ROI of Classical Music Training

Over on The Baffler, Kate Wagner, takes a look at the tenuous state in which classically trained musicians operate in the face of income threatening conditions like the lock-out/strike currently occurring at Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

I came across the link on Arts and Letter Daily which introduced it with, “Classical music is a high-water mark for culture. Being a classical musician, however, is a job — a crappy job.”

Reading Wagner’s account, I would have to agree. In addition to the cost of formal training with private instructors, universities and conservatories, she also lists the myriad other costs involved including summer intensives, festivals, competitions, internships, memberships, certifications and the choice of buying or renting instruments.

Last week Drew McManus pointed out the rising cost of strings his wife buys and analyzed the lifetime cost of maintaining a string instrument. His broader analysis of instrument costs, with nifty infographics, is worth a look. It is something to whip out when people say musicians shouldn’t be paid to do something they love.

Wagner had initially trained to be a violinist and she expresses some bitterness upon realizing that the ability to access the brand name training experiences that will provide access to the next tier of prestigious training was out reach of her family’s finances. She expresses anger at being encouraged onward and further into debt by teachers who knew that the path to an orchestra didn’t lay through the training she received.

One composer who currently works as an adjunct professor at a small Midwestern college decried classical music’s entrenched reputational economy. “I feel like we’re witnessing the development . . . of a two-tiered system,” he said, “with musicians who went to non-famous and poorly endowed schools on the bottom, with musicians who went to the Ivy Leagues of music on top…. What’s more, he argued, this uneven system of class and reputational privilege leads to more and more exploitation:

There’s a very strong sense of identity shame for a lot of musicians who went to non-famous schools, who got perfectly wonderful educations, but who didn’t have the grace of some famous asshole to notarize their work. Basically, it creates opportunities for exploitation. Students are told to go to these famous places to get a good degree. They live beyond their means . . . they open themselves up to labor, sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, depending on which monster they’re assigned to work with.

She mentions another colleague teaching middle school in Texas who has felt her opportunities have been limited because she doesn’t have the resources to gain the imprimatur accorded by participation in Drum Corps International competitions and workshops.

She notes that in this environment, it is pretty difficult to bring greater diversity to the industry, even with scholarships facilitating the process, due to the high debt one will accrue and low wages pretty much everyone will receive upon securing a performance position.

She ends the piece with a bit of solidarity for the striking musicians.

Sure, I may have been a failure in classical music, but as my colleagues and comrades schlep their instruments around in substitute gigs from orchestra to orchestra, unable to get a full-time job, teaching their students, paying off their debts with poverty wages from performing or adjuncting, and walking the picket line, the least I can do is write about it.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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