Wednesday, March 30, 2011

It was one of those nights...

As I walked out on the stage during intermission, I sat in my chair and looked around me. I blew a few notes to make sure I was warmed up and my horn was up to temperature, then just absorbed the scene. One by one, my colleagues made their way onto the stage, the audience slowly returned to their seats, then the chorus filed in. Right before Robin (our concertmaster) stood up to tune the orchestra, there was this buzz, or heighten awareness in the room that something WONDERFUL was going to happen. The orchestra tuned, the room got silent, then Gregory Vajda walked onto the stage. The audience applauded, as they always do, no more, no less than any other conductor who has been fortunate enough to conduct our talented collection of artists.

Gregory mounted the podium, raised his arms and gracefully brought them down, and the wonderful DID happen. As the low strings made the gorgeous opening tones, and shortly after the chorus entered, the California was FILLED with Brahms. Music that has spanned the centuries was magically shared by 150 musicians on stage and a hall brimming with music lovers. It was one of those moments for which we musicians live.

During the whole first movement (I don’t play so I was truly a transfixed member of the audience), I was filled with wonderment, glee, appreciation, gratitude and awe. Here I am, sitting on this stage, in this beautiful building, wearing beautiful clothes, amongst a stage full of talented musicians, surrounded by this enchanted experience, God, I HAVE to be the luckiest man alive tonight. It was one of those moments that brings back the whole reason I am so passionate about music. Nothing else seemed to matter, but the moment. So often, we are sidetracked by contracts, and working conditions, and all the unmusical necessities of keeping an arts organization running, but here it is, the whole reason we do that, for THIS, right here, right now. We are IN that moment. Nothing else matters.

The Requiem was spellbinding... start to finish.

As the final chords were sounding, and Gregory held that last note, time was suspended. Those few seconds of silence after the release, seemed like an eternity..... then the audience erupted. Know it or not, they were participants in an extraordinary event.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Why would you want a degree in music?

At the risk of sounding like a jaded old fart, why WOULD you want a degree in music? Here are your career choices:

Professional player/conductor/composer/arranger

Public School Teacher

University Professor

That’s it. I’ll go over these one at a time, starting from the bottom.


First of all, you better be prepared to spend MOST (if not all) of your 20’s in school. NO college in the US will even consider your application without a PhD, or a DMA. Unless you’ve spent most of your life playing with the Canadian Brass, or the Julliard String Quartet, you’ll need the doctorate.

Plan on starting your career with almost $100,000 debt. Unless you are one of the fortunate few that can secure a free ride for your ENTIRE university career, you will have incurred some debt for tuition, lessons, materials, housing, and the like. $100,000 is not unreasonable in 2011.

Check into the pay. With SO many doctorates out there LOOKING for work, colleges don’t really have to pay much. I know of a recent opening for a university band director job that received over 150 applications. No PhD, or DMA, the apps were trashed. I know what the pay offer was. A public school teacher with 15 years service, with a BA +30 pays more. Recently, a good friend of mine was offered a college position, full time Assistant Professor teaching their instrument. At the same time, a job offer for teaching HS band was tendered. The HS job paid TWICE what the university offered.

I was having a few beers with some young college musicians, most of whom had at least Master’s Degrees and the rest had Doctorates. I was the lone un-degreed person in the room. I casually asked, “You guys are on the job search trail. What would you reasonably expect to be paid for a full time college teaching gig?” I was SHOCKED at the reply, “About $40,000.” Starbucks pays that here in California for a full time employee.


When I was in school (a hundred years ago), all of us ‘performance majors’ considered this a reasonable “fall back position,” should we not make it in the pro world. Along with practicing 3-4 hours a day, I learned to play the clarinet, bassoon, cello, drums (non-mallet percussion, really), piano, auto harp, and the recorder. I learned how to plot marching band shows, how to conduct basic band repertoire and how to arrange pop tunes for a field band. I took the history of the wind band, history of the symphony orchestra, all the counterpoint classes, 20th century techniques, form & analysis (Skapski was TOUGH!), and music history out the yin-yang. I even learned to be a copyist, using tips, nibs and vellum. All to be prepared to be a school music teacher.

Have you heard what’s happening to music educators all over the country? Tenure doesn’t mean a thing. If they want to cut corners, and they do, music is one of the first programs to go. If you have tenure, all they have to do is cut the program. No program, no class, no teacher needed. “Thank you and good luck.”

There is a lot of blame being laid on teachers for the lack of success of today’s students. Hey, I see your kid 5 hours a day, what are YOU doing to help your kid? It used to be, “Teacher is always right. Do what teacher says.” Now, if a kid fails, it’s the teacher’s fault. The inmates are running the asylum and the teachers are powerless to do anything. All discipline has been removed from the teachers, and the kids know it. Not to mention the rash of teacher assaults.

Pay: as recently as the 1960’s teachers, lawyers and doctors (the ‘noble’ professions) were paid on about the same level. Qualified college graduates would prepare equally for all three of these professions. With teacher salaries falling WAY behind the other professions, is it any wonder why our best & brightest are going elsewhere? I am not saying that there aren’t some GREAT teachers out there, there are, but MANY bright people are looking elsewhere. With jobs being cut, benefits being reduced, total lack of any authority to do any kind of classroom management, parents blaming teachers for their kids’ failure, and the pay not being commensurate with the tasks required, who in their right mind would want to go into teaching these days? Shrinking budgets, buildings falling into disrepair, instruments purchased in the 1970's, no money for repairs or replacements, music tattered and missing parts.....


In a word, fuggedaboudit! There’s no work.

Composer/arranger - For every John Williams composing and arranging film music, there are thousands of composers teaching private piano lessons. The only real hope you have to make a living is if you can write great band literature. Look at the successful models (not limited to these folks) – Ticheli, Ewazen, Camphouse, Stamp, Sparke. There are a few more. If you can’t write as well as these guys, seriously consider other options.

The conducting spots are far and few in between. Professional orchestra conducting is more about who you know, and being in the right place at the right time. You’ll be better off trying to be struck by lightening; you’ll have a better chance of success.

Being a pro player – when Ms. Jantsch won the Philadelphia Orchestra position there were (I was told) 197 candidates applying for the position (PLEASE correct me if I am wrong. I don’t want to seem delusional). I would guess the top FIFTY (or more) were qualified for that level orchestra. I would guess the next fifty would be just great in the job. I bet the next fifty could actually DO the job. Seriously, do you think you could win a position against those odds? Really, I wish you luck, but please, take a healthy dose of reality with your morning Malt-O-Meal. When I was on the audition trail (back in the dark ages), one of the options was being in the service bands. I can’t TELL you how many times I heard, “I can always get into one of the service bands.” Man, has the tide turned on this. Playing in Washington in one of THOSE bands? What a privilege, what luck! Good luck winning one of these gigs. Even the smallest bands, in the remotest areas have GREAT musician/players these days. IF there are openings.

So now, where does this leave this rant?

I have the answer: become a plumber. When the guy rings my doorbell, I pay him $129.95, just to show up. If he looks at my problem and can’t fix it, I pay him for his expertise. If he can actually DO the work, he adds a few bucks the to price of the parts, weedles a cup of excellent coffee outta me and he’s out the door in 20 minutes. If he does 5-7 of these calls a day, his gross income (figuring 5 calls a day, 28 days a month, 10 months a year) $182,000. Do the math: ((($130 x 5 calls) x 28 days a month) x 10 months).

But I LOVE playing my instrument!

You can still be out playing your instrument 5-6 nights a week. There are tons of community bands & orchestras. Chamber music is BOOMING. In our small area there are TWO British-Style Brass bands. Here in the San José area, there are a dozen community theaters producing shows. NO problem addressing your creative needs.

As always, your comments are most welcome.