Monday, February 11, 2013

Respect for Musicians

Now that I am retired as a professional performing musician, I think I can speak up for them without it being categorized as "special pleading". I really hate special pleading which Wikipedia defines as follows:
Special pleading, also known as stacking the deck, ignoring the counterevidence, slanting, and one-sided assessment, is a form of spurious argument where a position in a dispute introduces favourable details or excludes unfavourable details by alleging a need to apply additional considerations without proper criticism of these considerations. Essentially, this involves someone attempting to cite something as an exemption to a generally accepted rule, principle, etc. without justifying the exemption.
This is, of course, a standard way of argument among salespeople, corporations in general and politicians. I guess they all failed to notice that it is a spurious argument!

But now I think I can speak up for musicians who do not have an easy time of it. In the past, while it was always a difficult vocation to follow, there was at least a fundamental respect for classical musicians. At least that was my impression growing up. Nowadays that seems to be fading. I cite two recent events. From Slipped Disc:
Customs officials at Frankfurt Airport have now stopped a Chinese violinist, Feng Ning, and confiscated the 1721 Stradivarius he was carrying. He is facing a demand for 19 percent of its value, approximately 700,000 Euros.
The seizure has made headlines in Bild, reinforcing the impression that musicians of Asian extraction are being targeted at one particular airport. This is the fourth known incident in less than six months, clearly no coincidence.
Musicians are advised to avoid Frankfurt Airport until the German customs authorities conform to the guidelines practised elsewhere in the EU.
From The Strad:
A rare Heinrich Knopf bow belonging to Alban Gerhardt was damaged by security officers as he entered the US. In what the cellist called ‘an act of brutal and careless behaviour’, the bow stick (left) was snapped in two, over the bridge of the cello, by air security staff at O'Hare International Airport, Chicago, as they examined the case’s contents.

According to Gerhardt, ‘The bow must have somehow moved halfway out of its cover (the tip was still in the cover), and when it was halfway out, [Transportation Security Administration workers] forced the case shut and the bow broke.’ The incident occurred on 6 February, a day before Gerhardt was due to perform Prokofiev’s Symphony–Concerto with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in Madison, Wisconsin.

Gerhardt had also brought a Baroque bow in the case, for a subsequent concert in New York, but for the Prokofiev he was obliged to borrow a bow from Uri Vardi, a cellist and teacher at the University of Wisconsin School of Music.
We have a photo:

I'm sure every string player reading this feels the pain of seeing a fine instrument mistreated

Musicians must spend many years of selfless dedication to learn their craft. Then they must somehow acquire an expensive instrument to perform on. And after all this, most musicians earn only very modest salaries. A few superstars earn seven figure incomes, while 90% of musicians consider themselves lucky to earn the equivalent of a low-ranking civil servant's pay.

Why do they do this? The main reason is out of a love of music. A secondary reason might be that a musician's life, while often insecure, is more interesting and challenging than that of a worker in a more typical job.

Musicians really deserve our respect for the effort and dedication they put into what they do. But I sense that this is less and less true. Don't the two incidents above demonstrate this? Sure, they are somewhat isolated and anecdotal, but indicative nonetheless. As classical music occupies less and less of public space, the level of respect diminishes. Fewer and fewer people even know what classical musicians do and how they do it.

Maybe we need to speak out.

Here is the cellist whose bow was broken, Alban Gerhardt, playing the first movement of the Dvořák Cello Concerto. The soloist enters at the 3:30 mark:

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