When put in terms that playing a musical instrument at a high level is a study in human achievement, support from all sectors of the community is feasible. It’s already been amply proved that basic musical performance ability is a cognitive and physiological feat. It is a pursuit open to everyone regardless of cultural background or educational level, and is achievable, remarkably, with or without training. Many of the world’s most skilled musicians are self-taught, and without any special academics, jazz players learn the rules of improvisation, which are exponentially more complex than the rules of chess. The extremely fine degree of motor coordination is an athletic activity which is retained and refined in the musician’s body for his lifetime - well past the age when sporting athletes are considered past their prime or earning capacity. The achievement of high-level musicianship is open to persons of all physical abilities or special needs: there are world-class musicians who can not walk, or who are missing a hand or leg, or are blind or even deaf. Musical competence is often achieved equally by those who are autistic, mentally or emotionally disordered, learning disabled, dyslexic, addicted, injured or seriously ill. The musician possesses a consuming, powerful emotional connection to music, and will persist in exercising this potential in spite of any hardship - our most famous, of course, being economic - including driving our shitty cars 300 miles round trip to performances, performing when we are sick, sacrificing opportunity, comfort, family, and relationships. We voluntarily spend as many or more years in conservatory training as doctors are required to do in medical school, and when we get out, on top of our school loans, we have to buy our own instruments (just for example, $70,000 is a very modest price for a professional string player to have invested; $200,000 is quite ordinary). Although the oversupply of trained musicians to living-wage jobs has been legendary for decades, if not centuries, each year conservatory applicants willingly enter a lifetime of financial instability, if not hardship, and in many cases, destitution. Apart from the tiny percentage of players who win salaried positions, commonly with well over 100 applicants for each job opening, musicians in all genres are self-employed without benefits. Add to that the drastic financial losses musicians are undergoing in the digital age - as a Grammy-winning producer remarked to me recently, as much as 85% of our recorded output is downloaded without compensation.
Then, consider that the practicing is never done. Musicianship has not yet been totally defined or fully developed. The master musician will report, as Casals has famously been quoted, “I am making progress”. He will always hear something that he would like to have done better, things he would like to do. It is a process - a self-evaluation that induces the performer to continually, each day for the rest of his life, reach beyond himself and to be and do more than he ever has before. It’s rare that a musician will retire from making music. Their process may wax and wane in their priorities, branch or morph into different forms and specialties, but with every performance, down to individual notes played, the typical musician is wired to evaluate and plan to refine the next.
Can you name any other human pursuit as comprehensive and self-propelling? Yet, music is disinvolved with any commodity. It doesn’t exactly teach you anything, since you don’t need education to become highly proficient at it - yet, by simply practicing, musicians figure out some fairly sophisticated mathematics and physics. They become engineers, inventing their own instruments, and writers, as they share their experiences (including composition). Reading music is not required for proficiency, but cultures around the globe can all make use of a common music notation. I’d submit that the understanding of physics and mathematics, and the principles of literacy, are innate; consider that the word ‘educate’ means ‘to draw out’ (and interestingly, not “beat it into your brain so you can pass a standardized test”).
I submit that, although it’s much more, music is relegated to a cultural category called The Arts or Entertainment simply because its essence has not yet been quantified. Certainly, music is both, but is also unique in its cognitive and physiological demands on the performer. A violinist has been measured as “the world’s fastest superhuman”, and a drummer has been gauged as detecting timing variances of 6 milliseconds, although there are stories of drummers being able to vary their timing by as little as one millisecond, simply by describing to them a type of groove or feel to express in the music.
If the technical ability of the individual musician is remarkable as a human achievement, then consider the social achievement of the symphony orchestra. Just as musicians are able to defer many individual needs to the practice of their art, they hold ensemble performance as a priority above personal differences and musical opinion. Up to 100 musicians enter into a contract for working hours until 10 or 11 at night, as well as weekends and holidays, silently take direction from the music director, acquiesce to assigned seating and uniform attire, and get restroom breaks only at scheduled times. It’s a completely diverse and multicultural workplace where individuals may not even share a common spoken language, and a supreme example of teamwork. The individual musician must not only be in complete command of his own technique, including any idiosyncrasy his equipment may be exhibiting at the moment, but matches his pitch, time, and articulation to the rest of his section (at least, that’s what’s supposed to happen), while simultaneously reading music, disengaging from his instrument to turn pages, watching the conductor, using his personal database of music literature to know what instrument has the melody line at each moment, and adjusting his timing and nuance to accompany that line while not varying from the style of his section. Undoubtedly a supreme physiological feat. Why do we do it? Why is it important, what do audiences get out of it, and why should musicianship be adequately supported?
I observe there is a very strong human drive to be fully engaged, inquisitive, and to challenge ourselves. Interestingly, this is one of the tenets of Montessori education. Studying and performing music is one of the most comprehensive portals humans have to this kind of satisfaction. It meets us on both an individual and social level, and is both intellectual and emotional. Since music, for some, has a steep learning curve, many turn away from its initial challenges, having been led to believe, through lack of exposure and/or well-trained educators, they aren’t “talented”, and miss the opportunity to learn how to enter a state of high-level achievement, which would translate seamlessly to other fields, such as science, engineering, and medicine. We have all seen it claimed as “remarkable” that so many of the world’s greatest intellectuals coincidentally play music - what if, actually, it’s no coincidence that early musical training led to their careers in cutting-edge science? It can be said that through music, a great many people learn how to learn, since, by its emotional effect, music supplies its own motivation for the individual to build these bridges to his potential.
That there is a virtually universal drive to be highly engaged is evident from the popularity of vicariously engaging in sports - countless people will watch them on TV or purchase tickets to games in which they don’t personally participate. It seems to represent a thwarted desire to do and be more. People will buy expensive replicas of team jerseys and go around wearing these shirts with someone else’s name on the back. They paint themselves in the colors of their favorite team. They will hug total strangers or beat each other up based on whether their favorite team wins or loses. Why this intense identification with something not directly experienced? With such an intent connection to the contest, fans deeply care that they choose to identify with a winning team. I would submit that there is an innate desire to excel. Either students are provided with the means to excel, or they grow up and bet on Fantasy Football. Or maybe they will do both - not my problem, as long as they take on the ‘excel’ part.
It also evidences, given the titanic sums contributed to these types of activities by non-participants, that there is more than enough to adequately fund not only music education for all, but the continuing development of our professionals. There has not, to date, been sufficient financial backing applied to any aspect of musical training to find out what we can do. We do know that well-funded music students, provided with top-quality instruments and teachers, tend to do better. We don’t yet know what happens when top-notch pedagogy is devoted to talent education on a large scale. In the U.S., anyway - distinguished European, Russian, and Israeli musicians evidence these societies are exposing more students to music education in general. In fact, we don’t yet know how well things can work even within music when pedagogy is prioritized - quantities of performers hang out a shingle as self-titled music teachers solely for the purpose of making a living, without the benefit of any pedagogy and sometimes without even the desire to excel at teaching. We still find that in many schools, music education majors are not held to as high a standard as performance majors, and performance majors are given little to no teacher training.
Society has not yet dedicated itself to creating more players than fans. We musicians commonly accept a social role in which we are regarded as superfluous (“not a real job”), instead of as ambassadors of achievement. Understandably, we are so busy keeping up with practicing and trying to make a living that we don’t much consider what non-musicians think, and we tend to be passive when we could do a lot of job creation. We’ve been willing to be regarded as different, a breed apart, even when it’s disadvantageous, such as when we see talented young musicians distraught and demotivated when their parents demand they major in engineering or business “so they can make money”. Our willingness to accept this has led to giving up the role of talent buyer to tavern owners, coffee shop owners, and mass-market media conglomerates that own the concert arenas, the radio stations, the record stores, and the billboards. It’s all the same to them to hire amateur bands who will bring a few friends from work to their rock gig, or to manufacture pop stars. We wait around for work to be handed out by contractors and personnel managers who play favorites instead of hiring the most qualified - a disservice to all, since it bypasses the motivation to practice and improve in less-accomplished players who get handed work. It’s often more convenient to “fill out a section” with marginally qualified contract performers rather than undertake holding auditions - giving out a mixed message to patrons whose developed musical taste is the substance of their willingness to buy tickets. As if it weren’t hard enough for career musicians to win living-wage jobs, we are seeing the exposure of orchestra managements that are running (cough - destroying) performing organizations instead of being hired by, and working for, the musicians. I would submit that any individual in performing arts administration who raises any complaint about how much musicians are paid should be handed a trumpet (a very athletically challenging transposing instrument with very exposed lines) and sent into the next concert. Patrons supporting the organization have the right to hear plainly the musical competence of persons making these decisions on their behalf.
One of the most disappointing missed opportunities is undertaken equally by musicians eager for work and music educators - severely underfunded music programs paying professional musicians to come in and serve as the entire accompaniment for student performances. I don’t mean to be the “walked to school three miles in the snow uphill both ways” kind of storyteller, but, beginning in junior high school, our directors undertook to stage full-scale musicals with a full orchestra. It took us weeks to learn the music, and sometimes, we were awful. Rental parts went missing. We had to make cuts, transpose songs, and hand-write out our own parts. Kids missed rehearsals. Our directors were supremely frustrated every time, although they’d been doing it for years. Evidently, there is no end to the novel ways 7th-graders can screw up a full-scale musical theatre production. There was screaming. But, by the time we reached ninth grade, other junior high schools who didn’t have a full orchestra were inviting us to come and serve as the orchestra for their musicals. By the time we got to high school, full-orchestra musical preparation was no big deal. I still meet professional musicians who came through the same junior high school. Our directors created careers.
Nowadays, we union players sometimes get calls to go in and perform a musical for a high school. I’ve even been paid to travel to the state music convention to accompany a high school choir. We learn the parts in one rehearsal, which takes place in quiet concentration, without a high school student in sight. It’s always for a very reduced ensemble, because “there’s no budget for a full orchestra”. Sometimes we are called upon to cover it with five musicians instead of 20 or so. The school captures a nice, tidy performance on DVD for the parents. The end product is nice, but no one had the chance to make a big mess and take on the learning curve. The school’s orchestra students have zero participation - no side-by-side performance, no coaching by the union players. I wonder where they are going to find players competent enough to play it at all a generation from now. This trend reflects the current model of public education. I don’t take these gigs any more because the concept is frankly too depressing. Instead, I volunteer to help out the orchestra at the middle school. I have no idea what the end product is going to be, but I know that musicianship is achievement, and it’s math, science, culture, history, foreign language, and literacy, whether the school district acknowledges it or not, or pays for it or not. These kids are going to be lawyers, my neighbors, driving instructors, and in city council, so this is my chance to teach them to appreciate my profession and what musicianship can do for them.
Musicianship is a study in human achievement, and therefore it’s worthy of all necessary support. Only musicians are capable of demonstrating this at the present time. I think we have a lot of work to do.