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You're paid?!
It's time to stop feeling guilty for being a musician.

by Holly Mulcahy
January 7, 2008

"You're paid?!"

It's the question every professional musician hears at one time or another. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Patron: "We really enjoyed your performance today. My wife and I were just remarking how beautifully the ensemble played together. How long did it take to get that tough piece together?"
Musician: "Glad you enjoyed the piece, we had four rehearsals this past week."
Patron: "Wow, four? That is amazing! How do you find the time in the week with work?"
Musician: "This is my job."
Patron: "You're paid!?"

Unfortunately, this isn't a rare occurrence. In the minds of many people, classical musicians are ‘playing' for fun. And while it is fun, many listeners don't realize the hard work and the money that went into training and the cost of instruments. As a result, there seems to be a disconnect between what audience members instinctively perceive as a hobby as opposed to a profession when it comes to full time musicians.

Very often, there is a misunderstanding about the hours involved for a classical musician. On paper, time rehearsing as a group looks pretty small. Sometimes with rehearsals and concerts only adding up to 20 hours a week, patrons - and even symphony board members - will wonder why musicians object to the idea holding down a "regular" job so they can achieve a typical 40 hours work-week. To those folks, these darn musicians are getting away with an awful lot of free time.

I would love to just have a 20 hour work week, in the literal sense, who wouldn't? But the reality is the system of 20 hours of rehearsals and concerts isn't viable without a large amount of home preparation. Much like an iceberg, what you see above water is only the tip of what goes into necessary preparation.

On top of learning pieces for upcoming performances, there is the necessary maintenance routine that every musician must do to keep their technical ability up to par. Daily scales, musical exercises, and of course the stretching and general good care for one's own body. Personally, during a typical concert week, I'll put in a total of 15-25 additional hours of personal practice to keep up my own skill. If the concert contains a large amount of new music outside standard repertoire, you can add as much as 75 percent more practice time. If the music is more familiar, I dedicate more of my practicing routine toward personal maintenance.

Another misconception I run into on a regular basis is a sense of irritation from some audience members when they learn that although we do enjoy our job as musicians, we expect to be paid a living wage. I remember on instance when I was playing at a wedding and after the ceremony was completed a woman approached our quartet to tell us how much she enjoyed our playing.

Listener: "I really enjoyed your playing, it added so much to the ceremony."
Quartet Member: "Thank you, it is always gratifying to hear that."
Listener: "You added so much to the ceremony and you looked like you were having so much fun."
Quartet Member: "All of us work very hard to present the best performances we can and when our audience is having fun, we have more fun too. We're all members of the [Symphony] so your friends got a first-rate group for what they paid."

At that point, the listener had a look of dismay melt down her face and she said "But doing this is fun, why should you get paid?" At which point she promptly turned around and stormed off. My colleagues and I smiled, exchanged knowing glances, and packed up to leave.

I remember back to my high school days when the guidance counselor told a class full of students, "Choose a job you enjoy and you will never work a day in your life." So why did I feel guilty for the first five years of my career when encountering listeners like the one above? I enjoy my job. Playing in a symphony is something I have worked long and hard to achieve. While every day is not puppy dogs and sunshine, there is a happy satisfaction for the majority of it.

On the other hand, it is bothersome that some listeners continue to react poorly to a musician's expectations that they deserve to be paid fairly and earn a living at what they do. It is even more frustrating when this attitude is encountered among the people who have accepted the responsibility of promoting musicians, specifically symphony managers and board members.

What I want to say to people like this is "No, you aren't paying us just to play, what you are paying for is highly trained professionals who work their butts off to get the result you expect!" But what I actually do is calmly relay the following food analogy.

Over the years, when I shop for eggs I have a very specific list of requirements. It is not an elitist or snobby thing for me, instead, it is an educated choice. I choose to buy the "expensive" eggs because they are healthier, tastier, are produced by happy chickens on sustainable farms, and can usually help a local chicken farmer make a decent wage. I remember a point in my life when I questioned why anyone would pay over $3.00 for eggs when you can get the same dozen for 70¢. Eggs are eggs, right? Well no, I started changing my outlook out after learning how the "cheap" eggs were processed and my own perceptions broke down after learning about the real value of purchasing eggs from sustainable farming practices.

There are a number of similarities in the attitudes displayed by the sort of listeners described in this article. Why should one pay for a ticket for a live concert when they can by a recording of the same music made by an Eastern European pick-up ensemble that is forced to accept the miserable choice of working for poverty wages?

It is about craftsmanship, experience and quality. While a "cheaper" performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 will produce the same four movements of music the "expensive" will yield, the former leaves the listener with a bland experience reminiscent of something better. On the other hand, the latter ensemble provides something more fulfilling for the listener that cannot be achieved without cultivating years of experience among musicians in a professional ensemble.

But how can you really compare organic eggs to musicians? After all, is it possible to measure the value of your intellectual health on the same level as your physical health? Perhaps that's a discussion better suited to a future article but in the meantime, I feel good about my career choice. When I get questioned about my "real job", I will do my best to explain what is involved in my week of playing and I will continue to wonder about other careers:

  • Should zoo keepers be paid a living wage? Don't they enjoy working with animals? I sure would enjoy that!
  • Why is a NASCAR driver paid so much? I can drive fast on the highways free of charge! Why should we pay someone else to do that (and they don't have to worry about getting speeding tickets)?
  • What about Bakers? Wouldn't the smell of fresh bread and minimum wage keep them happy?
  • How about swimsuit models? All they need to do is look their best and take care of their bodies. Isn't that what we all should be doing anyway, so why do they deserve to be paid so much?

In the end, I guess the answer is summed up in the saying "you get what you paid for."




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