Monthly Archives: April 2006

Flying with a cello

Why I always buy a seat for my cello: Airline played instrumental role in orchestral woes. (Thanks to BA at Cello Chat.) And why I drive if I can.


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Another good cello video site

A wonderful find: the Las Vegas Philharmonic has streaming videos of master classes with various emminent soloists, including cellists Brinton Smith, Zuill Bailey, and Nathaniel Rosen. What a great thing online video is!

Thanks to Brinton for posting the link in the Internet Cello Society Cello Chat forum.



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You Don’t Have to Give Up the Violin to Be a Lawyer

I haven’t read all of Blair Tindall’s book Mozart in the Jungle yet, but I have read parts of it in bookstores (sorry, Blair, I’ve been spending all my money on books on improvisations and cello repairs). Along with sharing stories of her youthful overindulgence in drugs and sex, she explores the crisis in professional classical-music performance. Her site quotes The New Yorker as writing, “Tindall’s central complaint—that the classical-music world has created a crisis by training too many musicians and supporting a culture of exorbitant pay for a few fortunate stars—is difficult to refute.”

Her website has some interesting links, including this one, in which a would-be college violin professor is considering the “Nuclear Option” as he puts it, chucking it all and going to law school.

His poignant article is an example of just the sort of thing every aspiring classical musician should be aware of.

Since 1999 when I left graduate school, I’ve had two one-year posts and two adjunct jobs, but a tenure-track position has eluded me.

The market for string teachers in academe has all but collapsed. This year the number of violin positions has barely exceeded single digits. Eliminate vacancies at small religious colleges or at high-profile conservatories, and the number of positions for which I’m suited falls to near zero.

The market in symphony orchestras hasn’t been much better, and if positions in low-paying or unattainable major orchestras are eliminated, the possibilities shrink like a tuxedo accidentally left in the dryer on high.

I’ve kept playing for years with little to show for it, convinced that the big score was just around the bend. Maybe just one more audition, one more hiring season.

Even if I were to be offered a tenure-track position at a music department, I would face some moral dilemmas about doing the job. I know that I would be under pressure to recruit string students to fill my studio and the school symphony, thus ensuring my own position. But how could I do that knowing the abysmal state of the job market?

There are too many music schools and departments, and too many string players being trained as it is. Could I live with myself by pandering to the dreams of young and blissfully unaware musicians?

But his article is also written from the all-or-nothing perspective that fails to give proper respect to amateur and part-time professional music making–the subject I’ve been writing about recently. I hope this guy goes on to law school, develops a good practice, and discovers that through it all he can continue to make and share music. And realize that he has not failed as a musician just because he doesn’t have a tenured position or a full-time orchestra job.

My former brother-in-law is a lawyer and a fine clarinetist who plays in an excellent community orchestra in the LA orchestra. My former father-in-law is a is unethical. Training musicians while being honest about the job market, and encouraging them to think about dual careers, is both ethical and appropriate.

I read once that 70% of college graduates end up working in a profession different than what they majored in in college. Those of us who teach at liberal arts colleges know that undergraduate education is about general education and personal development; it’s not necessarily about job training.

Make music because you love it. If you don’t end up making a lot of money making music, make some money doing something else. But don’t stop making music!


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Don’t Worry, Be Happy: Make Music, Make a Living, Make a Difference

In the College Cellists forum at the Internet Cello Society, a new poster supplied this link to a story from the LA Times on the current professional prospects for graduating performance majors, commenting, “Which is one of the reasons why I’m double majoring. I like to have options available.” Here’s why:

In the 1980-81 season, according to one study, more than 1,100 members of the American Federation of Musicians competed for 47 full-time positions. Now, an estimated 2,700 music performance majors graduate from American centers of higher learning every year. The usual number of jobs available: 160 or fewer.

And, of course, many people in the classical music biz think that this trend will just continue: even more grads, even fewer jobs. Now this doesn’t mean the end of the world is arriving. But it does need to be taken into account. Unfortunately, not all music schools and music teachers are open and honest about the situation. Again, from the LA Times article:

“We have too many outstanding music colleges turning out too many graduates for whom there will be no work in music,” says maverick British critic Norman Lebrecht.

“It’s close to false trading. You take the kids into schools, fire them up with the idea of making careers, knowing from the outset there will not be opportunities for most of them. Very few conservatories are giving students any kind of alternative programs or a sense of the reality ahead for them.”

About twenty years ago I read that Josef Gingold said that standards of playing had risen so much that he had students playing on a level that thirty years before would have brought international solo careers; now, they were delighted to win a second violin position in an midrange orchestra.

I was reminded of this last night, when I heard three extraordinary graduate-student cellists perform at the Violoncello Society of New York. Each one of them was absolutely spectacular. Extraordinary virtuoso techniques, with left hands that seemed as if they could go anywhere on the cello, almost by magic. Each was musical, expressive, thoughtful, and interesting to hear. It was both thrilling and upsetting. Thrilling for the obvious reasons: it was a spectacular concert. Upsetting because I know what a tough time they–and the others around the country who play on the same high level–may have making a living playing the cello.

Does this mean they shouldn’t have studied as hard as they have? Does this mean all the gifted young people in love with music shouldn’t pursue it?

Of course not. The need to be a musician and to make music on a high level is just that, a need. It doesn’t go away. If it’s there, it’s there, and failing to nurture it doesn’t cause it to wither away and die, just to grow angry and poisonous. I met an 89-year-old lady in a nursing home who was still deeply angry that her father wouldn’t allow her to study the violin as a child. She never learned to play. Literally on her deathbed, she was still bitter about this.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s this: if you’re a musician, you’re a musician. You can’t escape it, even if you want to. God or “the universe” or “life” gives each of us gifts, gifts that are meant to be used and shared. You don’t get to say to wherever the gift and the need to express it come from, “Sorry, I don’t want this one. Take it back.”

In college and conservatory music programs, we tend to be overly focused on succeeding in the professional music world as it is today, and to look at it in a win/lose way: get an orchestra job, or make a full-time living playing and teaching, and you’ve won. That doesn’t happen, you lost.

There’s another way to look at it: What happens in music school is preparing yourself to use music to make a difference in the world. What if we measured “success” not by what job we get, but by sharing music with others, in the ways and in the places that make a difference?

You can’t “lose” if that’s how you define being a musician. You can’t “lose” in life if you realize your true purpose is making the world a better place, and you use your gifts to do that. If you are a musician and you do something else to make a living, if you make some other contribution, too, guess what? You didn’t lose. You’re not a failure. You’re making the world a better place.

And that’s not so bad.


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"Chamber music as it was meant to be . . ."

Well, I’m certainly not the only one taken with Anthony Tommasini’s excellent Sunday NY Times story on Condoleezza Rice’s piano playing, particularly her regular chamber-music gatherings with string quartet of lawyers.

Important point: the joy of making music.

She is not the only secretary of state to pursue amateur music-making. Thomas Jefferson, the first to hold the office, was an excellent violinist who played chamber music, especially Baroque trio sonatas, throughout his political career. But back then, playing music at home was commonplace.

Not so today, in the era of recording technology, when you can hear almost any piece from the entire history of music by switching on an iPod. The trade-off is that so few people know the personal joy of making music.

I’ve been trying to nudge Greg Sandow to embrace more fully that one key to ensuring a healthy future of classical music, including his focus, professional classical music performances, is the promotion of amateur music-making. Tommasini’s article captures vividly the power and value of playing chamber music in private. “It was wonderful to hear chamber music as it was meant to be: played by friends for their own enjoyment, in the confines of a living room, which makes the sound seem enveloping.”

Everyone I know who is a professional “classical” musician or a music educator, save those with their heads stuck in the sand, is mortified by the shrinking audiences for professional classical music concerts, and the simultaneous rise in the number of extremely well-trained professional-caliber players emerging from conservatories and university music programs.

It’s a truism that in every problem lies an opportunity. And the one of the opportunities today is for conservatories and colleges, and their faculties, to promote more actively the idea that it is a great thing to develop professional-level musical skills and do something else for a living.

Unfortunately, we tend to define success only as professional success.

I’ve known people who were passionate about music but then, like Ms. Rice, had this sort of experience:

At 17, she attended the prestigious summer school at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado and came to believe that though she was a very good pianist, she was “not great,” she said. “That was the really the revelation,” she added. “And it wasn’t just that experience. You start noticing prodigies, and you realize that I’m never going to play that way.” There is “just some intangible” in music, she said. Whatever it was, she said she felt she didn’t have it. She decided to major in international relations instead, focusing on the Soviet Union.

Rice came back to music, and it now serves an important role in her life. People often ask her, Ms. Rice said that day, whether playing chamber music is relaxing.

“It’s not exactly relaxing if you are struggling to play Brahms,” she explained. “But it is transporting. When you’re playing there is only room for Brahms or Shostakovich. It’s the time I’m most away from myself, and I treasure it.”

She treasures it. How many people do I know, though, who discovering that they for one reason or another weren’t going to “make it” as a professional musician gave up on music and themselves? I knew a man who was so dissapointed and bitter that he didn’t make a success as a concert pianist that he couldn’t bear to attend classical concerts.

We in music education need to do a better job of promoting life-long music making (and participation in other creative activities) for everyone. We need to educate our students that to be a well-trained classical musician who is also an accountant, a lawyer, a doctor, a stay-at-home parent, or a Secretary of State is not to be a “failure” as a musician.

Much of my education took place in conservatories where the “success = being a full-time professional musician” was the only paradigm. In fact, many string students even felt that to have a career in a professional orchestra, rather than as a soloist or chamber player, was to be a failure. I was as caught up in this mindset as anyone.

When I started teaching, some part of me resented teaching people without professional aspirations, and even the healthier and more generous sides of me had trouble relating to their point of view. Now, though, I am genuinely enthusiastic about helping young people develop the skills to enjoy a lifetime of making music while they also study other subjects and prepare for other careers.

Playing classical music is too great an experience to leave to the professionals alone. And it’s great to see the Times, Tommasini, and the Secretary of State remind us of this.


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Back in NY

I’m in NY for a long weekend. Tonight, Kronos with Wu Man on pipa (a chinese instrument) as well as a new Terry Riley piece, The Cusp of Magic. Saturday night, Bargemusic, Sunday working with youth orhcstras in Connecticut, and then Monday the “Rising Stars” event at the Violoncello Society of NY.

Should be a great weekend, and of course I’ll write comments on the events here.

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Internet Cello Society Newsletter

There’s a new issue out of the Internet Cello Society’s online newsletter. Go to and click on the link.

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