busy every second of the day, I noticed that all around me, my friends were drowning. Everyone carried significant student debt, but the lifestyle I’d been doing for months, they’d been doing for years. They were just as gifted as I was, if not more so. They just weren’t as lucky. There were too many of them, and too few students. Too few jobs. My situation, by comparison, was very attractive.

Still, the insurance available to me was critically limited. My wife and I wanted to start a family, but the Philharmonic couldn’t afford to cover her. In this time, she was teaching 30 students, gigging in two orchestras, and working as a barista at Starbucks—the minimum weekly hours to get insurance.

So, my job searching continued. By 2008, I took a position at Indiana University South Bend as Lecturer in Music, (Cellist, Euclid Quartet,) which earned northwards of $40k. Additional private teaching, master classes and concerts, and the generous university benefits package pushed our finances into the realm of the “sanely” livable.

*Breathes*

I was thirty-six by the time I crossed that marker, but many of my colleagues continue to live in poverty. Others who won jobs have since lost them, or else had them cut to the point where they’re back in poverty. (The latest orchestra in the news is Indianapolis.) The fact is: a living wage as a classical musician is becoming increasingly mythic for college graduates.

Admittedly, a career as a classical musician is a niche industry. But it’s just one niche industry in this country—one which underscores the folly of vilifying and generalizing the greedy, lazy, and unmotivated poor. Not every poor person is gaming the system, but, in a world where more money translates to greater ease in evading taxes, can the richest among us say the same?

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18 thoughts on “The Lazy Poor

  1. Hi David–Thank you for this post. In an election year rife with Calvinistic mantras, it’s hard to cut through the noise to hear a sane voice. Working poor does not mean lazy poor. It means barely eking out a living, as you have well illustrated.

    Best,

    Sharon

  2. The working poor. I have been “the working poor” for roughly fifteen years now. I work two jobs, write every day in hopes that one day it will pay off and still pray. I pray a lot. I really enjoyed this post and definitely needed to read it today.

    Thank you for your words.

  3. Thanks for your post David! It really made my day!
    You were a tremendous cellist and musician and it seems that so many years of hard work, talent and dedication are trash to so many people…shame on them because they don´t know what Art is and what implies!

    All the best for you, your wonderful family and your writing.
    Hang in there!!!

  4. David,
    Thanks for sharing your story. I have many friends working in a broad variety of arts. They’re reading philosophy, thinking things through, and refusing to give up on dreams, a sense of purpose and calling to what they’re doing, and they’re paying for it in a variety of ways. Sometimes they get good jobs, often times they work lousy jobs more for the sake of scheduling. Seems like most of us are able to see that time is more valuable than money. Some are luckier than others, but it doesn’t have anything to do with talent.
    What a journey you’ve been through! Look forward to talking with you more.

    1. Thanks, Adam. Thing is, your journey, and those others’ you mentioned, are also remarkable–these are the stories that should be told when it becomes fashionable to vilify the poor. Thank you for taking time to read and comment!

  5. I have been part of the working poor since I left home in 2000. That’s twelve years of treading water. I had fellow students in my college days who either had copious scholarship awards or very generous/wealthy parents who managed their utilities and rent while they attended school and did internships and such, but I paid my own way by working for my landlady, working nights at fast food chains, etc. to cover those expenses while I went to school. I majored in Psychology, then a few years later, earned my MBA. I work in a field not even related to my degree. We were fortunate when I moved out of temporary employee status a few years ago and had actual health insurance for the first time, but the debts incurred in the first nine years of treading water are still haunting us to this day. It still feels like a cosmic game of whack-a-mole some days because we never know when something else will come up to knock us off kilter financially.

    1. I like that metaphor: cosmic game of whack-a-mole. It makes it real, even while using the word “cosmic.” I hear you about the debt. I sometimes wonder if this is the micro version of our financial game of Russian roulette we’re seeing play out on the world stage. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  6. It’s hard for me to organize my thoughts enough to say much, as my husband and I are in the thick of the battle to survive as classical musicians. It is such a complex issue and so loaded with cultural factors that go beyond the quality of the work and skill we can offer. Seems that success as a musician has as much -or more- to do with marketing and connections than the individual’s mastery of the art.

    Thanks for articulating some of the issues.

    Some day we will have a story to tell, but it is too tender at the moment…

  7. Hi David,
    It resolutely saddens me that classical musicians, with so much training and artistry struggle to stay above the poverty line. And the story about your ex teacher who gave you a failing grade when you were studying under Janos Starker and had an incredible opportunity to preform at Carnegie Hall. I’m in awe that you had the incredible experience of being coached by Janos Starker. I’m sure he was very selective about who he chose to teach and I’m sure it was with great belief if you that he taught you.
    People like your ex-teacher should simply be banned from teaching altogether! That kind of behaviour is what threatens humanity at it’s core. You are an incredible musician and now writer too. I went to a Cold Play concert recently and even they were incredibly thankful to the audience for making the choice to attend their concert instead of the ever increasing options put forth to us today.
    Some people call it marketing…whatever it is…I think what people yearn for for at the end of the day is connection, community, relevance, reciprocation and interaction at a really personal level. Art to me in it’s truest form should represent that interaction. To me, art is the conduit to saving or strengthening humanity…..you probably think I’m on crack, Anyways, I wish you, your writing and your audience that experience. As I do to all the incredible artists who struggle onwards.

  8. Thank you for sharing your story, David. (I came across it via Justin Dougherty.) It can be incredibly difficult to allow yourself to pursue the work you find meaningful when it is constantly devalued even by those who surely could relate on some level if they’d just take a moment to give it some critical thought. Your resilience is admirable and inspiring to me.

    1. Thank you very much, Stephan. I’m actually working on a big blog now for young musicians considering a career in music. I hope it will be helpful.

      Thanks again for reading.

      David

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