Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Music and Employment

Over at Slipped Disc we get a brief glimpse of one of the realities of the music business:
The Danish National Symphony Orchestra has just closed applications for the Nikolai Malko Competition.
To its consternation, the number of candidates was more than twice the previous record – 563 of them, aged 18 to 35.
A flautist friend of mine told me that every time he applied for a job with an orchestra there were two hundred other flautists auditioning. We can discount Slipped Disc's usual sensationalist headline: "How many desperate conductors out there? 563" but at the same time recognize that the competition for jobs in the classical music field is ferocious. And, believe me, it is even worse for those who are not seeking a position in some musical institution like an orchestra or a conservatory, but seeking work as a soloist. On the one hand there are established artists like Grigory Sokolov who can likely play any hall he wants in Europe and do that season after season. On the other hand less well-known artists who are perhaps not quite as gifted as Sokolov struggle for every booking. I once called a concert series booker in Toronto every week for months trying to get a concert there with no result. Another time I sent a publicity package to every conductor in Canada (about seventy) and followed it up with a phone call to each one. With the same results.

For every possible opening there are hundreds of musicians competing for it. This is offset by network effects, of course. If you are a graduate of the Curtis Institute, it is much, much easier to find a position because you are already networked with Curtis graduates who are employed by every orchestra in North America. A lot of positions go to people who know people. This is not as unfair as it sounds as graduating from a famous school is a kind of filter for quality in itself. But the hard truth is that there are a lot of people who would like a career in music or the other arts, but are never going to quite achieve it. Even those who do achieve it may wrestle with depression and stress their whole lives as we learn from another Slipped Disc post:
Help Musicians UK has set up a task force to address high levels of mental illness in the music professions.
A new study identifies four contributory factors:
– Money worries – A career in music is often precarious and unpredictable. Many musicians have several different jobs as part of a portfolio career, and as a result get little time to take a break. It can be hard for musicians to admit to insecurities because of needing to compete with others and wanting to appear on top of things.  Musicians can also find it hard to access affordable professional help for mental health issues.
– Poor working conditions – Music makers can be reflective and highly self-critical, and exist in a working and personal environment of constant critical feedback. As many musicians are self-employed, their work can result in feelings of isolation when it comes to dealing with mental health problems.
– Relationship challenges – Family, friends and partners play an important role in supporting musicians, but these relationships can come under huge pressure and strain.
– Sexual abuse/bullying/discrimination – Musicians’ working environment can be anti-social and unsympathetic, with some people experiencing sexual abuse, harassment, bullying and coercion.
Musicians wrestle with higher levels of depression than people in other fields. This seems to clash with another host of studies trotted out to support arguments for more music education because music helps us be smarter and lead more fulfilling lives. I guess only if you don't pursue it professionally. Both of these posts, by the way, have a host of intriguing comments.

Now set this beside the recent attempts to apply identity politics to the hiring of musicians. "Diversity" and "Inclusion" demands that orchestras hire based on gender and race so that the demographics of the orchestra reflect that of the society. Imagine if you were one of that host of musicians trying to win the position and found out that, due to your identity, your chances were much less? Talk about depression!

Music is one of the most unforgiving disciplines there is. In earlier times I suspect this was not as keen because you could be a regional musician and not have to face as much competition. But once recording technology was invented you were compared, not to the tenor in the next town, but to Caruso. Violinists were compared to Heifetz and pianists to Horowitz. As the mass media became ever more pervasive the careers of the famous and well-established tended more and more to crush the careers of the middle-rank artists. I noticed this myself when a local summer music festival, a modest affair offering four or five concerts in an area with a population of around 300,000 people, hired a guitarist from New York instead of myself! I was wondering, "are things so tough in New York that he has to come here and take jobs from me?" I guess so.

Every musician feels the need to be a unique voice, a special expressive resource that cannot be swapped for another. This rather explains the wording of a lot of puff-pieces about musicians who always come off sounding like emotional basket-cases. But the reality is that the emotional and physical demands are so great that few can survive them. I have watched the career of guitarist Miloš Karadaglić in recent years as he seemed to have the possibility of building a solid career. Quoting from the Wikipedia article:
2012 was a breakthrough year on the concert stage for Miloš, with sold-out debut performances and tours in the UK, France, Netherlands, Switzerland, USA, Canada, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Australia. "Part of the reason Karadaglić has such a large following" commented The West Australian, "is his ability to straddle both hardcore classical and pop classical camps."
He even achieved the gold medal of recording achievement with a Deutsche Grammophon contract and released albums in 2012 and 2013. Alas, in October 2016 he announced that he was retiring from performance due to an injury to his hand. Lang Lang is also having to withdraw from performances due to a left hand injury and Hilary Hahn canceled a number of performances a couple of years ago for the same reason.

Well, I think I have belabored the point enough! Let's listen to some music. This is Miloš Karadaglić playing Asturias by Isaac Albéniz:


Ольга Бобоедова said...

Hi guys. My name is Olga and I'm from Russia
At the moment I'm in the process of writing my master's thesis on the use of blogs in education.
Could you help me a little? Just answer the question here in the comments. Who do you consider the best singer, composer, songwriter of all time?
It can be one person or several people. I will be very grateful for your help.
Beams of goodness all around, as we say in Russia.

Bryan Townsend said...

According to my traffic, I have a lot of readers in Russia, but this is the first comment from there. Odd questions, but there are at least three possible answers. In order:

- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
- J. S. Bach
- Bob Dylan

Beams of goodness right back!

Anonymous said...

I teach at a good liberal arts college where many students register for music lessons and ensembles. Those who choose to major in music almost always are double majoring in something more "practical": computer science, economics, or chemistry. Of course, the rationale behind this is that they will be able to find a good job in something besides music. (Since they never really have enough time to practice, with all the academic work expected of them, a career in music is not likely to happen anyway.)

One other observation: classical music - the music that matters the most to me, certainly - is off the radar for the vast majority of students, faculty, and administrators here. You've already discussed the reasons for this: it's too "hard," too European, not trendy enough. This fact relates to the dire employment situation for classical musicians because it suggests that demand for classical music will not come close to matching the supply, and, at least among affluent, ostensibly highly educated, bien pensant types it is already practically non-existent.

Bryan Townsend said...

I don't think that the kind of arrangement you describe, where liberal arts students are allowed to double major in music and something else is even possible in Canada. The only students who are allowed to take private lessons are music majors. I think the rationale might simply be the cost. But, as you say, if you have a lot of academic work, you simply do not have time to practice. Even performance majors in music do have to take a few non-music electives. I recall doing all my theory homework in my morning elective class: History of Christian Thought. Also, if you take private lessons, you also have to do a year-end performance exam, so you are going to have to find that practice time!

You say: "among affluent, ostensibly highly educated, bien pensant types [the demand for classical music] is already practically non-existent." This is both true and depressing because it is not only classical music, but things like history, literature and much more of our cultural heritage. Ignorance is not a positive in any culture!