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You're paid?!

It's time to stop feeling guilty for being a musician.

by Holly Mulcahy
January 7, 2008

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You're paid?!
"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."

Comments (6)

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Frank Manheim from Fairfax VA writes:
January 7, 2008
Ah me, your (Holly's) story awakens a lot of mixed thoughts and feelings, and of course, much empathy. As I am sure I have commented on before in this fine blog site, in the later 20th Century the classical music world has become something of an artificial construct. So it's not surprising that ordinary music lovers are not in touch with reality about it.

If we go to writers describing music affairs around the turn of the 20th Century and before, like the noted music critic, H.T. Finck (e.g. My Adventures in the Golden Age of Music, 1926) musical life was quite different. He was talking about the period of music around and before 1900, for already by 1926 major changes had occurred.

In 1900 there was no such a thing as "classical music" as a distinct genre of music separate from band music or popular song. There was only music. It could come in different styles, and each was accepted on its own merits - inspired or not. When people were affected by music it was acceptable to show it.

Recounting his life at age 18, Finck records: "Often when I play, tears of joyful emotion steal into my eyes, sometimes so profusely that I cannot see the notes and have to stop." ....."One of the most violent "brain storms" I remember was one afternoon when Edward - who had an agreeable tenor voice - first sang a group of Schubert's songs, then new to me. I happened to be petting Bruno, who was curled up under an apple tree near the house. I buried my face in his beautiful soft fur and wept and sobbed in a woeful ecstasy of heavenly joy".

But musicians and music lovers were also in the real world. I relish a story told by Finck about the great American opera singer, Emma Eames, who was as beautiful physically as her voice. In London ladies of the highest aristocratic circle called to ask if she would sing for their favorite charity. After a moment's thought she replied sweetly "I will, on one condition. You are all wealthy ladies, far wealthier than I. Now my usual cachet is 300 pounds. I will contribute that by singing, on condition that each of you will sign for the same amount." The visitors said they would consider the offer but she never heard from them again.

Miss Eames once told Finck's wife that "I love to give parties for the pleasure of leaving out certain persons who want to come."

What a difference between Finck, who shared real personal emotions, and experiences about musicians as real people with his readers, and contemporary music writers like Charles Rosen and Joseph Horowitz. These admittedly highly knowledgeable men - and to some extent even the more informal Alex Ross of the New Yorker, don't write to bring pleasure and usable information to readers as fellow music lovers. Their books are primarily display pieces for their formidable musical knowledge and credentials - and at times, their brilliant and quirky writing style.

It is not surprising that music lovers who have been treated as lower orders of life by the music establishment since World War II, fit mainly to buy tickets and be "educated" by their musical superiors, don't really understand what music and musicmaking is all about. The more sensitive ones often hesitate to speak to representatives of this mysterious art, for fear of making gaffes or revealing their lack of knowledge. That sometimes leaves communication to those least well informed and perhaps less caring about what anybody thinks about them.

Holly, I hope you turn away from describing the foibles of hapless audiences, and exercise your critical faculties in describing what really goes on in the music establishment without fear or favor. Do it even if you have to assume a pen name so as not to become ostracized for your troubles.


Alexa Weber Morales from Oakland, CA writes:
January 12, 2008
Excellent piece, excellent points. As a jazz musician with many years of training and practice, I love to rock out on stage. In addition to the audience experiences you describe, I also find that amateur musicians are often shocked by my band members' ability to simultaneously play, read music, solo and perform with enthusiasm.

I think many musical hobbyists and aspirants have also bought into the idea that music is a love, not a job. The career path is murky, especially if you are not a classical musician. It has taken me years to find my own way and to craft a professional approach that can sustain me and my family. I'm going to use some of the comebacks you mention when I get those questions in the future!

--Alexa Weber Morales

Holly Mulcahy from chicago writes:
January 25, 2008
Thank you for your kind comments, I'm so glad you enjoyed the article!

Bill Harrison from Chicago writes:
May 21, 2008
The sad truth is that many audience members suffer from two basic illnesses: ignorance and frustration.

Many "civilians", as I like to call non-musician folk, have NO idea what kind of preparation goes into achieving a high level of proficiency as an instrumentalist AND, as you say, maintaining that professionalism. I liken this phenomenon to the complaining people do when they hire skilled craftspeople, for instance. What? It costs $150 for a plumber to come fix my bathtub? Why, yes - because that person knows what to do based upon their education plus (most likely) many years of experience.

The frustration I witness in many people is brought on by their dissatisfaction with their own careers and/or lives. Most people seem to be rather unhappy with the work they must do everyday to make a living. Consequently, when they observe us musicians appearing to enjoy the work we do they assume it must be a sideline or something we do "for fun". I think some folks simply resent the fact the we actually like the work we do (sometimes, anyway...)

Jamie from Canada writes:
June 23, 2008
Musicians are undervalued absolutely, but I don't think that necessarily means they are underpaid. The amount of effort and training involved in becoming a professional musician is enormous but they can't be paid competitively with someone who put that much effort into another field because that isn't sustainable. I don't think many musicians really think they should be paid this much, as much as they would like it. If they were to charge a huge fee then audiences will diminish and the orchestra will go bankrupt.

Musicians probably think that a reasonable compromise is that they should be paid according to how well they can perform. If they are making good music, they should be paid good money.

I think that the only economically viable option is that musicians should be paid for the value they are delivering to their audiences. The problem is that musicians know the inherent value of their music (they are trained to), but not the communicated value to their audiences.

So if we want to get paid more, we need to figure out how to make concerts more rewarding for audiences. The obvious first thought is to play better, and that would be great, but I don't think it is the solution. I think the average orchestra today is far better than the average orchestra of today is far better than the average orchestra of 200 years ago and yet the audiences of today like it less! How can this be?

The problem lies with our audiences. So how do you change society? How do you get them to buy organic (which I don't really believe in, btw. "organic" has become a marketing gimmick and often times is as "evil" as the rest of it)? How do you convince people to go green? How do you convince people to stop having so many damn babies?! How do we convince people to live well?

I really really don't know. But I care, and a lot of people do. Maybe if we get together and have a real voice (ie. lobbyists) we can convince governments that we're worth protecting. And I don't mean more government hand outs, I mean investing in musical education and creating an art conscious society.

Sandy from Chicago writes:
August 6, 2010
Holly - great article! You mentioned NasCar drivers... what about todays athletes in general? They're entertainers, as we are, but get paid millions. Why pay them so much, as they are doing what they love too?? And football players, they only "perform" 3 hours a week!!! And sometimes not even that!!!!! Oh wait, but there's practice, conditioning, stretching, eating well, taking care of yourself... hmm, this is sounding familiar...

I guess the demand for sports is a bit greater than the demand for great, live music I suppose, which of course is a shame - but that's the world we live in. I agree with Jamie about investing in education and creating that "art conscious" society. Absolutely!

PS +1 for organic eggs!

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