How musicians used to make a living

Here’s something I found in Crescendo 75, a really marvelous book published by the Indianapolis Symphony, to celebrate their 75th anniversary:

The issues surrounding a less-than-52-week season [which became an issue for orchestras in the mid-1960s] caused the public to take a look at what these highly-trained professionals had been doing to put bread on the table during the periods of time they were not being paid to perform. An article in The Indianapolis Star of August 23, 1964, shed some light on the typical exploits of those who were forced to lay down their instruments for the tools of another trade. Violinist Sidney Szathmary sold lawnmowers at Sears, bassist Herb Guy served as music therapist at Central State Hospital, violinist Al Safford traveled as a tour guide with Miller Tours, violinist Bob Zimmer sold cameras at Hoosier Photo, percussionist Ralph Lillard sold insurance, trumpeter Bob Day was a bricklayer, cellist Bruce Klingbeil and violist Herb Congsdon tuned pianos, clarinetist Achille Rossi worked in the warehouse at Haag Drugs, and hornist Phil Huffman created his own painting company that employed fellow hornist John Miller and violinist Kirke Walker, among others. More than a few ISO musicians found “off-season” work with the Indianapolis Park Department in jobs ranging from trash pick-up to organizing children’s activities, and many others were substitute teachers in school systems still in session.

Note the dilemma here. Many musicians, without professional training in anything but music, and, worse still, occupied much of the year playing in the orchestra, couldn’t hold professional jobs outside the orchestra season. So they had to take fairly menial work. (I’d bet, too, that the orchestra didn’t pay them very much.) Would many musicians accept this today? Maybe when they’re young, but at the height of their careers?

No way. So it would be quite a shock for musicians if the classical music business had to contract. And, I think, for everybody else. I’ve heard talk about the major institutions being in trouble, but smaller ones possibly surviving, especially new music groups. One problem with this is that most classical musicians, even new music specialists, make most of their living from work in and around the classical music mainstream. So if the mainstream can’t employ musicians any more, or employs them notably less than it does now, who’s going to hire them? How will they make a living?

I don’t think the pay cuts that orchestras now look for are drastic enough to make life impossible for classical musicians, but where could this go in the future? Suppose orchestras start seeing drastic drops in, let’s say, subscription sales — from renewal rates around 80%, as they often are now, down to 50% or 60%. What kind of cutbacks will that lead to? We all know that playing classical music isn’t any guaranteed way to make a living, but what happens if things get a lot worse? How many people will study music professionally? And what then will happen even to the parts of the field that now seem artistically interesting? I suppose they’ll survive — it’s always artists who, in the last resort, support the arts. But that could get a lot harder to do.

Footnote: Anne and I were talking last night about how many — how extraordinarily many — classical music performing groups there are in New York. (Anybody would be struck by that, receiving, as we do, a barrage of publicity announcing everyone’s new season.) Does this mean classical music is healthy? It suddenly struck me: New York has many classical performing groups because it has so many classical musicians. And so if the mainstream classical business declined (measured, for instance, by the amount of paying freelance work available), we might initially see even more independent groups — because musicians, hurting for jobs, might try to create work on their own. (I’m just speculating, of course.)

(Crescendo 75 is marvelous, by the way, because it’s full of real information instead of glossy hype, and is written seriously but with lots of humor. It makes you want to hear the orchestra, and — I hope — value it as an important part of the community, both in the past and now. Congratulations to the Indianapolis Symphony, and everyone involved in putting the book together, especially Thomas N. Akins, the orchestra’s former pincipal timpanist and public relations director, who wrote the text.)

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