Musicians in Many Guises
The music profession is amongst the least clearly defined of occupations. Neither within the profession nor amongst the wider public is there a proper understanding of how everything functions and fits together in this apparently most abstract and etherial of worlds.
I went to a very interesting session with musicians across the northern part of England today.
We were discussing how to bring diverse people in diverse parts of the music profession together, to support them and their work. This as an end point is obviously a challenge too far for one day’s debate, but there are a few things I suspect struck everyone as we got into our allocated task.
Avoiding division in diversity
One of the most difficult things about being ‘a musician’ is that on its own it doesn’t mean a great deal. Some musos work a full week, every week, in a contracted, salaried (but often very poorly paid) job, whilst others wing it in free-lance, or maybe just do the occasional weekend gig for a local pub or whatever… in which case they are probably either also in another job, not as a musician, or are perhaps retired or a student.
Add to that the obvious range of ways in which one ‘can’ be a musician – everything from banjo strummer to band vocalist, to jazzer or church organist, to a player in a major orchestra, or an opera singer, composer / arranger, conductor or, of course, educator / teacher – and it’s easy to see that people in the same ‘trade’ often appear to have little in common. And that’s before we acknowledge properly that amateurs and, say, students – both groups eager to perform in front of an audience for the sake of the experience as such – will have a very different take on things from (relatively) hard-headed pros, determined as ever to make a living of sorts from their skills.
Musicians’ training takes years, but life as a pro is a helter-skelter
The problem for many serious professional musicians, whatever their genre, is that they’ve probably invested most of their conscious lives in developing performing and / or other musical skills. But they are going to spend the rest of their lives ‘competing’ with non-professional musicians who are willing to perform for nothing or next-to-nothing, albeit at usually significantly lower levels of skill.
Amateur and semi-pro groups can take months to prepare a performance; full professionals, if they are to earn their crust, often have to get a concert or show ready, at higher levels of skill, in just a few hours. No wonder then that different parts of the musical community don’t always see eye-to-eye.
The answer is in the image
The public at large has a fairly vague idea about the who and how of life as a professional musician and performer. Most musicians hear quite frequently the view that they are ‘lucky’ because they must ‘love’ what they do.
Well, probably yes, but not to the extent that they don’t need a living wage and a bit of time to themselves, or for their families. (No doubt, just as many amateur performers enjoy the buzz of performance, there are times when the professionals, conversely, would appreciate simply quietly being themselves.)
So here’s a connundrum: Music is a very visible activity, usually done in full public gaze. But it is not an activity which just ‘happens’; it’s one which done properly has demanded years of hard work and determination.
Educate the audience as well as the performer
How then do we square the reality of life as a professional musician with the idea that anyone can do it? Can there be any doubt that the answer to this question, (and to the conflicting interests of different sorts of musicians as such) has to lie in education?
Much more money than before is now going into music education in schools, youth groups and the like; but let’s ensure that at least some small part of this and other available resources is invested in telling people about what the lives of musicians of all types offer and demand.
There’s room for every sort of musician, doing different things in different ways, but confusion exists both within the profession itself, and in the wider public, about quite what it all entails. No surprise then that misunderstandings and misapprehensions can become the order of the day, with performers often the first casualty of this failure to connect image and reality.
See also: Orchestral Salaries In The U.K.
Life In A Professional Orchestra: A Sustainable Career?
The Healthy Orchestra Challenge
British Orchestras On The Brink
Where’s The Classical Music In The Summer? An Idea…