Are Classical Musicians an Unaffordable Extravagance

“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft”

— Karl Paulnack, in a welcome address that he gave to Boston Conservatory students in 2004

There are, right now, a number of voices spreading gloom-and-doom predictions about music, and the arts as a whole.  There’s a steady chorus of observers demanding that the arts be marginalized in our schools to give greater emphasis on STEM education.  And of course the steady drumbeat of voices saying classical music is dead… dead!

And of course there’s the fact that several top orchestras and opera companies have been roiled by labor disputes.  The Minnesota Orchestra battled through a 16-month lockout of the musicians, in what many thought would be labor dispute to end all labor disputes.  And yet, labor disputes kept coming.  Only a few months later, new disputes erupted with the Metropolitan Opera and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.  And disputes have continued to propagate—strikes have broken out this fall at the  Philadelphia Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony and Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.  Groups from every corner of the country, and ensembles of every size and rank, have all been affected.

In each case, there were those who essentially sneered that classical music was frivolous, and classical musicians were an unaffordable extravagance.  Again and again, voices rose up suggesting that classical musicians played no role in society—they were cogs in a machine that could be replaced at any time by a cheaper, newer model… and no one would know the difference.

As a result of all this negativity, I can imagine that there are some talented musicians who are wondering if it’s even worth it to pursue a career in music.

Yes they should.  Absolutely.

Let me flip the negative script and say definitively that music is needed.  Musicians are needed.

Music is a way we connect, and is fundamentally woven into all aspects of our lives.  Look around.  There is nothing so quintessentially American as starting a ballgame with the National Anthem… a moment of shared unity before we break about into our separate, rabid packs of fans.  It is a fundamental fiber of all life events, including weddings and funerals.  It forms the core of worship services. It speaks to us as we fall in love and recover from heartbreak.  Through music, we come together from all walks of life to mourn, to heal, and to live.

But it isn’t just music that’s important to all this… it’s the musicians themselves.

They are the ones who shape these life experiences, and make this shared unity possible.  People like the anonymous bugler playing Taps.  Or the church soloist whose hymn singing helps sends loved ones to their final rest.  The singer who accompanies you as you dance with your daughter at her wedding reception.  The patient teacher who trains your sons or daughters, and gives them the confidence to take the stage at a recital.

Musicians are the people who make these life events stand out and give them depth.  As Mr. Paulnack so aptly put it in his famous address, musicians heal confused minds, calm overwhelmed hearts, and sooth weary souls.

And to do this they need to be supported.  If they can’t make a living, they’ll go elsewhere… to the loss of us all.  Think about it: do you want a trained professional performing at your daughter’s wedding… or some guy who’s paid minimum wage and treats your daughter’s wedding accordingly?

But consider this too.  Cities all around the country—and given our global economy, around the world—are constantly fighting to attract top talent.  Quality people to relocate to their neighborhoods and make them strong.  People to raise families, pay taxes, support the local economy, and get involved with various organizations.

They want people like professional musicians.

Let’s take a look at the characteristics of classical musicians, and what they bring to the table.

Highly educated.  A career in music takes extensive training and education—many musicians have secured multiple degrees.
Community-centered.  Musicians are active in their communities—and particularly in their local schools.  Growing up, they benefited from school enrichment programs and after-school activities… they are very aware of their importance, and are usually on the front lines to make sure they succeed.  They also often serve as music teachers themselves, and also serve as guest soloists for youth, community, or training orchestras.
Globally focused.  Musicians have usually traveled, studied, and performed extensively.  This has given them a broad perspective on how the world works.
Active in houses of worship. Many are deeply involved in their churches, playing as soloists or serving music directors.  They also partner with churches for concert series.

Musicians aren’t just some line-item on a ledger sheet, but a huge resource and stabilizing force in their communities.  By making itself a destination orchestra, an ensemble will attract top talent that will be more than skilled players—they will be actively, joyously involved in their community.  A destination ensemble can help make a place become a destination city. One that will be attractive to other educated, engaged residents.  This won’t happen if a place is blasé about keeping musicians around… if an orchestra is a pass-through orchestra, where musicians are more or less living out of a suitcase and keeping an eye on better opportunities, these stabilizing elements will never happen.

Cities should be fighting to attract them… and many cities already are.  Although the news tends to be dominated by organizations that are either failing or flailing, the reality is that a great many classical music ensembles are thriving.  Governments, corporations, foundations and individuals are banding together to ensure their local bands succeed.  Giving USA’s 2016 report shows that support for the arts has increased dramatically in the past three years.  Douglas McLennan form ArtsJournal has posted a list of recent successes. In the past month, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and St. Louis Symphony have posted banner years.

So yes, there is good news.  Music and musicians not only bring value, and they are valued.

Given the fact that they heal confused minds, calm overwhelmed hearts, and sooth weary souls, we should expect no less.

Scott Chamberlain

Scott Chamberlain serves as Board President of the Minnesota Chorale, as well as a singer with the ensemble. He is a noted arts writer, whose articles have been published in publications including Nonprofit Quarterly; he covered the Minnesota Orchestra’s historic tour to Cuba for MinnPost. His arts blog, “Mask of the Flower Prince,” has received numerous accolades, particularly for its coverage of classical music labor disputes. Scott has worked in arts and nonprofit management since 2001. He currently works in corporate and foundation fundraising for Twin Cities PBS; prior to that, he held a variety of positions with the Minnesota Orchestra, One Voice Mixed Chorus and the O’Shaughnessy Theater in St. Paul.