Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Is There Room For All Of Us?

Getting work in classical music is often viewed as a zero-sum card game with only so much available money on the table to win. Those who do win are more often than not the ones who are the last to remain at the table, like Amneris in Aida. Victoria-based mezzo soprano and life coach Rebecca Hass' The Amneris Complex on The Resonant Life looks at the envy shared by the singing community, only some of whom will be the chosen ones who actually get to work:
Often as a professional singer, I hear my colleagues of a younger age discuss how competitive the field is. And it isn’t just in the operatic field, as I teach at a college for musical theatre studies, and hear the same thing there. When you start this conversation you can gather a crowd quickly. Soon we are all sitting around and nodding our heads in agreement about how hard it is to be a singer and how competitive it is and gosh, a lot of singers just won’t make it (what ever make it means). Welcome to the voice of fear. Cold, hard, gut wrenching ‘keep you up at night’ fear. These are our scary ghost stories about the horrors of the profession. Suddenly the word competitive means that there isn’t enough for all of us. Someone has to go. It seems to me rather like there are 6 people on a desert island with only two water bottles and it is hot.
The constant competition of an ever-growing group of musicians chasing an ever-dwindling number of jobs is one of the central issues facing the profession today. We ignore it at our peril.

And yet, the power lies within each of us not just to desire fitting into pre-existing job slots, but to create new ones, to think out-of-the-box, sideways, and laterally in order to grow musical life in ways that nobody has thought of, and in ways that can generate a product with both musical integrity and the potential for income. 

What are some avenues for musicians to create new growth in classical music?


  1. This question is incredibly important as we face a dubious economic situation and constant change to large arts institutions as we've grown to know them.

    I think that the best thing we can do is create opportunities for ourselves. Sure, as a collaborative pianist, I can usually count on some steady work playing for exams, juries, university recitals, choral rehearsals, etc. But my growth as a musician depends on my own initiative.

    At the moment I am planning three or four projects, mostly (but not all) with singers, that will explore some less well-trodden paths in the repertoire. Audience building is a slow process and sometimes feels like an uphill battle, but creative thinking helps here as well: church communities, student groups, internet friends, and members of community ensembles I work with are all potential audience members.

    It's important to realize, too, that definitions of a successful musical career can vary widely. Sure, the Met only hires x number of sopranos per year in lead roles. Does not being one of those x mean you're a failure? Of course not. Sing the role of your dreams anyway! A model like Bill Shookhoff's "Opera By Request"in Toronto can give all kinds of singers a chance at singing operatic roles they want or need to learn.

    Just as Stravinsky, in the wake of the First World War, left his lavish ballet scores behind and created new masterpieces on a smaller scale such as "L'Histoire du Soldat", so we as twenty-first century musicians can define career success on our own terms!

  2. Here's a link to @MatthewHand's comment on Twitter:

  3. As a serious amateur musician, I wonder what role we play in reviving the classical music business.

    We want to participate - and many of us are fairly accomplished - but in my experience there are few professionals who think seriously about working with us from a business perspective.

    A lot of us would pay to collaborate, be included in masterclasses, chamber music, participate in performances etc. And many of us bring with us an audience from our "day jobs."

    The Cliburn Foundation has discovered this: The Cliburn competition for outstanding amateurs gets big audiences - many ticket buyers coming from the colleagues and corporations of participants, most of whom would otherwise never attend a classical concert. And it generates donors.

    Definitely something for us to think about.

  4. Anonymous10:06 AM

    i agree with you fully that we, as musicians, need to think "outside the box" about new career paths in the music field. despite the fact that musicians are open-minded artists, too often we each hope for a career in music exactly like our own teachers and mentors had. the reality seems to me that in school we learn the skills we need to find our own career path in our lifetime, not a blueprint for exactly how we can have a "successful" career.

    most music students leave school with a mentality that they will either perform or, if they are less successful, teach-- while too few think about composing, instrument repair, donor relations (arts administration), writing about music, editing or publishing scores, etc. most musicians who make a lifelong career of the profession do many of these jobs, not just performing.

    but, on the flip side, i think part of the reason we are in this predicament of too many music students graduating for too few job slots is because of the current music school function as part of a business at a college or university.

    some students who do not have what it takes-- be that "talent" (whatever that means), perseverance to work hard, the social attitude necessary, or any of myriad other necessary skills-- are admitted each year to music schools. in situations i've seen, both students and faculty at schools are aware of who these individuals are, but no one tells them they are a black sheep. in fact, i've heard other students mention that so-and-so "pays the electric bill" or "pays my way scholarship."

    now, that is not to say that there's anything wrong with studying music for music's sake. any music lover who pursues a degree is a potential audience member and enthusiast for music. but i have to say, it's a little too dreamy to imagine that everyone who wants to have a career (and by this i mean make a living by working solely in music) in a particular field can do it-- no matter what the field is. by the nature of the business-model setup, schools must admit more students than they imagine will ultimately make it in the field.

    you raise a good point-- why do musicians allow ourselves to be so petrified by the fact there are too many students studying with too few jobs available? the same could be said of the architecture school. as i guess, it is because too many of us idolize the handful of full time performers, running around the world to play at the most major venues rather than appreciating the full breadth of what a career in music means.