With the financial crisis taking its toll, many performing arts groups are finding they can save money by filling professional orchestras with free labor. One of the increasingly popular methods is to offer mentoring opportunities for talented conservatory students. Unpaid college students receive an opportunity to play in a professional situation, gain some experience, and get mentored by the professional musicians.
This is a very dangerous trend.
I know what you’re thinking; how can this be dangerous when it sounds like such a win-win situation. You have cash crunched groups that want to fill positions with talented individuals at as low of a cost as possible and you can fill that need by using talented students all while providing them with valuable professional experience. But this becomes a slippery slope when meaningful mentoring programs are abused for no other reason than to improve the bottom line.
In this instance, all of the positive aspects are quickly cancelled out when you look at how it really impacts the profession.
- Unfair cost burden to audiences. While an orchestra offering this new feature can save money you rarely see them lower the price of tickets to unwitting buyers who assume their high priced ticket assures them of the best of quality professional players. And honestly, would a ticket buyer pay full price if the concert was advertised, “Come see Prokofiev Symphony #5, played by your world class symphony and a few students.”?
- Devaluing future opportunities. By participating in some of these bottom line motivated mentoring programs, students are unwittingly strangling their own careers. When an orchestra fills a vacancy with free labor, they are eliminating work usually offered to freelance musicians/area professionals. Typically after a student graduates from college, their first income comes from freelancing in the community and playing as a substitute in their local symphony. It doesn’t take much to see how the vicious cycle beings.
To make matters worse, some music schools are now offering entire student orchestras comprised as replacements for free lance professional orchestras. You’ll find this sort of forced labor most often in ballet and opera pits that would normally be filled with professional musicians.
Proponents often argue that using student orchestras is preferable to using a recording, but this is another fair sounding misnomer. Putting students in professional situations deters students from what they are should be doing: studying course work and developing fundamental playing skills. It also robs tuition paying parents twofold; their child receives less time being properly trained while simultaneously eroding their own playing career.
If performing arts groups become comfortable getting free labor under the guise of mentoring or outright replacement, the need for a fully professional orchestra is sidelined. It won’t take more than a few generations before students (and parents) catch on, enrollment declines, programs degrade, and the overall quality of professional musicians tumbles.
While some orchestras and performing arts groups consider capitalizing on masking the definition of free labor by calling it mentoring, it is worth noting that many orchestras do have very respectable and in some cases, outstanding mentoring programs. But these programs are clearly defined and very limited in scope.
Besides, legitimate concerts and events are marketed for what they are: side by side concerts. I fondly remember playing a side by side concert when I was in youth orchestra and again as a first year student at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. The chance to sit next to a seasoned professional was exciting. These concerts were advertised to the city as a free concert featuring the local symphony sitting along with talented students.
I also fondly remember being hired as a substitute for the Baltimore Symphony while I was a Graduate student at Peabody. But in order to get that job I had to go through the very same substitute selection process as everyone on their list and was paid a full professional scale. That, was a learning experience.
these mentoring experiences, is just fattening them up while they are young and naïve, and discarding them after they’ve been used to sit and wither in the professional world. All this while blaming the overall decline in interest for classical music as the reason why there are not enough jobs.