Sunday, November 20, 2005

Going into Music as a Profession

Thirty years ago I had my eyes and ears wide open. I understood a great deal about the business of music, but I still chose to go ahead and seek a musical education. I went to The Juilliard School of Music, one of the best conservatories in the country (some would say the world), and I came out of it with the hope that I would find work as a musician (I was a flutist at the time). I was lucky. I did find work as a musician, but it was not anything like the orchestra job that, as a teenager, I imagined I would get. It was also not in America.

My first job was teaching recorder and flute (mostly recorder) in a little town in Austria where one of my duties was to don a drndl and march in the town band for funerals. Later I had my taste of professional orchestral life subbing in the Hong Kong Philharmonic which came bundled with insecurities and never turned into a "real job." Many musicians from my generation went out of the country to find work. Some made lives in other countries, but many returned to look for jobs outside of music to support their musical habits.

After I retuned to America I married a great guy and moved to a small town in Illinois where I worked as the classical music director at a radio station (I learned how to do it on the job) and did a small amount of flute playing. I didn't have a master's degree, so I could not get a job teaching at the local university. I didn't get a master's degree because I didn't think it was ethical to encourage flutists to go into music as a profession.

Then I switched instruments: I learned to play the violin, and then learned to play the viola. After practicing at least three hours a day for several years, I was able to play in a professional string quartet. I got work playing string quartets for weddings and playing string quartet concerts. When the work is plentiful I make around $5,000 a year playing. Add a few freelance orchestral jobs to that and the amount I make playing my instrument goes up $2,000 or so.

I decided to get a master's degree in composition, and now that I have a master's degree I am qualified to teach music appreciation at a community college, which still does not bring my yearly wages above the poverty level. I also make a little bit of money as a composer (very little) and as a critic (very, very, little) and as a writer. These activities take a huge amount of time, and the amount of money I make per hour of work is not worth measuring or mentioning. These activities are labors of love.

I am thankful that I am married to a person who understands my need to be a musician and is able to support our family financially. My advice to anyone determined to go into music as a profession is to marry well (meaning marry someone who understands your musical needs and is able to support them) and to get a real education. Learn about the world. Learn to use your brain. Learn about history and science. Learn to read literature. Learn to write. Learn how to find happiness in things that do not cost money. Play concerts. Share your love of music with people, especially your children and/or other people's children.

Technorati tag:


Lyudmilla said...

Dear Elaine, Thanks for your essay. I have a son who is aspiring to become a musician. He is only 8 years old but already achieved quite a lot for his age (comparatively). Having said that there are plenty who at his age are even better than him. With every year he becomes more and more passionate about music. As a mother with every year I learn more and more about how cruel and competitive the world of professional music is. I feel like sparing him from it and at the same time I do not want to be one of those parents who out of pragmatism kill a chance for their child to go the way they want. Your article shows a lot of sad truth and corresponds well with what I thought it will be like to work in the field of music. It gives a lot to think about. I admire you for speaking openly about it. It is very good of you. With many thanks. Lyudmilla

Elaine Fine said...

Dear Lyudmilla,

Thank you for your comment. There is nothing wrong with encouraging your son to become the best musician he can possibly be. There are many terrific musicians who have been able to combine a high-powered college education and a demanding extra-musical career with good or great musicianship. I believe that a dedication to music enhances everyone's life, and the ability to play at the highest level possible further amplifies that enhancement.

I like to keep the old saw, "when musicians get together they talk about money, and when bankers get together they talk about music" in mind. Granted, our current crop of bankers and businesspeople seems to be musically tone deaf (perhaps that's one reason for all the problems), but musicians tend to have, because of the balance and essential morality of music itself, a far more generous way of looking at the world.