Making a living

Erich Stem put something very well in his presentation at the DePauw symposium I spoke at. (See my last post.) He asked whether classical music faced death — or a paradigm shift? I’m sure it’s the latter. And part of the new paradigm would be all sorts of non-conventional performances, string quartets in clubs, new music groups (there seem to be more of them every day), exploding numbers of releases on indie classical record labels, and much, much more.

But there’s one big question about the new paradigm (or, if you like post-classical performances, or alternative classical performances). How will classical musicians make a living? The old paradigm gives you ways to do that (playing in an orchestra, for instance), even though there aren’t enough jobs for everyone who graduates from music school. But the new paradigm doesn’t seem to offer much. I’ve talked about this with an artists’ manager at one of the big managements, who’s certainly in a position to know how musicians support themselves. He’s also one of the few people (though I think their numbers are growing) in big-time managements who really love alternative performances. And he vociferously thinks that the new performances can’t support the musicians who play in them.

I always want to learn more about how this works, so at DePauw I asked the musicians in eighth blackbird and the Bang on a Can All-Stars how they make their living. For eighth blackbird, as I’ve already said, the answer was simple. They get hired for university residencies. In this way, they’re not different from chamber music groups that (unlike eighth blackbird) don’t specialize in new music. A detailed study commissioned some years ago by Chamber Music America found that musicians in chamber groups — apart from a few of the biggest ones — have no chance to make a living from their playing if their group doesn’t have a paying residency somewhere. eighth blackbird, then — just as its flutist Tim Munro insisted — isn’t really a post-classical ensemble, because it makes its living from the classical music mainstream (university division). Merely playing concerts wouldn’t keep the group alive.

The Bang on a Can players, meanwhile, present a different picture. They’re truly post-classical. They never get university residencies (and might not be likely to, because they play pieces written in a far more colloquial style than the new music favored in academia). Only one of them has any university connection, and that’s hardly in classical music: He leads a gamelan ensemble at MIT. The others more or less make their living by their wits, playing freelance classical and non-classical gigs, or teaching privately (and not necessarily with students who only play classical music). So they, too, can’t survive simply from their Bang on a Can tours. They said the All-Stars might play 10 weeks out of every year, which (here’s the half full glass) is more than I might have expected, but (here’s the half-empty glass) isn’t enough to support them. I should have asked how many weeks they’d have to tour to make a living from touring, but I didn’t think to.

I’m reasonably sure that anyone in the alternative classical world (or whatever we want to call it) would report more or less the same thing. A year or so ago I asked Todd Reynolds, a new-music violinist who was one of the founders of Ethel (the new music string quartet that lives in more or less the same aesthetic world as the Bang on a Can All-Stars) whether he thought many people could make a living playing that style of music. He got very serious, and said the financial problems could be crushing. And I remember meeting another Ethel musician (Todd, by the way, doesn’t play with the group any more) in the West Palm Beach airport, her mission in West Palm Beach being to play with a pops orchestra, which was one of the things she had to do, if she wanted to survive.

The emerging new classical world is full of promise, at least musically. How it’s going to support classical musicians — in anything like the numbers of people making a living from classical music now — we don’t yet know.

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  1. says

    Hi Greg

    Maybe we just can’t, per se. Which would be sad for musicians, but quite plausible.

    [Maybe we just have to learn to build and invest as much by way of savings/income that we can in the hope that eventually we will have other sources of finance to rely on. And take as many other extra gigs as can be coped with in the meantime. Do they teach financial planning at music conservatoires yet?]

    I think you should examine what’s going on in other fields, for example in photography, where microstock photography is ruining traditional stock photographers’ income levels. I’m sure there are other examples in other fields.

    This question arises: once technology / available knowledge becomes so cheap that it eliminates much of the difficulty of acquiring basic technical skill, how does that affect the role of the artist, and the value of their work?

    Of course, technology is never going to eliminate the need for high-level technical skill, particularly with musical instruments, where we all know how difficult it is to really master how to play (not to mention all the other things over and above technical skill that it takes to create something truly unique and interesting or artistic). But when skills are far more readily available or easier to come by, and the knowledge and awareness of the general public/consumer continues to rise, surely their value goes down? Individual artistic value becomes much more important.

    An aside:

    ***People often talk about how standards of instrument-playing skyrocketed in the last 50 years. That’s never going to decline. Moore’s Law etc! (leads on to: ‘would Heifetz have been noticed today’, ‘are technically-skilled prodigies remarkable any more’, etc etc). As technical perfection becomes more and more of a ‘given’, we have an OPPORTUNITY to look beyond, for a new plateau of possibility… ***

    If what was exceptional 50 years ago is common today, doesn’t supply and demand necessitate a change in emphasis for those who are ‘professional’ musicians, to a kind of role that is wide enough to cater for the unique individual experiences demanded by Audience 2.0? (forgive my misappropriation of Web 2.0, but I think it’s apt!) To discover a way of operating that is more than just, although of course centered around, ‘delivering performances’? I think that is where the idea of a portfolio set of activities begins to become relevant not just for financial reasons, but also because of its relevance to the development of social culture that we’re seeing (as to how that fits with artisic aims — maybe that’s up to each individual, perhaps?).

    To clarify: Yes, the demand for an incredible ‘experience’ will always be there, which is why concert-giving has a great future. But there’s always a route (preparation, context, structure, presentation) to the point of delivery (moment of musical experience) that must be taken, and surely that has to remain relevant to audiences too – hence the changes that are taking place and why we’re all worrying about context etc. Because of the way in which society has changed (Burger King: Have it YOUR way! / Time person of the year: YOU!) – the infinitely customizable, longtailable process of individualization is now all-important (especially to my under-30 facebook generation!), and if we don’t allow people the possibility to relate to what we’re doing on their own terms, they’ll walk away.

    Dropping two to three hour concerts that take up your entire evening with an overture, concerto and symphony would be a start. I haven’t been to a full concert like that since I was at conservatoire and most commonly leave at the interval or only go for the second half. To have the fullest listening experience I prefer to give 100% attention to the music then go and socialize somewhere nice afterwards, rather than give 60% concentration to the music (who can concentrate 100% for 2-3 hours straight as a passive listener?) and spend the rest of the time feeling that I’m at an elaborately engineered social event. That might work if you’re 50/60+ years old but my generation neither expects, nor needs, nor wants, nor will put up with that – nor do we have the attention span, because there are so many different outlets of media competing for our attention. [though it’s important not to reed quantity as a lack of quality when talking about ‘attention spans of young people’!]. I think there’s great mileage for the next 20 years or so in that kind of traditional programme, but after that there will be a rapid collapse of that format once the pre-computer/internet generation dies.) [– ps apologies to older people who are not internet dinosaurs, for my sweeping generalizations!]. Sure, there will always be a place for big symphonic concerts and opera, of course. I don’t imagine the BBC Proms or the big opera houses or major urban symphony concert series will be affected. But maybe such concerts will become less common – I hope so, it would make them more special! Nothing so disappointing as a ‘routine’ symphony concert.

    I guess a lot of that therefore points to the question: To what extent does our professiona/artistic route to the musical point of delivery reflect the broader culture around us?

    Leading on from that – have you considered what is happening in journalism? I’m sure there are interesting parallels here. Particularly now we are all ‘citizen journalists’ with cameraphones and blogs and facebook etc, writers and reporters are becoming more like guides and filter systems than just plain newsgatherers. The whole way that news is presented is going through a paradigm shift towards the whole 2.0 consumer-driven way of doing things. The ‘professionals’ remain crucially important, but their modus operandi, and to an extent their purpose, is being forced to change. Yet all the time publishers have to cope with a reduction in revenue from print productions, and the fact that digital publications are ?usually less lucrative because they can’t charge such highly inflated rates for display ads [?haven’t properly checked this]. But – Same problem, different skin?

    I think it’s telling that a channel like Sky News is a loss leader – has never made a profit, and never will. Neither have many orchestras of course, so perhaps future solutions for individual musicians might need to draw more on the kind of principles that work at organization-level.

    Where value judgements come into that and who makes them is probably a very difficult question too. Perhaps it’s futile to speculate on value if there’s never going to be congruence between artistic value and financial value anyway.

    Sorry this turned into such a long message. I hope some of it was worth reading!

    Hi, Simon. All of it was worth reading. I especially liked Audience 2.0, a very useful, timely buzzword for changes that have been going on for quite a while, but which the classical music world hasn’t caught up with. Any time you want to elaborate on what you just wrote, feel free!

  2. says

    And we still hear from the blogcranks who tell us that the necessary paradigm is to play for free and to make money off of outside merchandising. To which I suggest that they can only credibly make that suggestion when they make a living selling t-shirts to fans of their Java code :-)

    We’re starting to see cracks in the Hollywood edifice as writers work together to get paid appropriately. I wonder what the effects will be on other creative arts.

  3. Adrienne says

    Isn’t this an unfortunate aspect of doing something new and solely artistically-based in the music field? Many of the great composers have struggled financially while doing something revolutionary with their music. This doesn’t make today’s situation acceptable, but I think it indicates that we are facing a problem that has almost always plagued musicians.

    I think this problem will be very hard to solve, as the dollar seems to reward the proven product, not the untested new idea. But isn’t the same true for any upstart business? Perhaps looking to successful new businesses as a model would be helpful.

    Good thought, Adrienne. And certainly music schools are starting to teach entrepreneurship.

    As I think about the business model, though, I come up against one obstacle. Anyone looking toward a profit-making business wouldn’t be playing or producing chamber music, or (with very few exceptions) any form of classical music. The demand isn’t there. The market is too small.

    Of course, there are ways to make money entrepreneurially, beyond concert fees: CD and DVD sales, for instance. Or even endorsements! But these presuppose some degree of public interest. The most basic question probably is how classical musicians can generate enough demand for what they do, so that making money from it (in whatever way) becomes possible.

  4. says

    As a career counselor with The Actors Work Program of The Actors Fund, I work with many professional musicians, who discover creative ways to generate income from meaningful non-industry work and entrepreneurial endeavors that give them the financial freedom to continue investing time and resources in creating and performing their music. As a national program, we are a free resource to all musicians who want to investigate alternative career management plans.

  5. says

    Great post about a very serious issue.

    There is ONE group I can think of that has actually managed to support themselves without ever having a residency: Kronos Quartet. They’re the exception (read: model) in so many ways, but it is worth noting that in any given year, a good percentage (and often over 50%) of their engagements are not in the US, so it could be said that they might not be able to support themselves with just touring in the US.

    It’s also worth noting that a fair percentage of the Bang on a Can People (Evan Ziporyn and Robert Black, at least) support themselves through academic residencies, just not ones that are really connected to their work in BoaC.

    Hi, Nick. Thanks for this. Kronos is a most interesting exception to the general rule — more interesting, maybe, than a top mainstream chamber group like the Emerson Quartet, because they’re doing it with new music and unconventional ways of presenting concerts. Their international touring looks to me like a badge of success. Certainly we’d think that, if an American pianist started playing in Europe and Asia as well as simply in the US.

  6. says

    Kind of like making a living in arts writing nowadays…

    I remember back in the ’80s, writing about classical music for publications that don’t exist any more. I was even once the classical music critic for Vanity Fair…….

  7. says

    Ten years ago I was teaching a course at Oberlin that was designed to help conservatory students think about the variety of career streams they would need to undertake in order to earn a living as a musician. The concept that they might need to prepare for maintaining performing lives in a multiplicity of genres or settings was certainly not something that many, if any, of them were hearing from their studio faculty. My message was simple: some would be diverse by choice, but most would be diverse by necessity.

    I may be one of the very few who thinks that musicians taking on multiple roles within the community (orchestral performer, teacher, new music performer, chamber musician, back-up-band for a pop singer) is a GOOD thing — in fact, a GREAT thing. Variety keeps musicians fresh, and the musical ecosystem is able to thrive when all the various segments are being served.

    The “crisis” in Classical music in the U.S. is in large part attributable, I believe, to the narrow self-labeling in which many classically-trained performers engaged for decades. Even your post buys in to it — “[she]play(s) with a pops orchestra, which was one of the things she had to do, if she wanted to survive.” What the heck is wrong with playing in a Pops orchestra?

    The irony, of course, is that we (the musical community) created these distinctions. We continue to be uncomfortable with musicians who, for love or money or both, “cross over” between genres. Much is written when Billy Joel or Paul McCartney or Elvis Costello write a symphony; the “purists” scoffed when Domingo did some beautiful duets with John Denver and others; Dawn Upshaw is poo-poohed in some circles because she does opera –and art song — and Broadway — and contemporary music — and whatever else she wants to do. And it is all stunning.

    I am now the artistic manager of Red {an orchestra}, whose mission is to bring new audiences to classical music and classical music to audiences in new ways. The members of the orchestra enthusiastically perform the widest possible variety of music, in settings from concert halls to shopping centers, because our audiences enjoy ALL of it — without the labels.


    Laura Kuennen-Poper

    Artistic Manager

    Red {an orchestra}

    Cleveland, OH

    Well said, Laura. And Red, of course, is one of the most successful post-classical initiatives.

    About the pops orchestra. The question here isn’t whether I or anyone else likes pops concerts. It would be whether the violinist in question liked playing them. I think (though I don’t attempt to speak for her) that she’d prefer to make her living doing things closer to her heart.

    And yes, that might not be possible. And yes, classical musicians will have to do many diverse things, as, in fact, many of them already do. Probably most.

    But can I suggest that there might be an artistic cost? Take someone in a band. The band exists to play its own music. It might succeed, it might fail. But — if it’s a good band — it has an artistic focus. It doesn’t run off on weekends to play classic rock covers at a bar. It doesn’t show up at the local mall playing holiday music. I agree that we shouldn’t look down on community engagement, but on the other hand, we shouldn’t be blind to the rather blank nature — from any artistic point of view — of what community engagement could lead to. Here (as, I think, in many other areas) popular cultlure is way ahead of us. Seems like in popular culture, people actually take a firmer view of what’s artistically acceptable, and distinguish more strongly between what’s in their heart and what would dilute their vision. (Well, in pop music, anyway. Maybe actors doing commercials would present the opposite picture.)

  8. Greg Sandow says

    The following arrived as an e-mail from violinist Gil Morgenstern. I’m posting it here with his permission:

    I believe there is an alternative way for alternative performers interested in alternative performances to make a living, however admittedly it’s not for everyone anymore than, say, playing in a pops orchestra might be (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but for many it’s not necessarily a classical musician’s first choice – but that’s a different topic…). I do think it presupposes a certain type of motivation and entrepreneurial spirit.

    Anyone who has stuck with classical music to the point where they’re in a position to try and make a living off of it must have exhibited a fair degree of motivation somewhere along the way. Often, however, there is an assumption or even an expectation that work will inevitably follow, whether as a soloist, chamber musician, orchestra player, or professor at a university; at least that was my generation’s thinking. If you practice hard enough and play well enough (whatever that means), or as one of my agents used to say very early on, “just make sure you get a haircut before that audition for Maestro X,” some type of career will be there waiting for you. As we all found out, it ain’t necessarily so and even if it is, it may not be enough to sustain both financially and artistically. Once that reality sets in, I’ve found that all too many musicians roll over (as defined by doing things they don’t really want to do) instead of attempting to create, sometimes out of nothing and nowhere, circumstances under which they can actually control their own destiny (admittedly to a certain degree and under a different paradigm: this won’t be your daddy’s Cadillac anymore, or whatever the appropriate car is supposed to be in that saying… sorry). So whatever the motivation, whether it’s the passion they have for their art, or even if it’s a dread of playing, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber every night in a pops orchestra, there is an alternative.

    Assuming one has a vision of an alternative career and can articulate it, it’s not impossible to take control of what you play, who you play it with, where you play it and when you play it – and still get paid for it. I’ve found that the same passion and commitment musicians bring to their performances (at least those that are passionate and

    committed) can be channeled to inspire people of means to subsidize new artistic ventures (and remuneration for doing so) if they believe that you believe in what you’re doing. It helps to be able to balance a checkbook as well as put a budget and business plan together of course, and one has to spend a good deal of time and effort developing relationships (that may be the most difficult part, but it’s doable).

    It’s also important to seek out non-traditional performance venues, as you suggest, to avoid falling back into the trap of expecting the existing business, such as it is, to provide further opportunities that aren’t the same old same old.

    Once a 501c3 corporation is set up with the mission of fulfilling your vision, and once you have the business plan in hand, you have to be every bit as entrepreneurial as the guy next door selling widgets in order to be successful. The nice difference is that you’re doing it for yourself, for something you believe in heart and soul, and ultimately for something that is of benefit not only to the public at large but the future of this “business” as well (perhaps this is an appropriate moment to add a healthy ego to the list of requirements…). And you’re not really in competition with your colleagues as the widgeteer is because a) everyone’s vision will be individual and therefore ought not to collide with that of others and

    b) there’s plenty of money out there – the bulk of which I believe is readily available through individuals rather than granting organizations (so remember to get your haircut first).

    I could go on (yikes!), but I’m sure you’ve got the picture. I throw it out only because I think there really is another way for some of us to satisfy our personal artistic needs, feed the family and at the same time, shout from the windows that we’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. Maybe conservatories ought to be teaching some of these skills in addition to scales and arpeggios? Or are they already doing it? I know there are courses to prepare you for what to expect in the business, but do they tell you how to create a business? Or am I all wrong about this and have simply lucked out? I guess it’s possible.

    By the way, I’m not claiming to be post-classical, perhaps more antediluvian (at least, that’s what I hear from my kids…).

  9. says

    The key to a flourishing classical culture is state subsidy. Classical music is still going strong in Finland and Denmark, and even the people who don’t much care for the music don’t object to the use of their taxes for cultural funding. I imagine the situation is smilar in France; do any of the mainstream political parties there feel any need to do away with IRCAM, for example?

    You in the U.S. don’t have a decent system of state subsidies, which might doom your classical scene, but since it is from precisely Denmark, Finland, and France that my favourite composers hail, I’ll still be content for at least some years to come.

    American classical performers and fans have done a terrible job of lobbying for more state funding. Do they just think they don’t have a chance, or do they just lack the energy?

    No amount of lobbying is going to get the American government to support classical music beyond the levels of support it gives now. Which, by the way, includes local and state funds, as well as federal funds. And also includes funds not specified as arts funding, but designated for other areas — education, for instance — funding that arts organizations find ways to qualify for.

    In 1968, with the American economy in terrific shape, classical music reasonably popular, and American orchestras in grave financial trouble (due to their expansion earlier in that decade), a consultant firm was hired by the largest orchestras. The firm said that vastly increased federal funding was the only solution. The federal funds, the consultants said, should support 25% of orchestras’ budgets, far less than the level of government support in Europe.
    And even then it didn’t happen. There’s very little support in America for expanding government funding of anything, let alone something like classical music that’s perceived as elite and distant, though certainly not objectionable.

    The problem in America, actually, isn’t that government won’t fund classical music more than it currently does. It’s that private donations may dry up. That’s a subject for a future post, but there’s a growing feeling that classical music receives too much money, compared to other things (other forms of art, projects that help the poor). If this spreads at all widely among prospective donors — and some large philanthropists have actually embraced this view — then classical music might be in real trouble.

  10. says

    While you’re discussing making a living, you and others here might be interested in Jason Heath’s series on that subject. Perhaps the easiest way to find it is to start at and then read the “Road Warrior Without an Expense Account” series.

    Also in that vein and speaking directly to the matter of using teaching as an adjunct to performing is an article Drew McManus and I wrote at

    While Drew wrote the column, I did the associated, downloadable simulation model that people can explore. No, I’m not against teaching, but it seemed to us that there’s the potential for an interesting and unfortunate dynamic in the current situation: musicians earn less from their music than they’d want because there’s an imbalance in supply and demand, they begin teaching to augment their income, they interest increasing numbers of young people in music, leading eventually to increased numbers of professional musicians, making the supply and demand equation still worse, leading to increased pressure to teach, …. The model says it better than I do here; check it out.

    Thanks for the Jason Heath link. I’ll look at it.

    And about teaching. The supply and demand balance for classical musicians has been pretty terrible for as long as I’ve been in the field. It would be interesting to know whether the number of people teaching classical music has increased more than the increase in the general population, and likewise for the number of classical music students.

  11. Paul A. Alter says

    I can’t remember the date when it actually occurred to me, but it was a transcendental moment when I realized that musicians could now make a living playing in symphony orchestras.

    There had been some exceptions, I guess, but musicians were hired for eight sessions a week, for twenty-or-so weeks per year, to play for the symphony. For that, they got a paltry sum that would in no way supply a living wage.

    So, they scrounged around for other jobs. Taking pupils was a given. Summer work at outdoor venues was another. Two musicians with the St. Louis SO owned a music store. Stuff like that.

    Many musicians played in the symphony because it was an avocation. The SLSO got a first trumpet who came from a well-paying gig with the Radio City Music Hall orchestra because he was “tired of playing the Egmont Overture 16 times a week and wanted to play real music.” It got its first trombone from a touring ballet company and playing with Woody Herman but who wanted to play with a symphony.

    And they got no respect. The story of the famous pianist who was hired to play at some society event. The hostess asked, “What is your fee.” The musicians said [I forget the actual amount, so I’ll make one up] “10,000.” The hostess said, “Fine, but you understand you are not to mingle with the guests.” “Oh, in that case,” said the musician, “my fee will be $9,000.”

    But the union fought and clawed and gouged until it got a living wage for the major orchestras. It was able to do that because there were people in many communities who, through a combination of civic pride and love of music, were willing to fight and claw and gouge to get the necessary money.

    Now, when we’ve got the greatest orchestras that ever existed playing in halls that are adequate or better, we’re saying, “Gee, well maybe we oughta . . .”

    Well, if that’s the case — if even we who profess to be music lovers — are coming up with these “oughta’s” — then what we really oughta do is do away with symphony orchestras.

    We simply do not deserve them any more.

    Paul Alter

    Paul, the part of this that seizes my attention is the trumpet player, who’s tired of playing the Egmont overture at Radio City Music Hall! So, decades ago, they played classical music at the shows there? Reminds me of the 1937 study of American orchestras that talked about Harvard students going to the Boston Pops, and demanding the Academic Festival Overture! Times have changed.

  12. says

    A lot of good comments. I can only add that it is my opinion that music should no longer be offered as a major. Think of all the students out there borrowing $10 or $20K/year to finish their schooling and then try to pay off a boatload of debt by making a living from music. Why not music only as part of a double major – Accounting and Music, Engineering and Music, etc. Schools are working harder and harder to bring in students because tuition costs keep going up and up. A concession to reality from the university seems only ethical.

    In any case, I wonder if we are reaching the point in history when musical ability is a virtue and no longer a profession?

  13. says

    I think many, many classical musicians have exactly the same kind of challenges making a living as the “post classical” musicians. As Greg says, most chamber music specialists can’t make a living from that, so they do other things, too. Many orchestra musicians patch together a living from lots of gigs in various styles, plus (as others have pointed out) teaching, writing, and other work. Even people with full-time orchestra jobs have to play pops concerts as part of the season. Here in L.A., a musician may play all kinds of live and recorded music in a week (although here the endagered music is studio music, which used to provide incomes to far more musicians). Aside from famous pop acts, musicians who want to play pop music also do all kinds of work–maybe musical, maybe not–to pay the rent. Of course some classical musicians make a full-time living playing classical music, and classical stars may make lots of money, but far more classical musicians are patching together a living by doing lots of different things. (Maybe this has always been true: musicians earn their livings by doing whatever they can do, and if they’re lucky some of the work is to play the music they especially like to play.) Becoming post-classical won’t require a change in work habits.

    Good points. I do worry about what might happen if the high-end classical mainstream is forced to shrink. We’ll lose marquee jobs — the jobs in which classical musicians actually can make a decent salary from a single place. I wonder, too, if mainstream classical music shrinks outside of the marquee jobs, whether some freelance work will dry up. If fewer churches do “Messiah” every Christmas, if (in New York) fewer name groups playing standard rep in big halls with freelance players give concerts…this might hurt everyone. Music schools, too, are raising money in part, maybe large part, because of the glamourous things a few of their graduates do. So maybe their fundraising would be hurt.

    This is speculative, though. Nobody knows at this point. And it’s good to be clear about how most classical musicians scrape their living together. Thanks, John.

  14. Paul A. Alter says

    In its glory days, Radio City Music Hall supported a symphony orchestra. I can’t say from first-hand knowledge (never having been to a show at that time), but an article in the New Yorker describes the orchestra rising from the pit, playing some concert piece(s), and then descending back into the pit to back the dancing robots.

    The orchestra, led by Erno Rapee, also played concerts on either the NBC or CBS radio network on Sunday morning. It was on this show that they did a Mahler cycle that, although only partial, included the 8th.

    This was during the period when Grace Moore, Lily Pons, Rise Stevens, Charles Kullman, Jose Iturbi, Helen Traubel, Lauritz Melchior, Leopold Stokowski, and such were starring in and/or appearing in motion pictures produced by leading Hollywood studios.

    Those were the days when Chico Marx could announce, “We will now play the sextet from ‘Lichi Nuts’,” and get a laugh. Ed Wynn had a weekly radio show on which, as a running gag, he promised a performance of “Carmen,” including its theme song “She’ll Be Carmen ’round the Mountain When She Carms.”

    Earlier, a staple in vaudeville had been burlesque versions of arias from operas, which blue collar audiences of the time appreciated.

    Remember Charlie Chan, the great Chinese detective? One of the films in the series was “Charlie Chan at the Opera,” for which Oscar Levant wrote several scenes for the opera being produced in the film.

    There was a Technicolor extravaganza, a fictionalized biography

    of Chopin. Another film was about Margery Lawrence, an erstwhile important singer whose career was interrupted by polio. These were meant for mainstream audiences.

    Yes, the attitude toward concert music was different in those days. It was a “try it, you’ll like it” era, as opposed to today.


    Oh, and another thing. Even the musicians of the NBC SO were not totally supported by their service in the orchestra. The real purpose of the NBC SO was to provide a pool of musicians from which to draw players for the orchestras on the various other shows — musical, dramatic, et al.


    Very interesting. And that last bit about the NBC Symphony is absolutely right. NBC didn’t reach deep into its pockets to create out of nothing an orchestra for Toscanini. They already had an orchestra, which was playing light music on their network shows. They fired some of the musicians, and replaced them with capable symphonic players. Then they could use the refurbished orchestra both for the NBC Symphony classical broadcasts, and for the same light music the musicians had played before. It’s not clear that Toscanini knew much about this.

  15. James Poke says

    I run Icebreaker, the new music group in England that plays a lot of similar music to Bang On A Can. As far as we are concerned, it was always the case that Icebreaker musicians earned their leaving from a variety of sources, including teaching, with playing Andrew Lloyd Webber perhaps the most lucrative, but I don’t think, from a UK perspective, that seemed in any way a compromise.

    However, if Icebreaker is part of a ‘post-classical’ environment, the other question is how the group survives – it is much more difficult to keep an ensemble going than to survive as an individual musician. In the UK we have in some ways the worst of both funding models – much less state funding than mainland Europe, but very limited private sponsorship, along US lines.

    So I think within that context, altho Icebreaker is certainly dependent to a large extent on well-funded European festivals, it is increasingly a question of finding more popular models, and trying to build projects which are going to have wider appeal, without losing sight of artistic ideals. I think it is this which is going to determine what the future shape of any sort of ‘classical’ music is, or whether the concept continues to exist – and (outside of a museum culture) I don’t think it’s really a choice between ‘classical’ music continuing with its own clear cut identity, or dramatically dying, it’s more a question of it morphing into something which may or may not be referred to as classical, but which offers an alternative challenging take on a wider musical culture. Icebreaker (and Bang On A Can) have always fought shy of being identified with a classical label, despite the fact that we are of course classical – but then again in other senses we are also not classical, not in the conventional sense anyway…

    Thanks, James. I’m glad to see you here, sharing your perspective. Here in the US, we know far too little (and I include myself in that) about how things are done elsewhere. I especially liked your thoughts about not being classical, and about what that could mean in the future. Powerful! I want to see it happen.
    And for anyone who hasn’t heard Icebreaker — they’re terrific.

  16. Paul A. Alter says

    re: The NBC SO

    Toscanini did not know about it until a rehearsal ran overtime and a bassoon player, who had to get work on a different show, tried to crawl out, trusting to T’s notoriously bad eyesight to get out unnoticed. But Tosky did, found out the truth, blew up, and — shortly afterward — retired.

    Minor correction: the musicians did not just play for light music shows. They were also a vital part of dramatic shows, playing the intro theme and the background scores, comedy shows, quiz shows, news shows, commercials, et al. It was all live music. (Don’t forget that Bubbles Silverman, aka Beverly Sills, did the “Rinso White” commercial time after time after time.)

    But they also had some serious music gigs. For example, Frank Black and the NBC String Orchestra had a Sunday morning (the “Cultural Graveyard”) show that developed my love for the sonorities of the the string orchestra.

    Then, during the rest of the week, there were shows like Donald Voorhees/The Telephone Hour, Alfred Wallenstein/Howard Barlow/The Firestone Hour, et al that played shorter serious pieces and movements from longer pieces.


  17. says

    “Where Can We Work? A Report on Workspace Availability for New York City Musicians” will be on by mid-January. In the report, we look specifically at the impact of workspace on NYC musicians’ productivity and propose feasible solutions.

    Thanks. And I have to say that I’m impressed with the variety of people who read my blog. And grateful to all of them, too.