“It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating.”
In the 1980s there was a popular television show called The A-Team. The leader of the group, Hannibal—not Dr. Lecter—had a motto, heard on each episode: “I love it when a plan comes together.” One has to wonder what he said when it did not.
As we reach the four-month mark of the viral wars in America, several strategies have taken shape for easing restrictions, with some succeeding and others being met with a surge in cases. The separation anxieties are subsiding in Europe as arts organizations experiment with socially distanced performances but meanwhile increasing in the States as uncertainty looms. Amid the continuing protests, calls for parts of history to be dismantled, and a justice system careening ever more out of control, the United States of America might as well drop the first word of the country’s name.
Everyone has been affected by COVID-19. Staggering numbers of people are unemployed, and no one as yet has come up with a way to create new industries or jobs during the crisis. It has been difficult enough for all musicians, but we mostly read of the plight of major institutions. On my mind and in my heart are those who work for minimum wages and indeed depend on a day-to-day income.
On June 19th, the New York Times published an article by Joshua Barone about the members of the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera.
“I wasn’t expecting it to happen so soon,” Mr. Valverde, now 25, recalled in an interview. Straight out of grad school, he found himself in the pit for Mozart’s “Magic Flute.”
With base wages of more than $135,000 per year before the pandemic, this horn player is now in real trouble. Understandably, one plans a personal budget with that figure in mind. It is not difficult to appreciate his plight. He had no time to save up enough to get through this situation. The orchestra members across the square in Geffen Hall make even more. No one should begrudge this salary—we are talking about the finest musicians in the stratosphere of musical excellence. New York is also an incredibly expensive city. In these cases, the younger you are, the less prepared you are for the harsh realities of the profession.
Getting that dream job, at least in these times, is more like a nightmare.
But what about the musicians who are not paid anywhere near the salary of their counterparts in the big cities, for example, those who play in the Tulsa Symphony? Tulsa has been in the news recently because President Trump planned a controversial campaign rally in this location—where as many as 300 black citizens were massacred in 1921 during a notorious episode of racial violence—on Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States.
Members of the Tulsa Symphony receive compensation on a per-service basis, earning in the range of $15,000 to $18,000 per year, which they supplement by performing with other orchestras, teaching lessons, and playing church services. These hard-working musicians were already diversifying their income sources before the pandemic, but with the exception of online teaching opportunities, all of their revenue streams have dried up completely due to COVID-19. Moreover, many of them typically travel to Texas and Arkansas to play in other ensembles, and the piecemeal nature of their freelance income across state lines makes the process of filing for unemployment benefits all the more precarious.
How will the ongoing pandemic affect those in orchestras of all sizes all over this country? First, organizations rely on two factors to provide the revenue that allows musicians to perform: contributions from donors—both corporate and private—and ticket sales. The latter usually accounts for less than 35% of an orchestra’s budget. One can apply this model to almost any musical institution, no matter the size.
Some businesses are returning to work, albeit with varying degrees of caution, but orchestras are not. Many have closed up shop until the new year, and at best, that is a wish, not a certainty. We hope that when the time comes for our concert and stage life to start up, the audiences will be socially distanced (some might say anti-social). Performances will undoubtedly begin with programs that have no intermission. We cannot have people waiting in line for drinks and using the facilities.
Realities need to be faced. Most of us will not be earning a living making music for quite a while, no matter what salary level we are at. When I work with young musicians in conservatories or music schools, I reserve about an hour of rehearsal to chat with the players. We talk about nerves, taking auditions, sight-reading, etc. Perhaps the most essential part of my presentation is about understanding that the music profession is filled with disappointments. It is a harsh world out there.
I go on to say that from these formative years in the training environment, aspiring musicians need to have alternate plans, just in case they are not able to achieve what they desire. Sometimes it might be in the form of another job within the music field, and other times it is a passion or hobby that they wish to pursue. These are not the words that budding music pros want to hear, but they ring true at this moment in time.
All of us want to put bread on the table and in our pockets. Those who have been around a while hopefully have had the foresight to anticipate this rainy day. Others did not save and are suffering. Online teaching can only go so far, and unfortunately there is not much in the world right now for those of us whose lives have been based in performance.
My advice is to take stock of the skills you possess to see if any of them can be utilized for the time being. In some ways, it may be like when you left school and struck out on your own. Many of us did things to earn money that were unrelated to our intended goals. Instead of lamenting about what you cannot do, start implementing what is possible. Do not worry about next week but do plan for the next half a year. Long-term strategies are the key to getting back to a more normalized world.
With that said, keep studying and practicing. You never know when the phone will ring or an email might come in, asking: “Are you available to play next week?” Or—as the other Hannibal said—“I’m not sure you get wiser as you get older, but you do learn to dodge a certain amount of hell.”