Strike with the Band

The meritocratic failures of classical music

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The union for the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, late this June, refused to sign a contract that would cut its unionized musicians’ income by some 20 percent. The musicians were, in turn, locked out by management, which meant facing months without pay or health care. In a Baltimore Sun article, orchestra members told of their fears about losing homes and caring for sick loved ones. Perhaps the most striking interview in the report comes from a twenty-seven-year-old violinist who had done everything right: she was talented and worked intensively; after college she rose through the ranks from the second to the first violin section, finally landing her dream job with a union symphony. But before that, she went to the right schools, Oberlin Conservatory and the Manhattan School of Music, at a cost of over $100,000 in student loan debt. This was debt she was determined to pay off by the time she was forty, if she continued her frugal lifestyle, living with a roommate near the concert hall. And now, here she was walking the picket line with her railroaded colleagues, who had also done everything right.

The world of classical music is neither noble nor fair, though its reputation says otherwise. This is partly because to be classically trained means being regarded among the highest caliber of skilled musicians. Those who achieve such heights are capable of playing the most complex, technically difficult music on equally complex instruments that take decades to master. The prestige that comes with this mastery is, of course, heavily dependent on rankings—orchestra rankings, seating charts, a general fetishization of skill and dedication. And classical music itself is considered the highest echelon of institutional art music, its practice spanning centuries, its history a tapestry of colorful personalities and political upheaval. Like fine art and classical literature, it is considered a high-water mark for culture, a pastime enjoyed largely by the rich, the old, and the snobby. But classical music can be other things, too: transcendental, lush, heartbreakingly emotional. Nothing captures pure rapturous anguish like the third movement of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto; the profound unrest of unrequited love can be found in the see-sawing feverishness and piercing cries of Janàcek’s Second String Quartet; and one still comes out of the 23rd Mozart Piano Concerto or a Mahler symphony in a swirling, euphoric trance.

These are musical experiences that can change the life of a young person. It can give them reason to believe in the power of art above all else, and it can encourage a desire to participate in this art at all costs. I was one of these young people. After seeing Vanessa-Mae on the Disney Channel at the age of three, I begged my parents to let me play the violin. They waited until I was four and had the motor skills to at least use a pair of scissors, and finally granted my wish. They rented my first violin, tiny and horrible sounding, from Johnson String Instruments. Growing up in rural North Carolina, I took violin lessons from a woman who lived in a trailer. She had a stern voice and wore muddy boots. I switched to private lessons from one of the local school teachers, before, in my senior year of high school, commuting to the nearest city to take precious few lessons with one of the musicians from the local symphony. I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t play the violin. It was the backbone of my upbringing, my adolescence, my young adulthood. My formative human experiences, heartbreaks, desires, triumphs, and joys all revolved around playing the goddamn violin.

The world of classical music is neither noble nor fair, though its reputation says otherwise.

Meanwhile, I was discouraged from pursuing a number of different careers—botany, architecture, creative writing. But I was never, somehow, discouraged from pursuing a life in classical music. Growing up in a small Southern town, I was a shark in a little pond, better than my peers because I had a head start. Everyone thought I was talented, including myself, as I nabbed first chair after first chair. With every victory, the belief that the world was just and fair, and that the talented and hardworking would inherit it, became more and more cemented in my child-soul. When I was in high school, I decided I wanted to be a composer more than a violinist. I wrote my first pieces, little violin ditties, during my sophomore year. Pirated notation software expanded the ensembles to string and even chamber orchestra. I begged my parents to let me attend a pre-college summer program for composers at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

I should have thought twice about the career choice I had impulsively made at the age of seventeen when my parents explained they could only afford to send me to an in-state school instead of an out-of-state, high-end conservatory. My unshaken worldview relented, telling me that if I worked hard, I would succeed no matter which school I attended. I enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in the fall of 2012. Frankly, I’m glad I went there and graduated debt free instead of going to an expensive conservatory, where the crushing of my dreams would have been far more expensive.

Elective Epiphanies

In music school, you have time to do two things: make music and drink. I threw myself into doing both. I spent the $5,000 inheritance left to me by my grandfather, the same inheritance my sister used for a down payment on her house, to go to expensive summer festivals where you get to spend an hour a week with a composer whose name looks good on your resume. This is where I began to see the writing on the walls, when I met other musicians: those born into artistic families in big cities, ingrained into classical music culture at a young age; those who matriculated expensive and prestigious music schools; those attending their third festival of the summer. Meanwhile, I worked almost every night at a minimum wage job in the school recording studio to make ends meet; and I turned down a career-changing unpaid internship in one of the most important new music institutions in the composer mecca of Brooklyn because neither I nor my parents could afford for me to live in New York for a summer.

One day, around the beginning of my junior year of college, it occurred to me that I wasn’t going to make it. I had already developed carpal tunnel and tendonitis from years of improper violin technique taught to me by my rural music teachers. I was out of money to go to festivals, and I had no way of making lasting, important connections in a field where who you know matters more than anything else. I had no serious job prospects, nor any hope for job prospects. At work one night, the falseness of the “work hard and you will succeed” ethic washed over me: the truth was the music world was a two-tiered system, and I was in the second chair. Hungover, in the comfort of a dark recording booth, I began to cry. Few things are as life altering as realizing your preferred life is unalterably a fucked impossibility.

I needed a way out. I threw myself into my work at the recording studio, thanks to the generous help of my boss and mentor, who frequently let me skip class in his office in order to do so. I memorized signal chains, did an independent study on piano microphone techniques, studied circuit diagrams, and built synthesizers on breadboards. I got a paid internship at a speaker company, applied to a single graduate program in audio science at the Peabody Institute, got in on scholarship, and still managed to accrue $44,000 of student loan debt, graduating embittered. In a twist of fate, my blog went viral, and I became a full-time writer. The end. That’s the end of the story of how I devoted my life to a singular cause for twenty years and then didn’t do it anymore. I picked up the violin a few months ago, after two years of carpal tunnel recovery, and found myself unable to play pieces I had mastered in the sixth grade.

The myth of meritocracy had swallowed my early life. It also swallowed the small lifetime of the young violinist on lockout at the Baltimore Symphony. And it swallowed the small lifetimes of the dozens of people I spoke to when writing this article, all of whom asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution in this tiny, vindictive world.

Classical music is cruel not because there are winners and losers, first chairs and second chairs, but because it lies about the fact that these winners and losers are chosen long before the first moment a young child picks up an instrument. It doesn’t matter if you study composition, devote years to an instrument, or simply have the desire to teach—either at the university level or in the public school system. If you come from a less-than-wealthy family, or from a place other than the wealthiest cities, the odds are stacked against you no matter how much you sacrifice, how hard you work, or, yes, how talented you are.

Vetted and Indebted

Despite its reputation as being a pastime of the rich and cultured elite, classical musicianship is better understood as a job, a shitty job, and the people who do that job are workers just as exploited as any Teamster. Classical music has a high rate of workplace injury, especially chronic pain and hearing loss. Many musicians don’t own their instruments, some of which can be as expensive as a new car. My high school orchestra teacher, who played in a regional symphony, was still paying off a viola that cost $20,000. Even the elite among players don’t own their instruments outright; many of these instruments, including Amati and Stradivari violins, are loaned by philanthropists as gifts. I had to rent violins from the same company for sixteen years before I had accrued enough credit to buy one outright at $7,000, right before I graduated from college. One percussionist I interviewed, who works as a middle school band teacher, told me: “As a percussionist, another point of privilege comes with equipment. To own everything we could ever need professionally is very costly, especially a marimba, vibraphone, and full set of timpani. So that’s another huge point of privilege when, for example, one of my middle school students . . . his parents bought him a marimba earlier in the year. Which is great for him, yet here I am with my master’s degree, and I definitely don’t own one yet. I probably won’t for a long time.”

There is also the question of labor. It hasn’t been a great decade for symphony orchestras and their unionized workforces, which comprise perhaps the last stable jobs in the field. If you manage to get a union orchestra job, you’ve essentially made it—in the sense that there is a possibility that you may survive. Or, at least, that used to be the case. As I reported for Jacobin, labor disputes in the last ten years have become uglier, including a sixteen-month lockout at the Minnesota Orchestra that ended in 2014 and a failed strike at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, in which orchestra members had to trade a small pay raise for worse health insurance and longer orchestra vacancies. Perhaps the most humiliating defeat was dealt to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which went on strike for six months in 2011, only to concede to an almost 25 percent pay cut.

Classical musicianship is better understood as a job, a shitty job.

It’s not uncommon for musicians to keep going back to school for multiple master’s degrees or DMAs—a Doctor of Musical Arts degree—in order to stave off the precariousness of musical labor. A career in classical music allows for three options: teaching, trying for a union job, or gigging. After reaching the terminal degree level, the reality is grim. “I have a choral conducting master’s degree from the University of Alberta, and a jazz piano degree from Berklee,” one musician told me. “I work as a conductor, classical-pop-jazz vocalist, pianist, arranger, composer, and clinician, and last year’s total yearly income was $8,200.” Another musician explained that, after trying to make ends meet as both a musician and an adjunct professor, she now works for a tech startup and is earning a living wage for the first time. “After I graduated [from conservatory], I applied to a bunch of full-time jobs but ended up doing a different kind of gigging, academic gigging—teaching adjunct here and there, working in a tech support agency. As a successful academic coming out of music school, you end up gigging in an equally unstable economic situation—adjunct teaching is a raw deal, and one that I see a lot of my friends still struggling with.”

Second Fiddle

Composers in particular expressed a familiar bitterness. One composer who currently works as an adjunct professor at a small Midwestern college decried classical music’s entrenched reputational economy. “I feel like we’re witnessing the development . . . of a two-tiered system,” he said, “with musicians who went to non-famous and poorly endowed schools on the bottom, with musicians who went to the Ivy Leagues of music on top. These top musicians set the cultural trends so to speak, despite not necessarily having anything remarkable to say or good music to write.” What’s more, he argued, this uneven system of class and reputational privilege leads to more and more exploitation:

There’s a very strong sense of identity shame for a lot of musicians who went to non-famous schools, who got perfectly wonderful educations, but who didn’t have the grace of some famous asshole to notarize their work. Basically, it creates opportunities for exploitation. Students are told to go to these famous places to get a good degree. They live beyond their means . . . they open themselves up to labor, sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, depending on which monster they’re assigned to work with. They perhaps muddle through it to get that degree with sweet, sweet name recognition. And then, if they’re lucky, they’ve made connections and have a slightly better chance to have grants, get media attention, etc. And of course, if they’re unlucky they’ve dropped out or been pushed out, or kicked out, or bullied out, and they have to start over again, or struggle with abandoning what they love.

Another composer, this one publicly successful, confirmed as much from the other side: “Well, I think composition is, like, such a multiplier of privilege,” he said. “Like, when I went to [big name conservatory], I got better performances, so I became a better composer. But you have to get to a school where you can get better performances.”

Even those who pursued the other most stable job in music, that of a public school music teacher, discussed how music education training is financially predatory. “I don’t know if you know this,” one of my undergraduate colleagues who studied music education told me, “but when you’re student teaching, there’s this rule that you are not allowed to work or have any [obligation] that conflicts with [school]. How exactly are you supposed to pay your rent? Would you like me to live in a cardboard box and just not pay tuition that semester?” She explained that when her professors found out she was gigging to pay for living expenses, they threatened to withhold her degree.

The percussionist who teaches middle school band enumerated other barriers within music education. “[Something that] gets under my skin is Drum Corps International [the governing body of competitive drum and bugle corps]. So many schools, especially around here in Texas, say they prefer people to have had DCI experience. I know a lot of people make [the competitions and workshops] work with going to music school, as well as the financial side, but I just didn’t have that luxury.” She listed the various expenses, from travel and food costs to the inability to have a summer job, as impediments to a career. “I made a choice,” she said, “to focus on my school studies and take care of myself financially, but now I often feel as though it holds me back from gaining new opportunities even though I am otherwise a very qualified teacher.”

In this context, the efforts to diversify classical music, while certainly important in a field so notoriously white and male, do little to rectify this essential class divide. Is the presence of a female composer’s work on the program of a prestigious ensemble really progressive if that composer came from a wealthy, culturally connected family in New York City? What use is the admission of a black cellist into a conservatory or prestigious festival if that cellist can’t afford to attend? Sure, there are scholarships, maybe a handful, which allow the underprivileged to compete against one another for scraps before the wealthy waltz in.

A recent blog for the publication New Music Box, titled “It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die,” written by Nebal Maysaud, a nonbinary composer of color, relied on the analogy of an abusive relationship to describe what it’s like to be a minority in classical music. “Western classical music,” Maysaud writes, “depends on people of color to uphold its facade as a modern, progressive institution so that it can remain powerful. By controlling the ways in which composers are financed, it can feel like our only opportunities for financial success as composers [come] by playing the game of these institutions.” A prime example: in 2018 the Peabody Institute touted its hiring of a more diverse faculty while at the same time an exposé in the Johns Hopkins Newsletter uncovered the shockingly racist behavior of faculty toward the Institute’s black students, and the lengths to which the administration swept it under the rug. According to Maysaud, the only solution to this systemic racism and exploitation in classical music is to leave. I don’t disagree.

The Last Schmaltz

“I’ve got some bad news for you. Very few of you are going to become full-time musicians. Even fewer of you are going to be employed in a symphony orchestra. The time is now for you to start forging another path, your own path, if you want to have a career in music.” These were the words of my music entrepreneurship teacher, a well-meaning saxophone player, on the first day of class. Music entrepreneurship classes are de rigueur in music schools these days, one of many byproducts of start-up culture. In her paper “Neoliberalism and the Musical Entrepreneur,” musicologist Andrea Moore describes how entrepreneurial rhetoric “codifies and normalizes the radical growth of temporary or unstable labor conditions in every sector of the American economy . . . [and] valorizes the particular precariousness of musical labor.” Moore dissects the rhetoric of classical music and its institutions, which have come to rely on the tired language of disruption and innovation as a safeguard. New ensembles such as International Contemporary Ensemble, Alarm Will Sound, and Signal Ensemble, most of them collectively run 501c3 nonprofits, have been positioned by classical music culture as viable alternatives, despite the reality that most of them, ironically, rely on the nonprofit industrial complex of grants, donors, and internal administrative labor. In Moore’s breakdown “the enthusiasm for musical entrepreneurship” curiously offsets “the grim monetary realities of institutionalized concert music with a possible counter-narrative that goes beyond mere survival to the idea of real renewal.” Meanwhile, the fiscal and economic truth is that “the entrepreneurial approach merely shift[s] that existing financial precariousness from institution to individual—a shift that is precisely in keeping with neoliberal ideals.”

Professional practice training for musicians, in other words, has moved from emphasizing the stability of the old model to embracing the flexibility of the new, from the worker-management mediation of unions to circumstances where everyone is both a worker and a manager. Such an arrangement merely entrenches the dominance of the big, expensive cities where the great orchestras were once made possible. And what was once the domain of unions and workers is now the realm of freelancers and nonprofits, the latter no different in its reliance upon the patronage of the rich and powerful. Innovation my ass.

This is the way of arts under capitalism, in a culture where the abandonment of government funding results in a void filled only by wealthy donors and bloodsucking companies.

This is the way of arts under capitalism, in a culture where the abandonment of government funding results in a void filled only by wealthy donors and bloodsucking companies—it’s not altogether different from when composers and musicians worked as servants for the aristocracy. Nor does this encourage orchestras to play original music by diverse new talents; finance rather encourages them to stick with Beethoven until their reliable, aging patrons finally unburden us with their deaths. Perhaps, for good measure, they’ll throw in an easy-going piece by a minimalist composer in their eighties, or tokenize one of the few African American figures in classical music history—if we’re lucky.

Of course, these orchestras have no reason to pay their musicians a reasonable wage because they are operated like for-profit businesses. This is, in a word, rich because, as Robert Flanagan, the person who wrote the book on orchestras as a business, notes: “no orchestra in the world earns enough to cover its operating expenses; no orchestra is self-supporting.”

The prestige of classical music obscures a range of unseemly realizations: arts managers are union-busting bosses like any other; private conservatories cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend partially because schools figured out they can charge that much and people will still go—either out of desperation to make it or because certain students are wealthy enough to afford it. And, at the same time, scholarships are cut under austerity deanships, tenure is eliminated, and adjuncts are paid poverty wages with no benefits, while the administrators get bigger and bigger paychecks. The rest of us sacrifice to prove our dedication, go to school full-time, work under the table, and teach for free in order to get a degree. And if you bow out of this gladiatorial arena, where only the affluent and well-connected are armed, like I did, like many of my friends did, you are understood to be a failure who didn’t try hard enough. In the meantime, the gilded band plays on, scoring the lives of the well-heeled and propertied.

Sure, I may have been a failure in classical music, but as my colleagues and comrades schlep their instruments around in substitute gigs from orchestra to orchestra, unable to get a full-time job, teaching their students, paying off their debts with poverty wages from performing or adjuncting, and walking the picket line, the least I can do is write about it.

Kate Wagner is an architecture and cultural critic based in Washington, DC. She is the creator of the blog McMansion Hell, which thoroughly examines the phenomenon that is the McMansion, and uses it as a tool for architectural education and humorous cultural remarks. Kate has written about architecture, design, and culture for numerous publications including The Baffler, The Atlantic, CityLab, and The Nation and is an opinions columnist at Curbed.

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