At the risk of sounding clichéd, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown into sharp focus the precarious nature of most professional musicians’ lives. With concert and opera venues closed – and only now beginning to reopen cautiously – many musicians have been faced with the very frightening situation of being without any means to earn money. This survey by Encore, the musicians’ booking platform, reveals the current dire state of the UK music industry.

The profession has always been unstable. Most musicians are self-employed and many combine performing with teaching to supplement meagre concert fees – high salaries are reserved only for the ‘celebrities’ at the very top of the tree. For most, concert and teaching fees are not truly commensurate with the amount of time and commitment musicians must put in to sustain their careers. There are few jobs in the developed world which are so highly skilled yet so poorly remunerated, and many musicians are simply not economically resilient. The events of this year have highlighted this to an even greater extent, and there is absolutely no guarantee that life will return to “normal” for musicians when venues do re-open. Added to this, there exists a certain societal misunderstanding, sometimes bordering on contempt, for people who make a living in non-standard ways – musicians, writers, artists, actors. The inference is that these people should get “a proper job” and quit moaning.

During lockdown, and its aftermath, those musicians for whom teaching provides a significant part of their income have fared better than those for whom concertising is the only source of making money. But for the professional performer, the lack of concert engagements can feel like the loss of a limb because for many musicians their very identity and raison d’être is defined by performing.

We’re going to have to be a lot less fancy in future” remarked a concert pianist friend of mine, when we were talking about the effect of the pandemic on concerts and concert-going in the early days of the UK lockdown. He means, to be brutally frank, “beggars can’t be choosers“. Venues and concert organisers/music societies will have less cash to spare and musicians will be chasing fewer engagements; an already competitive profession is likely only to become even more cut-throat. As a consequence, musicians will have to take the work when the opportunity arises without worrying about the prestige of the orchestra, ensemble, or venue.

To accept that the profession, for which one has spent many years training and honing one’s craft and one’s skills, putting in hundreds of hours of practicing and, as a consequence, giving up many aspects of life which other people outside of the profession would consider “normal”, can no longer be one’s primary source of income comes as a bitter blow to many musicians. When one’s identity is defined by one’s music-making and one’s very personal attachment to one’s chosen instrument, it can feel like an attack on one’s very body and soul.

“Portfolio career” is a fashionable term for “doing a variety of jobs” and musicians are masters of the peripatetic working life. Now more than ever, a willingness to be adaptable is crucial – and that may mean drawing one’s main income outside of music.

Some musicians regard this as a sign of failure, but why should there be shame in taking work outside of the profession? Maybe now is the time to be less squeamish about “non-musical” jobs? In straitened times, pragmatism must come before art, and if that means taking a job outside the profession, there should be no shame in doing this: you are no less a musician just because it is not your main source of income.

Unfortunately, the musician’s training tends to discourage looking outside of the profession for work. Sure, you might have worked in a bar or helped with front of house duties at a concert venue when you were a student, but very few conservatoires and music colleges offer specific courses in business skills and entrepreneurialism for musicians – from the basics of setting up a personal website to more sophisticated self-promotion, marketing and PR. In addition, they do not necessarily encourage students to consider other careers within music, such as arts administration or orchestral management, publicity/PR/marketing, music publishing, or working for a venue or recording label. Conservatoires train musicians to be performers and many continue to peddle the idea that a career as a performer is a sustainable one.

Of course, working outside the profession comes at a cost to one’s practice regime: if you’re doing a 9 to 5 job elsewhere, you still have to find the time to practice – and that’s a full-time job even without concerts.

I’ll close with some thoughts from musician friends and colleagues:

I really never want to give it up as a profession. After a few days not practicing I lose a lot of mechanism, so going into a 9-5 job would devastate everything I’ve worked for. But undoubtedly this will see people off…..There never was a “career”. I still don’t really know how it’s meant to work, I just got called for random things that all added up. I had an amazing last 10 years and I hope to God it’s not over. There’s always playing but it wouldn’t be the same. A lot of us have been very, very lucky to get to do this. (RS)

I am a great believer in turning everything to one’s advantage, and I feel that this could be a very liberating time in which musicians can feel that they have permission to explore other interests and career paths which they may have otherwise put on hold. As a pianist, I feel that I identify so strongly with that vocation that to choose any other direction would be a betrayal of that identity, and deemed by others to be a strange decision or even a sign of a lack of success in that area. Musicians are under huge pressure to always look busy with their music, and even made to feel guilty when doing something other than practising(!) – there is no shame in admitting that music isn’t actually the *only* thing which makes you tick. (LKP)

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Cast your mind back to the end of March. It seems like another time now, doesn’t it – a period of great uncertainty and anxiety for all of us. For many musicians, whose busy lives up to that point were dominated by full diaries of rehearsing, performing, teaching, recording, initially it felt like an opportunity – to pause, reflect, rest and reset. And with the venues shut and performances cancelled, it was a chance to spend valuable time with the music.

At first it felt like a great gift – to have so much time, free of punishing rehearsal and teaching schedules, tiring travel and late nights, post-concert. Here was an opportunity to learn new repertoire, music one had had on one’s “to do” list for years (a pianist friend of mine enthused about learning Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata for the first time, in a professional career of over a quarter of a century); or to revisit previously-learnt works – an experience akin to reacquainting oneself with an old friend – and discover new details.

But soon the time became a curse – because the more time one had, the more it confirmed that there would be no swift return to “normal life”. The venues remained shuttered; there were no performances, beyond livestreams from living rooms, and an enervating weariness set in. Why practice when there was nothing to practice for? My pianist friend admitted that the ‘Hammerklavier’ had mostly lain unopened on his music desk….

The situation has been rather different for amateur musicians, who have revelled in this gift of time. Working from home or furloughed, these months have provided hours of pleasure. Practising is no longer shoe-horned into one’s busy daily schedule, no need for precious moments to be snatched amongst the responsbilities of work or family life. Oh the joy of guilt-free practising and playing for the sheer pleasure of it (something which professional musicians often envy in amateurs).

Focus, and having something to work for, is so important for the professional musician. It provides motivation and fuels intent. Without it, one can feel stranded and unsettled, dislocated and depressed. Routine is also crucial, and the self-discipline of a daily routine not only gives structure to one’s time, but also feeds creativity. In addition to solitary practice, musicians find stimulation and structure in rehearsal with colleagues and ensemble work – all of which has been, until very recently, put on hold.

Perhaps the worst part, the most draining aspect of this situation, was the not knowing: not knowing when it would end, or how the industry would look as we emerge from this grand fermata. Not knowing if one would still be able to sustain a career in music (the subject of a future article). The government sent out confusing messages, or retreated on previous announcements, offering crumbs of hope and then retracting at the eleventh hour, only adding to the uncertainty and frustration. We looked at our European counterparts, many of whom had endured even more severe restrictions than us, with a degree of envy as it appeared most were getting back to normal life far more quickly than us, with venues opening up, albeit with smaller, socially-distanced audiences, and some festivals running, scaled down but, importantly, with real, live audiences.

Now UK concert life is beginning to re-emerge from the great hibernation as venues prepare to reopen and admit audiences once again, with restrictions. There’s a renewed energy as musicians shake off the debilitating ennui of the past five, yes, five months, and return with renewed focus to their practice schedules and rehearsals. Diaries are open again. It’s a time of relief, tinged with trepidation: musicians are pleased to be getting back to doing what they do best, but there’s caution too, about what the future holds….


Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

The coronavirus is forcing us to practice social distancing and self-isolation. As I joked on Twitter the other day, musicians, and especially pianists, have been self-isolating for years!

The pianist’s life is, by necessity, lonely. One of the main reasons pianists spend so much time alone is that we must practise more than other musicians because we have many more notes and symbols to decode, learn and upkeep. This prolonged solitary process may eventually result in a public performance, at which we exchange the loneliness of the practise room for the solitude of the concert platform.

However, despite the need for frequent sequestration to get the work done, regular interaction with colleagues and students alleviates the loneliness and reminds us of the life beyond the keyboard and the importance of forging musical partnerships, professionally and socially. And in concert-giving, there is also the important connection and interaction with audiences.

With coronavirus sweeping the world, the concert halls and conservatoires are closed and we are being told to exercise social distancing and self-isolation to protect ourselves and our families and friends from this virus. Around my social networks in the days since the UK government ordered that we “stay at home”, many of my musician friends and colleagues have been posting details of how they intended to cope with this new way of making and sharing music. Some are excited about the prospect of weeks, maybe months, of enforced isolation as an opportunity to learn new repertoire, ready for when the concert halls and venues reopen and the music can be shared with live audiences once more. Others are exploring ways to give concerts online via platforms like YouTube. Unfortunately, neither of these activities make money and the sad truth of the musician’s working life is that it is very fragile. Most musicians are self-employed and many live almost hand-to-mouth, meagre concert fees (only the most internally-renowned musicians can command large fees) often supplemented by teaching which offers regular income.

Without concert bookings, many musicians feel marooned as the main focus of their daily lives is removed in one fell swoop. It’s all very well saying you’re going to learn the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto or the complete Liszt Transcendental Etudes, but without concert bookings it’s very hard to feel motivated.

“You’ve got more time to practice now!” people outside the profession might declare, and while this may be true, it’s not very helpful as musicians face the prospect of months without work, no fees, and the attendant anxiety which this brings.

For the amateur musician, by contrast, this is a time for extra, guilt-free practising; but for the professional musician it is rather more problematic. “I’ve really only dabbled at the keyboard” wrote one of my clients, a concert pianist, in an email a couple of days ago. The week before all this kicked off, he and I were discussing the next round of promotion for his concerts, which will, in all probability, be cancelled. And without concerts, the professional musician loses a significant motivation to keep working.

I think it’s important to exercise some self-care and not feel guilty about not working (by which I mean practising) as much during these strange, surreal and uncertain days, and especially not to compare oneself to others who may be busy with livesteam concerts, videocasting and daily broadcasts of Bach…. This time may serve to remind musicians how their lives are often lived at full tilt, and so perhaps this is an opportunity to slow down, pause and reflect?

In the meantime, stay safe and well.

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Thoughts on Artistic Identity

I bet you could easily name a handful of classical musicians who have distinct identities. From vertiginous heels to extravagant physical gestures, hair tossing or audible muttering or humming, these individuals’ public artistic identities are evident whenever and wherever they perform.

Most performers have a personal style, or identity, and in our visually-driven age how you look on stage is as important as how you sound. Thus one’s outward musical identity becomes almost a USP or “brand” so that one is easily recognisable wherever one is. Working in such a competitive profession, many musicians seek to develop a musical/artistic identity which is distinct and, in some case, attention-grabbing: thus, while one may be praised for producing a beautiful sound or insightful performances of Bach, how one deports oneself on stage, in both gesture and attire, also influences the way one is regarded by others.

In fact, for most professional musicians their personal artistic identity is developed and defined by their music and music-making rather than their physical appearance. Musical identity can develop from a young age, influenced by family, teachers and mentors; observing one’s peers in college and one’s colleagues in the profession; cultural and societal expectations; and one’s personal values, self-definition (“I am a pianist”, for example), self-efficacy, and intent.

While the title “musician” implies a performer, most musicians have what is fashionably called a “portfolio career”; in reality this is a number of different working roles within and sometimes also outside of the musical profession, and a certain fluidity in one’s identity is necessary to suit these different roles. For example, a concert pianist needs a particular identity and mindset when performing as a soloist, including a degree of extroversion and ego, while the same pianist must temper his/her artistic personality when playing in ensemble where the piano is not the main instrument and one is required to collaborate with others. Equally, when teaching one may need to adapt one’s identity to effectively connect and communicate with students. Over time, one’s musical identity becomes deeply ingrained as one grows more experienced. Adaptability, resilience, and career flexibility allow one to both survive and thrive, and one becomes adept at balancing other artistic aspects of one’s identity, which may remain private, with one’s outward professional artistic identity.

On a more esoteric level, musicians place their music at the very heart of what they do and for most it is their raison d’être (in the way that perhaps other professionals, such as accountants, do not). Music, and music making, is what drives them and the exigencies and uncertainties of the profession can have a detrimental effect on one’s ideals and aspirations as a musician. Thus it is important that young musicians in conservatoire and those embarking on a professional career receive support and mentorship to enable them to balance their expectations with the realities of the profession today.

There are reserves of power in Mr Hough’s touch, and an ingrained refinement; his self-composed encores usually dissipate with sly comedy the high seriousness of his art. Elegantly at ease with himself, he is a performer with whom audiences also feel easy.

(from He’s the Piano Man, article about British concert pianist Stephen Hough in The Economist, August 4th 2016)

 

 

The comment below appeared on a local network site in response to a concert which I’m promoting. Sadly, I have to say I was not surprised to read it. There is a prevailing attitude that musicians, especially young or emerging musicians,  don’t need to be paid because they should simply be grateful for the “exposure”. In addition a lot of people also feel musicians don’t need payment because they love what they do, or they regard what musicians do as a “hobby” or “not a proper job”.

Now I expect there are dentists out there who love what they do, or plumbers…..by the same token should they also not be paid?

No, of course not. Because these people are professionals who have undergone rigorous training and who need to make a living to pay the bills and support their families.

Musicians are no different. Contrary to what some ignorant folk may think, musicians are real people with bills to pay, families to support….etc.

Consider for a moment what a concert fee (and we’re not talking a four- or five-figure fee here) covers: not just the time spent performing (c90-120 minutes for a solo concert) but all the preparation (learning and finessing the music – often many days and weeks, depending on the repertoire). In addition, the musician may have to pay travel expenses, the cost of a night or more in a hotel, food and living…. After all those costs are covered, it’s unlikely the musician will have actually “made” any money at all from the concert.

Most musicians are freelance, and I know many who live almost hand to mouth, supplementing fairly meagre concert fees by teaching or through other music-related work, or work outside the sphere of music in order to pay the bills.

Internationally-renowned musicians like Martha Argerich or Daniel Trifonov may command large concert fees, but the majority of musicians do not. All work very hard to bring to life the wonderful music which we are privileged to share with them in concert.

Don’t ever tell a musician they don’t need a fee because they’re “getting good exposure” or because they love what they do. The notion that musicians should be expected to perform for nothing is demeaning and insulting, and devalues the huge amount of highly concentrated work/effort musicians put in to prepare for a performance.