What is a “full-time musician” anyway?

Benzaiten, the Japanese Goddess of everything that flows, including music.  Polychrome Woodblock print. 19th Japan.
Benzaiten, the Japanese Goddess of everything that flows, including music. Polychrome Woodblock print. 19th Japan.

There was a recent piece on slate.com by composer Andrew Watts titled, What Kind of Stress Do Full-Time Composers Experience? The thing is, and this came up on a recent facebook discussion, the conditions in points number 1. and 4. have nothing to do with being a “full-time composer.”

Here are the relevant excerpts from those points:

1) With national funding and commissioning for music in the state that it is, nearly all U.S. composers make their living (or the bulk of it) through organizational and institutional affiliation. This duality of purpose and focus is stressful by nature. How is one supposed to be an effective teacher/professor/director/conductor all day and then have enough time (or even motivation) to fit in composing at a consistently high level? Some composers find frustration in this system, dissatisfied that their craft of composition, which they value and devote so much time toward, is not financially self-sustaining.


4. As mentioned above, it is often necessary to have the support of an institution, such as a university or conservatory, in order to make a living in the U.S. as a contemporary classical composer.

As David Brynjar Franzson stated in that facebook discussion:

I am more just annoyed at the fact that the question / answer format of the article is misleading. The answer is about how a part-time composer…makes a living, not about the stress of a full-time composer.

I remember when I moved back to the Louisville area and discovered that the University of Louisville School of Music had slowly replaced Louisville Orchestra Musicians with non-orchestral musicians (i.e. musicians who are not playing in the Louisville Orchestra). The reasoning was that the Music school wanted to have teachers who would invest in building their studios because supposedly “full-time” orchestral musicians neither had the desire nor time to do such a thing.

Whether or not this is true, it’s the same sentiment as the composer example.  What’s being discussed is having multiple income streams–and for most people, this is what it’s going to take to make a livable wage and seems to be what we’re seeing now given the 45.3% reduction of those reporting being a “full-time musician” (of course, I wonder what musicians were doing during the Depression when apparently 70% of musicians were unemployed–a far bleaker statistic than we have today).

I guess this goes back to the issue of the relevancy of music schools again.  Do we need all the high level of musical training if that won’t get us a career in music?  Or do we start training kids to cobble together their own careers via multiple revenue streams?  The obvious question then is who’s going to be the best qualified to teach the latter and can an academic composer/musician be the best person to teach these non-academic skills?  Also, a question that also came up in that facebook discussion was, would an active entrepreneurial composer/musician necessarily be a good teacher (and vice versa).  So much of this also goes back to some issues brought up in an old discussion about Orientalism in Kill Bill several years ago.

This also reminded me of a post by Joe Patti of Butts in Seats about Seth Godin’s “True Professionals Don’t Fear Amateurs” a few months ago.  Joe says:

I think Godin’s comment wraps up a lot of the concerns shared by people in the arts. Among those concerns are not only that people are creating things of little value and degrading their work by association, but that people would eventually be unable to discern what real quality was and seek out professionals when the time came as Godin suggests.

to describe the “insecure careerists,” who (referring to skills like typesetting, wedding photography, and graphic design)

[fight] off the amateurs at the gate, insisting that it was both a degradation of their art as well as a waste of time for the amateurs. The professionals, though, those with real talent, used the technological shift to move up the food chain. It was easy to encourage amateurs to go ahead and explore and experiment… professionals bring more than just good tools to their work as professionals.

None of which answers what a full-time composer or musician really is and neither does it negate the possibility of a part-timer being imminently professional and being able to create high quality work that even full-time amateurs at the craft may not be able to do.

But I think that’s beside the point here–if you’re able to be a full-time musician or composer, and have no need to hold down a “day job” (can we consider academic positions “day jobs?”) while making a livable wage for years, then the level of skill you might have is pretty much irrelevant.

10 thoughts on “What is a “full-time musician” anyway?

  1. Some of the interesting questions I think also need approached include: Is this really a new problem? What have musicians done historically “to make ends meet” while still feeling artistically fulfilled? What do universities need to adopt to help musicians succeed at their chosen endeavors?

    One argument I’ve seen (and that I’m prone to as well) has to do with the challenges of the literature. For instance, let’s say you wanted to have an Apocalyptica type career. All the cellist in the group (not sure about the drummer) are classically trained first. Having been to their shows, I can say pretty confidently that their arrangements and originals aren’t going to match the level of difficulty of, say, Shosti’s cello concerto No. 1. From a performance standpoint, then, do we teach the most technically difficult literature, or what the students want to learn? Or vice versa?

    Or is the answer, as it so often lays, in the middle (sometimes I sound like a centrist. I’m really not)? I think the programs like Alternate Strings are fantastic, and it should be part of a universities job to get students to experience as many different styles as possible. With our good ole alma mater, this doesn’t just me “world,” “pop,” or “outsider” styles, but also modern styles (as I said before, we didn’t even have a new music group when I was in school, something that at the time I didn’t think was odd, but now after 7 more years in academia, I can see makes absolutely no sense).

    I think the idea of a “full-time musician” or “composer” is definitely misleading. There are very few times, historically, when musicians can claim to have a single job. Bach wrote music, was the organist, and taught lessons. Mozart performed extensively, conducted his own operas, taught lessons (rather poorly and infrequently) while begging for money from his father between commissions. Haydn was under the employ of the Esterhauzy’s, composed, led the orchestra, and taught lessons. Beethoven (more in his youth), performed extensively, was a concert promoter (he staged many works by Mozart and Haydn), and taught lessons.

    The question is are university preparing us even for these “traditional” roles?

    I dropped a long, more detailed response at my blog



    1. Those are all very good points! I’m sure there’s a good dissertation or foundation funded study project there to show historically how many musicians have actually been one trick ponies in one field rather than adept in several. This goes back to my ideas about good entrepreneurial skills of having the ability to Diversify your Performance Skills Portfolio and maybe this idea that we should become hyper-specialists in music (a view that music schools seem to foster) is an aberration and never existed historically and to focus on such a career track is doing a disservice to young musicians!


      1. And that’s one of the strange things…Going through my last 2 degrees, I was told, quite explicitly, to make sure I have a varied portfolio. I was already aided by working professionally as an audio engineer, but I went out of my way to get a theory paper published, teach audio engineering courses, master jazz albums, conduct, on and on…Mainly because my teachers told me “if you can’t do a million things, you’ll never get a job.”

        Academic postings are rarely “Teach composition.” They’re “Teach theory, composition, and any other areas of expertise, including technology, programming, conducting, performance, musicology, ethnomusicology, and music education.” I’ve seen so many calls that say specifically “Be able to teach theory, music history, and performance.”

        The flip side is, as I was once told when working on at a production company, “it takes a long time to become an expert at something, and you have to focus on it during that time. Don’t try to do too many things.” This is also true–I’m a good engineer, but I can’t keep up with current trends in technology without spending hours every day reading. I’m a good educator, but I can’t keep up with current paradigms in teaching without spending hours a day. I’m a good performer, but I’m not orchestral level because I don’t practice hours a day (I don’t even have a trombone right now!). On and on and on.

        So…where’s that balance? And how does this play into education? If we accept that, in reality, no musician is only does one thing, how do we approach the other subjects?

        It’s important to realize there’s a difference between mastery, and acceptable practice…and knowing what to focus on and how.


      2. That’s why I used the eggs in a basket metaphor in my Diversifying Skills post. The “Mastery” idea seems to be what what music schools (at least in the performance track) are going for–eventually you’ll get weeded out by the level of intense work you’ll need to do before you’re weeded out att the level of auditions. If we were to do a cost benefit analysis of performing degrees I fear there would be a hell of a low return on investment on the whole.

        I think a much more useful idea is fluency rather than mastery. Folks can be fluent in many different languages without having others cast the “jack of all trades, master of none” trope at them, right? We think of Mastery as something you have to have a single-minded focus on, while fluency can come regular daily usage. I think that once improvisation slowly got weeded out of classical music that encouraged the mastery side of the coin, but it’s fluency we need now more than ever. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the predominance and focus on older “masterworks” sheet music is the practicing norm now for SOBs.

        And I think another way to highlight the difference–you can be a master at a langauge (linguists do it all the time) without being fluent in it. For example, Mark Okrand knows all the rules for grammar and pronunciation for the Klingon language (he created it afterall) but is not fluent in it and can’t have more than the simplest conversations in the language with fluent speakers.

        It’s just a continuum and some of us fall on one end while others fall on the other, with plenty of variation in between. I have a basic fluency in a wide variety of musical styles, but am not a master in many of them. For the purposes of getting work, my lack of “mastery” hardly matters.


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