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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2 responses to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy: Make Music, Make a Living, Make a Difference

  1. 1234

    Hi Eric,
    i think you make some excellent points here.I returned to my former college where i was a cello student,a few years back to give a prestentation along exactly those lines-it´s important to keep a sense of perspective when you´re entering the job market-and to view things as positively as possible,even if the contribution you end up making is perhaps different from what you´d intended!

  2. Anonymous

    Hi Eric,
    You make some good points, but not one I think is of some importance. In this day and age, you need a bachelor’s degree in *something* to get many jobs. Many companies don’t actually care what area that degree is in, though. So why not get a degree in something you care about? Surely with a music degree from a liberal arts college you learn to write well enough to manage business writing, and certainly any musician has learned discipline and time management, as well as how to motivate him/herself to work even when playing sounds like more fun. I spent many years working full or part time in the business world. Nobody seemed to care that my degrees (B.A., M.M.) weren’t in economics!
    Good stuff you put up here!

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