Essay on the Class Divide in Classical Music

Here’s an interesting, nuanced essay on the problems of a classical music career by a young, former composer who is now a full-time writer.

Thank you, glassharmonica for posting this article.

What a great article!! Thanks for sharing.

And I’m sooo glad to have read it AFTER my kid was done with music school bc if my kid were applying, I might be running for the liquor cabinet.

The composer is spot-on to call out many elements of classical music that are simply cruel and arrogant. And if not cruel and arrogant then it has a predatory nature. It’s this constant need to continue to pay more (for classes, festivals, pay-to-sings, low paid gigs, etc.) or else…you’ll never make it. And there definitely is a class divide…in that if you have a lot of money, it’s easier…to keep paying (but not necessarily to hit the big time). I know people without a ton of money but a TON of talent who make it. The difficulty comes in when you realize you’re not the top 5% who’ll make it big (a guesstimate based on no research - it may be larger but probs smaller)…and you’ve invested so much money and time and you may not make it to the big leagues…it really hurts…and of course there are the predatory people/institutions that keep feeding you the dream…for a chunk of change.

STILL, I do think that there are things you can do to avoid her outcome. And there is a “middle class” in performing…that the author does not discuss…maybe bc she can’t afford it (debt) or wouldn’t be happy with it.

So for anyone reading this and feeling a tad sick, here are a few things to consider:

1.) Manage and be willing to adjust expectations.

Very few people make it big in this business…so don’t fool yourself (and if you’ll make it big no one will be asking for $50 to 70K per year in grad school - if you get that offer you’re just paying for the free tuition students). We approached a music degree by deciding how much we would be willing to pay for a solid college education. It’s a Bachelor’s Degree so I was willing to pay a certain amt for that. People pay for a BA in history so why not a BM? Also I have a BA and work in business so I know it’s possible to make a good living with a Bachelor’s. But in deciding that…we paid attention to #2.

2.) Avoid/limit debt!!!

Limiting debt was key to decisions…even when it got in the way of dreams (sorry NYU and NYC - my D was miffed at me in high school). After college, my D has thanked me many times for the fact that she has no debt. I could not stomach debt for a performance degree. How the heck would it be paid back…I didn’t consider the best situation…I considered the middle to the worst…bc that’s where 95% will end up. If you get out of schools with a bachelor’s/master’s with no or manageable debt, you will have the freedom to do some performing. My D’s grad school was less selective bc she saw the writing on the wall and went with a great offer from a school in a city with a less reputation and passed on the great schools that didn’t give enough money. She didn’t think they could turn her into a monster performer in two years…and that’s what would have been needed.

3.) Diversify your talents/interests.
The multi-talented kids seem to do best (in the 95% crew after college). If you are a super star and have a nearly free education…go ahead and specialize! You win. For everyone else, try to have other talents/interests and feel free to pursue them … one summer or one semester. Trust me, the next semester/summer there will still be plenty of opportunities (that you will pay for!).

If you give your all to the music gods…your love may not be reciprocated…and this is often the exact opposite that you hear. For the top 5% of talent, it can work. For everyone else, it could be bitterness (if you define success too narrowly and not consider the “middle class” of performing). So be aware of how hard it is…and live accordingly AND fully.

The middle class of performance is where my D has landed. She was even able to afford an overseas trip with her boyfriend this year (not Europe like she wanted until she checked cost but Mexico City…how fun!). Sure, expectations needed to be adjusted after college. She’ll never be an opera star…and she’s fine with that. She is now a singer actor and it’s working (even hired for a good opera next year). Many of her friends have gone through similar adjustments once they hit the “real world”. I don’t view this as unfair…I just think it’s life. We don’t all get to be rich and famous…even if we get a degree from a fancy school.

I hope this helps in some way…again just my opinion and experience.

bridgenail—— Thank you very much for sharing your thought!
glassharmonica—- Thank you, again for posting this essay!

We always had a feeling about wealth that advances young musicians at their early years while raising an instrumentalist son. We are in lower-middle class in very high cost of living area. We drive over 20-year-old cars (still running!) and don’t even own a house. My son is a first generation musician. No one in our family can read music. We couldn’t afford a full-course of music major preparations in my son’s middle school to high school years. Participating music festivals with his public school bands weren’t even free! However, my son was awarded a full scholarship on his two instrument private lessons and ensemble fees since 7th grade by a local performing art organization for youths in underrepresented area. To return, he needed to perform locally (with lots of parental volunteering) at any events requested and mentor younger instrumentalists for 6 years. With those paid lessons and ensembles, we could manage to buy professional grade instruments (two instruments for different kinds of music), send him to summer camps that he could list in his artistic resume as well as paying for studio recordings for auditions for national-level ensembles and colleges plus traveling. Many parents can afford to hire the best instructors in the area or / and even famous musicians’ Skype lessons, purchase $10K+ instruments and send expensive summer programs or/and international tours with no financial issues for their musicians. My son was very lucky to be selected to tour internationally with a fully funded ensemble but he needed to audition “very hard” to get opportunities. So, it is unfair at some degree but it isn’t unreasonable. There is a way to make it through in many cases because music should be for everyone (for both performers and listeners)!

My son is now a freshman at private conservatory (one of his top choices) studying jazz. He earned great amount of talent scholarship (from our experiences, most private conservatories didn’t seem considering us “financial need”) so we can manage to pay for the rest. He will have a debt (federal student loans) when he finishes BM. However, my husband and I plan to pay for him when he graduates in 4 years so he can focus on his career or MM. We decided not to tell him our plan because (1) We aren’t 100% sure financially (2) He should feel the weight of being in debt by his decision to attend private conservatory so should be very serious about getting his education. Hope, it all works out in 4 years.

My son may be one of 95% of those middle class performers. But he will grow up as a person / musician he wants to be by having best opportunities he/we can afford in next 4 years at private conservatory. I am sure he will find his happiness as long as he has opportunities to perform. Music is one of his main characters which will stay in him forever.

@JeJeJe - you wrote “he will grow up as a person/musician” and “I am sure he will find his happiness…” Yes! I feel like that sentiment was missing from the article.

My D has plenty of friends that are happy after music school…doing a wide variety of work…from making a US and European debut in Opera shortly after grad school (NOT a rich person) to working consistently in very good YAPs or in regional or local opera/theaters to no longer working in music bc they found other interests. They all seem happy and adjusted. So I’m quite sure other can go to music school and find happiness (in the big leagues or not).

I honestly think this is excessively negative, written by someone who gave up composing after undergrad. Composers in the best grad schools come from all kinds of backgrounds and schools. But admission is very very competitive.

The reason festivals are important is not to “spend one hour with” a famous composer. It is to get a piece played, well, and also to meet other composers from around the world. Over time, you build a global community. And a portfolio. You need 3-4 pieces to apply to grad school and some can get that at school, but many need to go to a festival.

To make it as a composer, most get PhD’s or DMA’s and funding is possible, albeit relatively low. This person gave up early. Perhaps wisely, depending on talent and expectations.

Admission competition for schools and festivals will give you a good idea on whether you should continue. That may sound harsh, but it’s true.

Composing orchestral works does not have to be the goal.

The points about adjuncts is spot on. The points about the entrepreneurship focus these days being a way to shift responsibility from institution to individual is interesting.

Establishment music is a business that is heavily dependent on audience tastes, which are often rigid and conservative. For composers, this is the biggest challenge. You might spend 6 months on a piece and 10 people come. There is always the Internet, these days.

Due to these marketplace pressures, academia remains one of the best ways to continue doing innovative work, for a composer. Granted, you may need a second job.

Some people CAN’T stop composing. Or playing, no doubt. For young people starting out, make sure to do some internships or other activities that build job skills (like running a school festival, doing outreach in schools, helping in the office at an orchestra, etc.).

Grad students generally get a lot of teaching experience.

Avoid debt. But also don’t expect to make a living composing, maybe ever.

Yes grants are important. Better yet, go to Europe. The US is terrible with funding for the arts.

There is a difference between constructive critique and bitterness and I think this falls into the latter.

And folks, musicians are way better off than dancers!!

@JeJeJe , I love your attitude!
We were quite poor for a long time, but my mother was kind enough to make certain in her will that my son’s education will be paid for.
But my son was a late musical bloomer, and when he DID bloom in early high school we could not afford anything but inexpensive local lessons and a summer jazz program at the University of North Florida, which was instrumental (no pun intended) in focusing his interest and allowing him to believe that he might have some talent (although it took a few more years for him to really start to feel that he was “good enough”).
But we, his parents, believed all along that music (as his high school chorus teacher said) “runs through his veins.” (When he was a baby, the only thing guaranteed to get him to stop crying and go to sleep was playing a CD of Verdi arias–“aria” being one of his first words.)
He’s now a Composition/Film-scoring major at Berklee, and for the first time in his life I think he feels that he’s where he truly belongs. Regardless of what he ends up doing as a musician, I would give both arms to make sure that he continues to do what he loves. He knows that the competition is fierce, but he is determined, and even if he comes nowhere near to becoming “the next Hans Zimmer” (his film-scoring idol), I will die happy knowing that he had the opportunity to do what he loves intensely.
The NY Times just ran an article about a Yale grad and former very successful banker (I think) and entrepreneur who is now homeless in LA. So you never know. All we can do is do our best to let them try to do what is most meaningful to them.
A Hopeless Idealist :slight_smile:

But DAMN that was a depressing article!

Thank you for your perspective. Everyone in my fam has read the article. I agree with you that the author sounded very bitter, might be totally justified. Maybe your composer kid could write about her experience and let other aspiring musicians to have some hope!

@AsMother Hans Zimmer as a role model may mean making a good living.

Hi, @compmom ! Having someone as a role model and achieving his/her level of success may be two different things, I’m afraid. :slight_smile:
I’m not even sure he’d pursue film-scoring if he thought he could earn a living sitting in his room composing sonatas (there, Beethoven is still pretty much his idol!), but I think he’s trying to be SOMEWHAT more practical-minded. (I do think he enjoys the work involved in scoring, though.)
By the way, I had JUST watched the last episode of “Mozart in the Jungle” last night when I came here and read the article. I doubt the show reflected many of the realities of that world, although it did involve strikes/lockouts, out-of-work orchestra musicians driving Ubers, injured musicians, desperate approaches to seeking donations to keep the orchestras going, etc. I wondered what people who are more familiar with that world thought of the show.

I hit “like” not because I like the message, but because it’s an important perspective. Avoiding college debt is essential for most musicians, and even then, the field is fraught.