... The world of classical music is neither noble nor fair, though its reputation says otherwise. This is partly because to be classically trained means being regarded among the highest caliber of skilled musicians. Those who achieve such heights are capable of playing the most complex, technically difficult music on equally complex instruments that take decades to master. The prestige that comes with this mastery is, of course, heavily dependent on rankings—orchestra rankings, seating charts, a general fetishization of skill and dedication.
I should have thought twice about the career choice I had impulsively made at the age of seventeen when my parents explained they could only afford to send me to an in-state school instead of an out-of-state, high-end conservatory. My unshaken worldview relented, telling me that if I worked hard, I would succeed no matter which school I attended. I enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in the fall of 2012. Frankly, I’m glad I went there and graduated debt free instead of going to an expensive conservatory, where the crushing of my dreams would have been far more expensive.
I studied music but didn't major in it. I opted to major in journalism because, of all the useless fields of study that interested me, it seemed ... in the 1990s at least ... that that was the field that would have more remunerative possibilities than biblical literature, philosophy, music or literature.
By the time I got my not so very useful journalism degree I began to discover how gutted the job market in journalism actually was and this by the late 1990s. I have basically never worked in journalism in a professional capacity in the last twenty-two years. I also got some advice from one of my music professors which warned me that I was probably never going to be a professional musician but that if I could land work that left me time enough for family and friends and still also make music that would be a pretty successful life. In other words, I was advised by music educators that my most fruitful future as a musician would be as an amateur. That turned out to be true. It has made me grateful that I didn't get more formal music education than I got, overall. It's not that I'd say "no" to music education on principle, it's that it's never been financially practical for me. So I read Wagner as someone who realized quickly that musical life in professional terms wasn't in my future.
One day, around the beginning of my junior year of college, it occurred to me that I wasn’t going to make it. I had already developed carpal tunnel and tendonitis from years of improper violin technique taught to me by my rural music teachers. I was out of money to go to festivals, and I had no way of making lasting, important connections in a field where who you know matters more than anything else. I had no serious job prospects, nor any hope for job prospects. At work one night, the falseness of the “work hard and you will succeed” ethic washed over me: the truth was the music world was a two-tiered system, and I was in the second chair. Hungover, in the comfort of a dark recording booth, I began to cry. Few things are as life altering as realizing your preferred life is unalterably a fucked impossibility.
As someone who basically never made it into the second tier I'd say there's probably a third tier ... if such a tier could be recognized, the amateurs, the folks who make music in their spare time but have never had the resources to get into the second tier of musicians as laid out by Wagner's piece.
So when Wagner builds up to the following conclusion it's important to add the implicit "business" to what she has to say about classical music as an educational/industrial performance complex.
Classical music is cruel not because there are winners and losers, first chairs and second chairs, but because it lies about the fact that these winners and losers are chosen long before the first moment a young child picks up an instrument. It doesn’t matter if you study composition, devote years to an instrument, or simply have the desire to teach—either at the university level or in the public school system. If you come from a less-than-wealthy family, or from a place other than the wealthiest cities, the odds are stacked against you no matter how much you sacrifice, how hard you work, or, yes, how talented you are.
Despite its reputation as being a pastime of the rich and cultured elite, classical musicianship is better understood as a job, a shitty job, and the people who do that job are workers just as exploited as any Teamster. Classical music has a high rate of workplace injury, especially chronic pain and hearing loss. Many musicians don’t own their instruments, some of which can be as expensive as a new car. My high school orchestra teacher, who played in a regional symphony, was still paying off a viola that cost $20,000. Even the elite among players don’t own their instruments outright; many of these instruments, including Amati and Stradivari violins, are loaned by philanthropists as gifts. I had to rent violins from the same company for sixteen years before I had accrued enough credit to buy one outright at $7,000, right before I graduated from college. One percussionist I interviewed, who works as a middle school band teacher, told me: “As a percussionist, another point of privilege comes with equipment. To own everything we could ever need professionally is very costly, especially a marimba, vibraphone, and full set of timpani. So that’s another huge point of privilege when, for example, one of my middle school students . . . his parents bought him a marimba earlier in the year. Which is great for him, yet here I am with my master’s degree, and I definitely don’t own one yet. I probably won’t for a long time.”
That's the kind of stuff that makes me feel grateful I never bothered to formally study music beyond what I crammed into a really big music minor.
In this context, the efforts to diversify classical music, while certainly important in a field so notoriously white and male, do little to rectify this essential class divide. Is the presence of a female composer’s work on the program of a prestigious ensemble really progressive if that composer came from a wealthy, culturally connected family in New York City? What use is the admission of a black cellist into a conservatory or prestigious festival if that cellist can’t afford to attend? Sure, there are scholarships, maybe a handful, which allow the underprivileged to compete against one another for scraps before the wealthy waltz in.
A recent blog for the publication New Music Box, titled “It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die,” written by Nebal Maysaud, a nonbinary composer of color, relied on the analogy of an abusive relationship to describe what it’s like to be a minority in classical music. “Western classical music,” Maysaud writes, “depends on people of color to uphold its facade as a modern, progressive institution so that it can remain powerful. By controlling the ways in which composers are financed, it can feel like our only opportunities for financial success as composers [come] by playing the game of these institutions.” A prime example: in 2018 the Peabody Institute touted its hiring of a more diverse faculty while at the same time an exposé in the Johns Hopkins Newsletter uncovered the shockingly racist behavior of faculty toward the Institute’s black students, and the lengths to which the administration swept it under the rug. According to Maysaud, the only solution to this systemic racism and exploitation in classical music is to leave. I don’t disagree.
This is the way of arts under capitalism, in a culture where the abandonment of government funding results in a void filled only by wealthy donors and bloodsucking companies—it’s not altogether different from when composers and musicians worked as servants for the aristocracy. Nor does this encourage orchestras to play original music by diverse new talents; finance rather encourages them to stick with Beethoven until their reliable, aging patrons finally unburden us with their deaths. Perhaps, for good measure, they’ll throw in an easy-going piece by a minimalist composer in their eighties, or tokenize one of the few African American figures in classical music history—if we’re lucky.
...Anyone who has done a moderately deep dive into the history of Soviet music will know that under communism those who didn't fit within the paradigm of a curiously short-lived socialist realist paradigm could end up cut off from funding and performances. There are those who insisted that Soviet music didn't even rise to the level of art but we'll be able to ignore the relevance of Adorno's virulently anti-Slav tendencies and keep in mind that the arts under not-capitalism has not necessarily been better, whether in the East or the West, for those who have been regarded as not-quite-read-for-prime-time. Zaderatsky not only had all his music banned from performance and publication he ended up in the Gulag a couple of times. It's only here in the twenty-first century that people in the West are getting a chance to hear more of his work.
The Maysaud essays did not convince me that classical music is predicated on white supremacy. The essays, as a whole, culminated in an advertisement for Maysaud's music. Wagner read it as an indictment of the racist history of classical music and it's not as if that hasn't existed ... but as I've discussed about the Wesley Morris NYT 1619 piece it's not as though racial essentialist narratives of authenticity and legitimacy haven't been transferred from white European classical music to black American popular music in the last half century by critical, journalistic and academic establishments where European concert music itself has not been the primary focus. In other words, American imperialism that makes Beyonce or Taylor Swift queens of pop is not going to be a better American imperialism because Beethoven and Mozart aren't the idols of choice in music education programs. We had to wait a few years after the death of Michael Jackson before leaving Neverland.
To the extent that Maysaud's polemics are part of an indictment of the ability to make a living wage in classical music it's a reminder that even if there were no questions about color and discrimination, the cranky old German emigre composer Paul Hindemith had a bleak assessment of the underlying lies he regarded as the bedrock of the American musical educational industries.
In A Composer's World: Horizons and Limitations he wrote:
Let us assume that a country has, at a given time, five thousand active music teachers in colleges and music schools a number not too high compared with the number in this country. The duty of these music teachers is, of course, to instruct professional musicians and amateurs, and among the professionals so instructed, new music teachers are produced. Now, if each music teacher produces not more than two new music teachers each year which is not an exaggerated estimate and if no interfering war, plague, or earthquake hinders this happy propagation, the result can easily be foreseen: after the first year we will have an additional ten thousand music teachers, in the fifteenth year every man, woman and child in the United States will be a music teacher, and after about twenty years the entire population of our planet will consist of nothing but music teachers.
I admit that the example slightly exaggerates the results of our teaching system, but it demonstrates clearly that we are suffering from overproduction. There is in each country a certain capacity for absorbing music teachers. Once the saturation point is reached, they will either go idle or have to look for other jobs. In this country nobody knows this fact better than the directors of music schools and the deans of music departments. Each year the problem of finding teaching jobs for their graduates becomes more and more desperate, because the saturation point is reached.
For those who haven't read Hindemith's book he was making this wry exaggeration in the 1950s. Americans who have written on Hindemith's take on American musical education have tended to view him as a bitter emigre crank, but what if Hindemith was right, or partly right? What if the American music educational system did generate overproduction? That changed in the 1970s and 1980s as changes in education policies took place but that wasn't the only charge Hindemith leveled against American musical education:
We are teaching each pianist or violinist as if he had a chance to become a Horowitz or a Heifetz, although we know that the entire concert life of the civilized world can hardly absorb more than ten or twelve great soloists in each field. Even if for regional demand in each larger country another ten are acknowledged, what in heaven happens to the remaining hundreds and thousands? [emphases added]
The core lie Hindemith saw in American musical education was telling music students they could have jobs in music, even jobs at the highest levels of musical notoriety. Capitalism might have played a role in that lie but the educational-industrial complex couldn't sell people on music as a career choice without the help of some kind of mythology in which "you", dear student, could be told that if you studied hard enough, had enough hustle, and enough vision you would inevitably land work in the field. By contrast, Hindemith regarded the most important participants in cultural music-making as those American musical education was ignoring:
Among those taught by our endless phalanx of pedagogues the nonprofessional, the man who wants instruction for his own amateurish fondness of playing with musical forms, hardly counts at all. He who normally ought to be the music teacher's best customer has, as a numerical factor, dwindled to almost nothing, and as a musical factor he usually wilts away after several years of a training that, instead of flattering and fostering his layman instincts, has administered an indigestible virtuoso treatment. Thus the clan of music teachers is now living in a state of ever growing artistic isolation and infertile self-sufficiency. Their teaching of teachers who in turn teach teachers, a profession based on the resentments of the frustrated concert virtuoso and not aiming at any improvement of human society's civilization, by its very activity removed from the actual demands and duties of a real musical culture, must inevitably lead to the sad goal reached by every other kind of indiscriminate and large-scale inbreeding [emphases added]: after a short period of apparent refinement a gradual degeneration and slow extinction. ...
Making people learn the virtuoso warhorses of the concert repertoire was a good way to alienate potential music students who maybe just wanted to have fun playing simpler stuff. Now the German emigre composer largely hated American popular music and he really hated what he regarded as the noise pollution of popular music via loudspeakers in stores and urban centers, so I don't want to give the impression that Hindemith could be considered enlightened by the measure of being open to popular music. Biographical reports have had it that he loved Ellington's band when he heard the band but there are also tales of his willingness to tell anti-semitic jokes in spite of his wife being half-Jewish. In other words, Hindemith had his foibles and his work is considered cerebral, conservative and arid by a lot of folks. But ... I have wondered whether Hindemith's withering assessment of the lies he regarded as core to American music education weren't, his flaws withstanding, still pretty on point.
If people want to study Chopin and Mozart, cool, but there's a lot of ways in which we don't "need" Chopin and Mozart or, to make this point more explicit, if music education cranks out people who are trained in canonical works all of which are pretty well-represented in commercially available recordings then do we "need" that? I love Beethoven's Op. 111, don't get me wrong, and I regard it as a remarkable work. But let me ask you, dear reader, what do you think a classical guitarist who's into Haydn and Stevie Wonder can do with Beethoven's last piano sonata? Play it? No. Transcribe or arrange it? Maybe. What a guitarist could do is take a tiny riff from Beethoven's Fifth, flip it upside down and play with what's possible on the guitar drawing inspiration not from Beethoven at any very literal level but from his developmental economy. One such guitar sonata could sound something like this. If you wanted a possible case study of what a guitar sonata drawing inspiration from late Beethoven pianos and late Shostakovich string quartets might sound like you can go follow that link. If you wanted to hear a guitar sonata that draws inspiration more from Muddy Waters, Scott Joplin, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Sr. and Fernando Sor you can go to this link.
The point I'm trying to make as a guitarist is that Hindemith's comments about the overproduction of music education for the traditional Western canonical literature doesn't necessarily apply to the guitar or to plucked stringed instruments. But as Matanya Ophee put it, the guitar is regarded as the not-as-legitimate also-ran instrument. His advice was practical advice, guitarists should make a point of not playing the same old warhorses everyone else was already playing. Depending on who we talk to the canonical works of the nineteenth century guitar masters were not and are not as compelling in musical terms as twentieth century repertoire, a sentiment with which I agree but I'm getting way off topic here.
Sadly that grand essay has gone offline in the wake of Ophee's passing but if you take time to read it he did a fine job of explaining how we guitarists must be reminded that to many people in the official concert music business that's often called "classical" we guitarists don't count. We should not have an inferiority complex about either our instrument or its music. On the other hand, taking an implicit bit of advice from Hindemith, we should also not presume that everything worth doing on a musical instrument is only worth doing if you're getting paid to do it. Kate Wagner may be convinced that capitalism is behind the core lies of the educational system but I'm skeptical. If we didn't have anything like capitalism we could still have an American cultural assumption that the only music education worth having is the kind that you believe should land you paying gigs after you've gone through that education. The possibility of playing music at the local church or synagogue or arts event or arts festival as an amateur might be more feasible than making a living touring. That gets to what I've come to regard as one of the more devious lies in arts education, an emphasis on taxonomies and histories of arts and artists that skip past the questions of "what did these people do to pay their bills?" Learning that many of the early guitarist composers had military sinecure positions or taught at schools helped me get a clearer sense that even in "the good old days" very few musicians were "making a living" doing the music gig thing.