Thursday, November 01, 2012

Amateurish Ramble

When I was in high school there were three kinds of musicians. There were people who were equally good at music and academic subjects, there were people who did music as an activity, but put their studies and sports ahead of what they did with music, and then there were the people who didn't worry about their grades because they knew that practicing was ultimately more important. Music was what they were planning to do, and everything else was, well, everything else.

I, of course, fit into the latter category.

I grew up in a boom time for music, and had all the advantages of being a music insider in a boom town (Boston), which led me to feel very comfortable in New York. I never had any doubts that I would be able to make my living as a musician, but being a flutist I knew I had to work at least ten times as hard as a string player to get a job, and that the job that I would get might not be in America. I considered this a fair challenge, and met it with energy and enthusiasm. I was not equipped to embark on adult life as an amateur. I didn't have the skills.

I graduated from Juilliard in 1980, but I didn't want to get a master's degree (you could get one in a single year at Juilliard) and look for a university job (you only needed a master's back in the 70s and 80s) because I was well aware of the employment limitations for flute players and the competitiveness that they would encounter. I didn't want to be in the professional position of "encouraging" the next generation of flutists to major in performance and enter the competition for orchestral jobs. Orchestras only carry three or four flutists, and most of them hang onto their jobs for life. If I were teaching in a college and not playing in an orchestra, what credibility would I have with students anyway?

There were plenty of jobs for string players, and even plenty of jobs for pianists and singers during the 1970s, particularly in New York. The wind, brass, and percussion players who played really well and knew a bit about the politics of getting work had work to do. When I left New York in 1980 for personal reasons, I figured that I could always return and would always be able to find playing work. When I did return after the first Recession, there was very little flute playing work. There was still work for string players, so I considered the problem a flute-related one: New York had become, in my absence, overpopulated with good flutists.

When I returned I found that synthesized music had started taking over the Broadway pits. Now, in 2012, the very nature of music for the Broadway and Off-Broadway theater has changed entirely. Whatever studio work remains has been dispersed across the country (though not into my neck of the woods), and it is harder and harder to find an orchestra that can guarantee that it will continue to exist from season to season. There are more highly accomplished musicians (including string players) in America than I imagine there have ever been, and even if there were as many places for them to do professional work as there were in the 1970s and 80s, I imagine only a fraction of them would be able to make ends meet, particularly in an expensive city like New York.

Then there's academia, which was once a haven for musicians who were willing to, for better or for worse, encourage their students to make music their livelihood. The students that succeed need to have marketing skills that are as good as their musical skills. Youth, good looks, great social skills, and a financial cushion help, as well as the willingness to think and move outside of the "classical box." Meanwhile, tenure-track positions are rare, and people are lining up for whatever adjunct positions happen to open up. Anywhere. (And now in any discipline of the arts and the humanities, but that's the subject for a future rant.)

So the rest of us are now faced with playing for money once in a while, and making most of our living working at something else. Does that make us amateurs? If we are, we certainly don't fall under the usual definition of an amateur! Perhaps we can't support ourselves by our playing or our composing (I heard that laugh), but we can, if we are not beaten down by the greater culture, play and write just as well as if we were paid great sums of money. When the market economy (i.e. the private sector) tells us that what we are doing is essentially useless because it isn't popular with a significant part of the population, we can let it get to us, or we can rise above it, and keep practicing until things change.

Maybe, once this 30-year era of ridiculous greed has passed (and I wonder if Hurricane Sandy might have stuck a serious blow to it), more people will develop a relationship with music (particularly the "classical" kind), and will want to hear it played for them in real time and in real space rather than through electronic reproduction of a rendered performance delivered in mp3 quality directly into their heads, where nobody else can share the experience. Perhaps they will even want to pay for the experience, again and again. There are certainly enough musicians around to fill that kind of need.

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