Saturday, October 11, 2008

My Myth of the American Musical Dream

Growing up as a child of a musicians who came from families of musicians themselves, I always understood the concept of "working" as practicing, playing concerts, and teaching. I knew that my father worked in a "lab" before he worked as a musician (he was a chemist for what was to become NASA before he started playing in the Boston Symphony), but that was during a time when I was too small to have really noticed. My youngest childhood memories of family life always involved a great deal of music.

My window to the world of work was always a musical one. My friends' parents (all of them, I guess) worked, but I never really understood what any of them did. I know my paternal grandfather made picture frames for a living, but he was a violinist. My maternal grandmother taught piano lessons, and I'm pretty my maternal grandfather (who was also a violinist) did something else for a living, but I never knew him. The only conversation I remember having with him was on the telephone, and in that conversation he told me that he wanted to give a violin to my brother. Oh well.

Anyway, when I started out in music I had every intention of working as a musician. Even as a flutist I had the "American Dream" mentality that if I worked hard enough, I would succeed. I got into Juilliard, which was a version of success, I suppose. I got a pretty good teaching job at a music school in the Bronx. I had pretty good social skills, and was able to get some lower-tier musical work in New York. There were mountains to climb as a musician in New York, but I had every intention of climbing them because I knew that I had the capacity for hard work and the desire to succeed.

Then the work in New York kind of dried up, and like many musicians trying to find work in the 1980s, I went to Europe to find a job. I was very lucky to find one (though the circumstances of the job made it impossible for me to stay in my little alpine Austrian town). Returning to America after my short stint in Hong Kong, I found myself faced with an economy that did not support professional musical life the way it had in the past, and I had to find a way to support myself.

I spent a summer in New York. I investigated the world of work, and applied for the kinds of jobs that didn't require typing (I didn't know how to touch type) like working in stores and restaurants. I did manage to get a part-time job reading to a blind stockbroker who liked employing musicians, and I found a few students, but (along with playing on the street and a little freelancing) I couldn't make enough money to pay rent in New York.

I used to ask musicians how they supported themselves. Some did it by collecting unemployment insurance for playing seasonal jobs like the Ballet. One person told me that he supported himself (seriously) as a small-time criminal. And there were always people who worked as "call girls." And then there was temporary office work, which involved knowing how to type at least forty words per minute. I decided that it was time to learn to type.

Typing seemed like an oasis of stability, but office work was a mystery to me. I found that people working in offices spent a lot of time on their personal social lives while at work. I also found that a lot of people who typed in offices did "other things." There were lots of visual artists typing around Boston, and there was a sharp line between "professionals" and "support staff." The professionals around Boston seemed to enjoy having "support staff" who were "cultured" and "educated." I think that it made some of them feel that their professional status (and salary) was raised by having impressive underlings.

I played jobs on the weekends, but had a hard time getting musical work because my "day job" required me to be at an office from 8 to 5 every day. There was also not enough time to practice, so I had to try to squeeze it in during my lunch hour, if I could find space somewhere to do it.

It was then that I realized that the "American Dream" for musicians is a myth, especially during tough economic times. We work hard, we practice, we write, we arrange, we teach, we reach out to new audiences, we create new and innovative ensembles, we make recordings through improved and cheap technology, and we drive great distances for jobs, but it seems that the idea of an "American Dream" just isn't something that could apply to "classical" musicians anymore.

No comments: