Tag: freelance

On the Value of Time

Not too long ago, I received an email invitation to apply for an opportunity to work with an established ensemble. The application was a highly involved process and would make considerable demands on my time—including a trip out of state. If awarded the appointment, the position would require many obligations in addition to composing, including outreach, lectures, and a series of curated concerts.

The only mention of money? “We’re in the process of securing some grants,” the email read. Oh, okay.

I politely declined the invitation, explaining that I was already fully committed for the season in question (which was true). But, the more I contemplated the massive time commitment requested by the organization, the more troubled I became. How was it remotely appropriate to contact a person about a highly specialized, complex job—which also required a time-consuming, rigorous application process—without mentioning compensation?

This kind of treatment is rampant throughout our industry, and I know that performers certainly experience their own versions of the above scenario. Our field is plagued by an aversion toward discussing money, and this problem exists on both sides of the hiring equation. For composers, however, this issue is compounded by the very nature of our work. Because composers’ processes are diverse and often opaque, potential commissioners sometimes don’t know how to value what we do. This lack of understanding can result in a reluctance to discuss compensation and often justifies gross demands on our time and abilities.

Out of all the wacky things that composers do, money ought to be the most uncomplicated and straightforward component. When you approach a composer about a potential commission or collaboration, funding should be among the first issues you address. While it may feel distasteful to discuss money alongside your artistic vision, know that avoiding the topic—and even placing the impetus on the composer to inquire—is enormously disrespectful. Most composers wouldn’t claim to be in this business for the money, but we do expect to be treated professionally and compensated appropriately.

So. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you approach a composer and begin a conversation about a project:

Reach out to us in advance. Way in advance. Composition is a time-consuming activity. I do not write my music in “real” time, and I often plan my projects up to two years in advance. While there are exceptions, I typically can’t take on last-minute projects. Definitely reach out and ask us, but keep in mind that we’re often planning a season or two (or more!) ahead.

Be up front about the amount and source of your funding. This is critically important, regardless of your budget size. If you’re working with a low budget, unsure of your resources, or unable to pay—don’t misrepresent your financial limitations. We’ll respect your honesty, and if we can’t work with you this time, we’ll be more likely to consider future projects.

Directly address the work that you and/or your organization are putting in. Programming, performances, promotion, recording—what’s your investment? What are you contributing to make this project worthwhile for both parties?

Understand that demands on time separate from composing must be compensated. Community outreach? Masterclasses? A meet-and-greet with donors and subscribers? Great! Some musicians might offer these services for free or as part of their commitment; however, you should not make this assumption. Our time is valuable, and we need to be paid for our time.

Speaking of non-composing tasks: Address the time, effort, and expense that goes into engraving and preparing parts. This one is different for everyone—some composers consider engraving and parts preparation integral parts of their compositional process. Others don’t, and many composers outsource this work. Either way, budget both time and money to accommodate this phase.

Don’t act surprised or attempt to guilt us when we don’t offer a service for free or for a low/discounted fee. I’m frequently approached by individuals seeking music critiques, new arrangements of current works, business and marketing advice, and copyediting—with the expectation that I offer these services for free. When I indicate otherwise, I’m often met with incredulous responses like “But this will only take a few minutes!” Right, cool, but since when do you get to determine the value of my time?

Composers, I encourage you to examine how you spend your time and how you offer it to others. It is imperative to understand collaborators’ expectations before agreeing to a project (and always make sure your exact responsibilities are detailed in a contract). Guard your time, and don’t be afraid to set firm boundaries.

Time is valuable. This is something that I remember every day when I sit down to compose—truly, respect for others’ time is demanded by the very nature of my craft. The time that an audience member spends listening to my music ought to be worthwhile, and that’s the standard that I strive to uphold.

In short: We, as composers, respect your time. Please respect ours.

Beyond the Margins of Self

The super-charged, caffeine-driven potentiality that draws so many to New York City felt more confining than anything I’d ever experienced when I first moved here in 2007. I came directly from Houston, Texas, where I had finished my undergraduate degree at Rice University—and where I imagine the wide-open spaces, drawling speech, and expansive stretches of emptiness might feel gratuitous to native New Yorkers. The speed and density of New York, its hustle and might, was compounded by a piece of advice I continually received upon beginning to navigate the freelance music scene: “stay tough.”

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What does that even mean? However it was intended, my original interpretation of this advice was that we should harden ourselves against “rejection,” present an image of warrior-like strength at all times, conceal our vulnerabilities, and fight tooth and nail for anything we can get our hands on. Sound like fun? This kind of “lack” mentality, where we assume there are a limited number of opportunities and that we must compete to be one of the lucky ones, promotes fear and hinders our ability to feel generous and inspired by our music-making. Sure, the limitations of space and over-saturation of musicians can incite our frustration and defensiveness—or, out of pure necessity, they can inspire incredible creative and collaborative possibilities.

In her 2014 article “Find Your Beach,” the writer Zadie Smith articulates this paradox so well, and with the perfect dash of cynicism: “Manhattan is for the hard-bodied, the hard-minded, the multitasker, the alpha mamas and papas. A perfect place for self-empowerment—as long as you’re pretty empowered to begin with. As long as you’re one of these people who simply do not allow anything—not even reality—to impinge upon that clear field of blue.”

Comparison and competition can be natural instincts in a city that is teeming with musicians of all kinds looking to make their mark or find their niche or pay their rent. But being “hard-bodied” and “hard-minded” is precisely the opposite of what we should aspire toward as a community of creative musicians with unique contributions. Toughness puts up walls, brings contraction to our bodies, and breeds isolation and resistance. I felt there had to be another way that benefits us both individually and collectively.

Who are we and how do we want to define ourselves authentically in this cacophonous blur of a city? At any moment, our frazzled attentions could be pulled in any number of directions—we could choose to be one thing or another, to create a perfectly filtered image of ourselves to send out into the ether. I have found this to be both the beauty and the endless challenge of this city. As Zadie Smith says, “Finally the greatest thing about Manhattan is the worst thing about Manhattan: self-actualization. Here you will be free to stretch yourself to your limit, to find the beach that is yours alone. But sooner or later you will be sitting on that beach wondering what comes next.”

With an immediate aversion to the “toughness” advice I’d been given, and looking for any excuse for some peace and quiet, I began taking yoga classes at Yogaworks on West 65th Street. I had finally found a space where I could hear myself breathe, explore being vulnerable, and cultivate an internal sense of trust and connection. It was the best medicine for my over-stimulated nervous system and sore, stiffened body.

As I began studying (and now teaching) yoga more seriously, I was introduced to some gems of wisdom that I now aspire to live by as a musician and creative person in New York. When I see these concepts in action, I silently rejoice; whenever doubt sets in, I return to them as guiding lights of inspiration and reassurance.

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On the first day of my yoga teacher training, I sat on the floor in a beautiful sunlit loft with twenty others and listened to the formidable scholar of Hinduism Douglas Brooks lecture (a mile a minute) for three hours straight. My mind was blown. I’ve chosen to share three of the main points Dr. Brooks spoke about, which have completely altered my way of thinking and being.

  1. The first concept is Adhikara, the Sanskrit word meaning “studentship.” This can be translated as “how one cultivates his or her inherent gifts.” The beauty of this idea is that our gifts are not meant just for us, but for the greater benefit of our community. Because our gifts are unique to each of us, it is actually detrimental to us all if we try to fit ourselves into defined roles or compare ourselves with those around us. Cultivating humility and understanding our inherent gifts is the best way to bring more value to everyone.
  2. Dr. Brooks says, “You become the company you keep, so keep great company.” No need to have anyone else’s specific gifts, as we are all constantly absorbing the gifts of those we hang around! It’s wonderful to admire people. There is no need for jealousy—ask questions, defer to others when appropriate, and let everyone do what they are great at.
  3. The word in Sanskrit for freedom is Svatantrya, which can be translated as both “self-loom” and “self-extend.” We have the freedom to simultaneously stitch together our own lives and engage with those around us in an generous way. We get to choose how we participate, show up, and contribute.

I love appreciating the many ways there are to make more space for us all in this city by constantly weaving and extending the tapestry that is our community in unexplored and completely authentic ways. There are many in the new music community here who are doing just this, constantly redefining what it means to make music and what they want to stand for.  It’s simultaneously inspiring and confounding to be in the midst of this dynamic, evolving landscape, as we combine and stretch the perceived roles of composer, musician, audience member, activist, writer, and educator (to name a few).

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I’m inspired by those who constantly come back to themselves, who get quiet enough to listen to their unique gifts, truest desires, and best avenues of service. That’s really when the idealism at the heart of New York City shines through the chaos, and our fleeting projects and days take on a greater purpose. As my favorite poet Mary Oliver so beautifully writes in The Poetry Handbook, “If it is all poetry, and not just one’s accomplishment, that carries one from this green and mortal world—then lifts the latch and gives a glimpse into a greater paradise—then perhaps one has the sensibility: a gratitude apart from authorship, a fervor and a desire beyond the margins of the self.”

Heidi photo 1Lauded by The New York Times as “colorful, committed” and “finely polished,” violinist Heidi Schaul-Yoder enjoys a varied career as a chamber musician, teacher, arts advocate, and yoga instructor. A passionate voice for contemporary music, she has recently premiered multiple works on The Museum of Modern Art’s Summergarden Series, at the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, and in Tokyo alongside musicians of the Ensemble Modern. Fascinated by the mind-body connection and its function in fostering creative expression, Heidi is a Certified Aligned Flow yoga teacher and teaches classes at Twisted Trunk Yoga in New York City.

The Roar of the Crowd: Freelance Musicians Speak Out on Non-Payment

Last week, NewMusicBox Regional Editor Ellen McSweeney launched a discussion surrounding non-payment and musician vulnerability in Chicago (“The Deafening Silence of the Beethoven Festival Musicians,” 6/24/14).

Though the issue at the heart of her story related to the Beethoven Festival’s ongoing failure to fulfill its financial obligation to freelance musicians after the 2013 event (even while contracting for the 2014 festival), McSweeney’s nuanced post provoked an intelligent and lively debate about both the incident at hand and the broader problems faced by freelancers negotiating work without much of a safety net beyond trust. (As McSweeney noted in her article, “Much of the most artistically adventurous work in Chicago isn’t unionized, and we take a leap of faith every time we work for each other.”)

Commenter Ethan Wickman took the point further with this anecdote:

Several years ago I received a grant/commission from a prominent organization. Upon completing the piece, and hence fulfilling my contractual obligation to the commissioning organization, it seemed like I waited weeks to receive the final installment of my commission. I finally called the office and was greeted by a younger employee who, when I asked when the check was going to be sent, snarkily offered to airlift some food to my house, if necessary.
I think that as artists we sometimes have a kind of guilt about money–like we should be above wanting it, needing it, or feeling motivated by its acquisition. The fact is, money liberates us to be able to do our best work in the most unrestricted way. Intense financial pressures can absolutely crush a creative will–as lofty, artistic ambitions plummet into panicked survival mode.

The discussion also underscored that the Beethoven Festival situation was in no way an isolated incident and further illustrated how discomfort and unspoken ideas about what is “appropriate” when nailing down financial parameters set up additional roadblocks. The topic inspired additional posts and social media commentary around our corner of the internet.


Silent Chicago Musicians

The musicians of Chicago may have kept silent on this issue for nine months, but the community is definitely talking now! McSweeney’s post was NMBx’s most widely read and shared of the year so far.

And though this festival was not a union gig, the conversation reached such a pitch that the Chicago Federation of Musicians issued letters to both Festival President and Artistic Director George Lepauw and the Chicago Community of Musicians over the weekend, “urging all musicians to decline employment with the 2014 Festival, or, if they have already accepted employment, to withdraw. The CFM will also be calling for the public to boycott the Festival until last year’s musicians are paid.”
Beyond the serious financial plight of the unpaid 2013 Beethoven Festival musicians, the larger conversation drives home that both performing artists and their employers need to be educated and held accountable by the community at large, and there is some serious work to do on that score. Trust, care, and respect are vital to creative endeavors, but that stream of support must truly flow both ways. It doesn’t muddy the music to be clear about money matters upfront.

Chicago: The deafening silence of the Beethoven Festival musicians

I was recently hired to play a daylong ensemble engagement. In my reply, I gladly accepted, and asked what the compensation would be, since the initial email had not included that information. The contractor, an admired mentor with whom I have a frank rapport, told me the number, but also offered that I might want to refrain from such questions in the future. Asking about pay, he suggested, could make me look like money was all I cared about. In his mind, I’d violated a norm. It was almost as if he were surprised I didn’t trust him. And sure enough, when I arrived at the gig—which was well-paid—the check was on my music stand.
When it comes to money and music, it seems we aren’t in agreement about what the norms are. How much is enough? What questions are we allowed to ask? And what do we do when the check never comes? That discomfort has reared its head in a particularly dramatic way this month in Chicago. The Beethoven Festival recently announced its fourth annual event, happening this September. But for local musicians, the announcement was stunning: the festival has not yet finished paying the people who played for them last year. I personally am owed in the neighborhood of $1,000. This is, of course, the complete opposite of having the check on your music stand when you arrive.

Given the number of musicians owed money—and the number of musician who know someone owed money—one would think that the festival’s 2014 announcement would’ve been a lit match in a dry barn. But it wasn’t, quite. A single Facebook post from violinist Austin Wulliman yielded fifty comments from prominent local musicians, including members of eighth blackbird and professors at the University of Chicago. A post on Slipped Disc—which, depending on whom you ask, is widely perceived as either essential rabble-rousing or venomous clickbait—broke the story publicly, but comments from named musicians are scarce. Media stories followed from Chicagoist (where writer Drew Baker had difficulty getting anyone to go on the record) and even the Chicago Reader. But these stories weren’t as widely shared on social media as you might imagine, given the profound violation of norms that the story represents for the Chicago freelance community.

Why were the wronged musicians and their friends still so quiet? And, come to think of it, why did we maintain silence for nine months as we awaited sums of money that, to us, make or break our ability to pay the rent?

For me, the story of the Beethoven Festival is a story of vulnerability: my own individual vulnerability, that of my colleagues, and that of our entire musical community. Much of the most artistically adventurous work in Chicago isn’t unionized, and we take a leap of faith every time we work for each other. Usually, that trust is rewarded, and professional and collaborative bonds are formed that allow us all to thrive. Horn player Matt Oliphant’s blog post on this matter is aptly titled “Beethoven Festival and Respect.” The community is indeed held together by trust, respect, and not much else. If circumstances like these are kept secret, it threatens the security and well-being of every musician in our city.

The unpaid musicians began receiving apologetic emails from Beethoven Festival Artistic Director George Lepauw in early October. As the festival’s dire financial circumstances became clear, a tacit agreement quickly developed that we would not take to social media or the press. We were never asked to remain silent, but we did. I suspect that the other unpaid musicians were, like me, nervous that any public complaint might have resulted in an even longer delay of their payment. After all, for many months it was unclear what logic had been used to determine who would be paid first. (Lepauw described the payments as happening “on a rolling basis.”) At a Christmas background music gig three months after the festival, I had an awkward encounter with a friend.
“Too bad about that Beethoven Festival money, huh?” I said to him as we set up.

“Oh…uh…yeah,” he said, looking at the ground. It took me a moment, but I realized that he’d been paid. We laughed about the bizarre situation. But the truth was, he was personally closer to the festival’s organizers, and his insistence on being paid had helped. (Lepauw told the Reader that 15 of the 60 orchestra members have been paid in full, but there’s been no discussion of how they were selected.)

When the festival sent out small checks to everyone in February—around 30% of what we were owed—one colleague posted a cryptic Facebook status about receiving a fraction of his pay, six months late. A few musicians left grumbling comments, but the offending employer was never named. It makes sense that so many musicians opted to preserve the festival’s reputation and quietly wait for their checks. Musicians were not only concerned that public complaint might have monetary consequences, but also about their own reputations. To complain about the missing funds could be construed as unkind or malicious towards a beleaguered, near-bankrupt organization that was reportedly working hard to right the situation.

Perhaps that’s the biggest reason we kept quiet about the unpaid bills: Compassion. Sympathy. Love, even. We hoped things would get better. No one wanted the Beethoven Festival to fail. No one wanted fewer performance opportunities for Chicago musicians. No one wanted to see a musician’s reputation destroyed, nor an ambitious and idealistic venture go down in flames. I would not wish such a spectacular public relations disaster on any arts organization.
But was it the correct choice for us to remain silent, ostensibly to help the festival right itself? In his official response to Slipped Disc, George Lepauw said, “I have always been, and still am, a musician’s advocate, and am extremely grateful to all the musicians who have been patiently waiting for their dues, and who have been supportive of us throughout this difficult period and have not complained on social media about it.” Lepauw posits that this silence was the noble thing to do—unlike, of course, musicians such as Wulliman, whose lone post Lepauw described as “a campaign of misinformation and blurring of facts that is counterproductive to the intent of repaying musicians.” The implication I perceive in his statement is that silence will be rewarded, and speaking out will only result in further delays of payment. And yet Wulliman had the freedom to voice his dismay expressly because his ensemble, Spektral Quartet, was paid in advance for their performance. Wulliman could speak out, in other words, because he had less to lose.

And it’s a good thing he did. The consequences of our silence go beyond when, or whether, we ever get paid. While we were being nice and patient and quiet, a whole new roster of musicians from throughout the U.S. agreed to play for the 2014 festival. At the very least, the national community should have known that these debts remained unpaid, so that they could have made an informed decision about whether to participate. These individuals, met with the uproar of the past weeks, now face the difficult decision of whether to withdraw. While it is uncomfortable to call our fellow musicians to task here, they have unfortunately agreed to perform for an employer who, in a story about this debacle, actually described the festival’s skyrocketing budget as “an incredible story of success.”

It’s not fun to publicly admit how much a $900 check might matter to us, but the truth is that our position is precarious. This fall, I placed a nervous phone call to an employer about a check that hadn’t yet arrived. It was only two days late, but things were tight for me and it mattered. “I understand,” the woman on the phone said, “I used to live hand-to-mouth.” I cringed and just hoped she could help me.

As tax time approached this year, I owed $2,500 on my $25,000 income. That’s another aspect of the vulnerability of self-employed artists: our social safety net isn’t very strong. Without the security of a full-time employer, we must be particularly diligent in setting aside money for taxes, retirement, and emergencies. Around March 1, I received an email from George Lepauw:

It is likely that within the next week, we will…be able to start issuing checks. However, we may not reach the total needed to pay everyone at once, so we have decided to issue what we can to each of you as we receive funds. After much internal discussion, we feel that this would be a better system than paying some of you but not others. You will therefore get several checks in the course of the next weeks until we are back in the black.

I felt hopeful. Perhaps the check would arrive by April 15; perhaps it would enough money to help with the taxes. But as it turned out, I received only one check for about $300. The other promised payments never came. When tax day rolled around, I couldn’t send an email to the IRS explaining my lack of funds and the noble work of being a musician.  I simply wrote a big check and hoped the next month would be better.

What’s a Musician Worth?

Between playing for fun and collective bargaining, where do today’s freelance new music performers fit in?

Musician silhouettes

Image via Big Stock

On August 21, indie musician and DIY internet darling Amanda Palmer put out a call for musicians. She needed skilled string and brass players for various stops on her upcoming tour. This was a great opportunity for musicians to collaborate with a talented, internet-savvy artist who recently raised more than $1 million on Kickstarter. The catch? Palmer wouldn’t be paying.

The internet went into an uproar. Palmer was probably compensating her PR person, web designer, tour bus driver, and roadies. Palmer would probably not expect free services from all the restaurants, bars, hotels, and gas stations she’d pass along her route. The one place she decided to cut costs was on musical labor. And the one thing she planned to get for free was musicians’ time and skill.

And not just any musicians–trained ones, with professional experience. From her blog:

[Y]ou need to know how to ACTUALLY, REALLY PLAY YOUR INSTRUMENT! lessons in fifth grade do not count, so please include in your email some proof of that. (A link to you playing on a real stage would be great.)

The memory of Palmer’s Kickstarter windfall was like salt in the wound. A significant portion of the money she raised probably came from musicians, willing to place a dollar value on Palmer’s creative work. As it turns out, none of that value would be trickling down.

A month later, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra went on strike when their management demanded they double their contributions to health care costs. In the musicians’ press release explaining why they had decided to strike, bassist Stephen Lester wrote, “Our product is our artistic quality. Reducing costs by lowering musician salaries beyond a certain level could result in a flight of quality to other orchestras …. It would be tantamount to the Art Institute’s selling its Picassos and Monets to buy lower quality works that are less expensive to maintain. Unlike a business corporation, a cultural organization like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra cannot save its way to success.”

In other words, the musicians seemed to be saying, you get what you pay for.

The musicians of the Atlanta Symphony recently accepted a contract with $5.2 million in concessions, including massive pay cuts, increased health care contributions, a reduced roster, and a shortened season.

That $5.2 million in concessions, by the way, was exactly what their management was demanding of them. During negotiations, and throughout a lengthy and painful lockout, the management did not move an inch. The musicians wrote that the contract “set the ASO back…over 10 years in musicians’ compensation, not even taking inflation into account.”

A friend posted the news on Facebook, and someone responded almost immediately: “Meanwhile, in Chicago…”

Was she suggesting what I think she was suggesting? That this choice by the Atlanta musicians, to fall on their own swords, was a heroic one, worthy of replicating elsewhere?


We musicians get a lot of conflicting information about what kind of compensation our work deserves. Take Amanda Palmer. The message she’s sending is: performing music is fun! I performed unpaid for years! If someone likes my music and wants to volunteer to join me onstage, that’s her prerogative. After the internet exploded in her face, Palmer told The New York Times that “if you could see the enthusiasm of these people, the argument [against me] would become invalid.” The flip side of this message? If you’re in it for the money, something’s probably wrong with you.

street performer tips

Image via Big Stock

But here’s the thing: being a professional musician who can “actually, really play your instrument!” is not a part-time proposition. Staying in shape as, say, a violinist is a way of life that requires daily investment; it’s a use-it-or-lose-it scenario. In order to remain a functional musician, a two-part process is required: First, you put in a lot of unpaid hours, alone, practicing, in order to sound your best. Second, you show up to your paid engagement and sound great. You repeat this process as necessary until, if you’re lucky, you’ve paid your rent that month. This process is not easy and income is not reliable, especially in the beginning. Remaining a professional musician is a struggle. Many people do not make it, and for good reason.

If part two of the process never happens–or the gigs you show up for aren’t paid–you end up spending a lot of hours earning money doing something else. You wait tables, you sit at a desk, maybe you teach lessons. When you get home at night, you’re too exhausted to practice so you watch Netflix instead. After a while, you’re not sounding so great anymore. It gets to be too tiring to do your day job, have a personal life, and put in all those unpaid hours for all those unpaid gigs. Before long, there’s one less “actual, real” violinist in the world.

A lot of people bring up supply and demand when you try and put a dollar value on musician employment. The supply is too high; demand is too low. And that’s why Amanda Palmer can propose a fee of zero dollars. But is this really the side of the arts economy that Palmer wants to be on? Follow that supply-and-demand scenario to its end, and we’ve got a problem. By initially refusing to make space in her budget to compensate actual, real musicians, Palmer was contributing to our extinction. The collapse of music education has shrunk the pool of competent amateurs, and low wages will strangle the professionals. At this rate, in twenty years there will be very few people who are able–or want–to read her charts.

It took Palmer almost a month to change course and decide that she would, in fact, pay all the musicians who played with her. She didn’t say how much. But as most freelance musicians can tell you, it’s not always the amount that matters.



Image via Big Stock

There’s another thing that performers like me–young, freelancing, doing lots of work in new music–aren’t sure about. How, exactly are our fates connected to those Chicago Symphony musicians earning seven or eight times what we do? Or to the folks who will show up to play Palmer’s gig for the fun of it, who perhaps didn’t invest six years (or six figures) into earning advanced degrees in performance? After all, we’re a generation working to strip away some of the formality from our work. Our concerts are as likely to take place at a bar as they are in Symphony Center.

When it comes to the CSO, many of my peers seem convinced that our fates aren’t at all connected. On Facebook, one young musician noted, “This isn’t a labor relations framework of Us Against Them. It’s more like Them Against Them.” The CSO management might be the 1%, he was saying, but so are the players. He’s describing a race to the bottom. And down there–uninsured, deeply in debt, paying out of pocket to take auditions, driving three hours for a gig that pays $85 a service–yup, that’s Us.

When we let the divide-and-conquer logic work on us, we all lose. If the CSO makes concessions at the top, what happens to everyone below them? Why is scraping by with no security “fair” while making six figures is “greedy”? Which one of these situations more closely represents the way we want artists to be treated in our society?

The New York Times wrote that Palmer had stumbled into “a culture clash between the freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll scene of club dates and scarce cash and the world of established conservatory-trained musicians long supported by strong union locals with wage scales.” In the time since that interview was published, two more orchestras have been locked out by their management. For the young performers starting their careers today, it’s clear that the rock ‘n’ roll scene isn’t the only one with scarce cash. And the future trajectory of that wage scale is anybody’s guess.


NewMusicBox is pleased to introduce Ellen McSweeney as our newest Regional Editor. She will be covering Chicago and its environs. Welcome, Ellen!

Ellen McSweeney

Ellen McSweeney

Ellen McSweeney is a Chicago-based musician and writer. She is the founding violinist of Chicago Q Ensemble, a string quartet dedicated to new music, interdisciplinary collaboration, and innovative programming. As a chamber musician, Ellen has also been heard with ensemble dal niente, Access Contemporary Music, Singers on New Ground, New Millennium Orchestra, and New Music DePaul, among others. Ellen holds a B.M. from the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University and an M.M. from DePaul University. She is a winner of Vanderbilt’s Merrill Moore Award for Poetry Writing and the Vanderbilt Review prize for Best Fiction. Her indie folk duo, Elk, will release their debut EP this winter.

On Not Being a Student Composer

Isaac SchanklerYou have seen Isaac Schankler’s name on this site before. A few months ago, we published his “Anatomy of a Truth-Bender,” an illuminating reaction to the scientific, musical, and aesthetic misconceptions put forth in a Wall Street Journal column concerned with the tear-jerking power of Adele’s hit song “Someone Like You.” We enjoyed his ideas and his writing so much that we invited him to come on board the NMBx ship as a regular contributor, and we are excited to debut his column this week.

Schankler is a composer and improviser based in Los Angeles, California. He is the artist-in-residence at the University of Southern California’s Music Computation and Cognition Laboratory, and an artistic director of the concert series People Inside Electronics.

He can also be found at twitter.com/piesaac.—MS

This is my first post. Colin Holter’s final post about being a student composer gave me a great deal to think about, and many of his statements resonated strongly with my experience as well. My current vantage point is a little different; while I’m loosely affiliated with a university, I’m neither a faculty member nor a student at the moment. For now, I’m more or less a freelance composer, with all the uncertainty and freedom that implies. I graduated with a terminal degree (I love the morbidity of calling an education “terminal”) two years ago, which is just long enough ago that I’m finally beginning to feel somewhat objective about the whole experience.

I distinctly remember the vague terror I felt just before graduation, and the sense of liberation immediately afterwards, the slight adrenaline rush when I suddenly realized for the first time that I could write whatever I want without anyone looking over my shoulder. In the past couple of years I’ve written a three-hour mostly silent piece, a piece for accordions and electronics based on a YouTube video, a microtonal choral piece, a chamber opera about Nikola Tesla, and a video game soundtrack, among other things. I’m not sure I would have taken many of these risks as a student. Which is not to say my teachers would have discouraged me, exactly. The attitude I imagine could probably be best described as “bemused disinterest.”

Unlike Colin, I don’t think I was a good student. In terms of grades or accolades I did okay, but I was stubborn, and if I think about it in a certain way, my education becomes a series of well-meaning mentors trying fruitlessly to stop me from making questionable decisions. One expressed bafflement when I followed up a serene antecedent phrase with a gut-wrenchingly dissonant consequent phrase. Some seemed disappointed in me when, after writing a piece in a particular idiom, my next piece turned out to be something completely different. One once said to me, “If you’re excited about it, that’s the important thing.” At the time I interpreted this as giving me the go-ahead, but in retrospect I wonder if he was just giving up.

Despite my stubbornness, I was certainly affected by my teachers’ words. For one thing, it instilled in me nagging doubts about my own musical instincts. Certainly my most disastrous pieces resulted from not listening to those instincts. Instead of trusting my own ear, I attempted to try on somebody else’s ear, and the absurdity of that image should tell you how well that turned out. (I feel similarly when exhorted to think about “my audience”—how am I supposed to know how other people hear my music, or any music for that matter?) Predictably, sometimes the resistance to my “bad” ideas ossified my determination to carry them out, like a rebellious teenager; but like a child, I also felt a dim sense of shame.

My concern is that one of my former teachers will read this and take it the wrong way, but this is not so much a criticism of their instruction as a dissection of my failure as a pupil, for selectively listening and absorbing the wrong lessons from their expertise. I know now from both sides of the arrangement that it’s incredibly difficult to teach composition. As a student, the approach that seemed to work best with me was Socratic, where the teacher is almost more like a therapist, following up every answer with another question. Score study was another incredibly helpful activity, and I wish I’d pursued this with more diligence. Analyzing and taking apart the music of other composers exercises similar mental muscles as composition, without the defensiveness and protective feelings that inevitably result when someone else tries to take apart your music. When I teach, I try to model these approaches as best as I can, but I’m not always successful at keeping my own personal dogma out of it.

And in the end, your students will probably know how you feel anyway. Eventually I learned to recognize when my teachers were holding back from giving me advice that I probably wouldn’t have taken. In a sense this was almost worse than direct criticism; if I had been challenged more, then at least I could have fought back! I know that puts my teachers in an impossible position, where what they don’t say is just as powerful as what they do. As a result, I’d just like to issue a blanket apology to all my ex-teachers for my intransigence. Thanks for putting up with me!