Imagine there is a contest, one that will run in perpetuity until the end of time, in every city on Earth. There are no true losers, and there’s no limit to how many people can win. If you win this contest, you’re set for life: No matter where you live or how long you live for, you will be given enough money to live comfortably for the rest of your days. You can spend the time you have left pursuing any passions you might have, no matter how niche or unprofitable, and you will never have to worry about making rent or buying food. All you have to do is shoot a basketball into a basket from the middle of the court backwards, without looking.
It’s a game of luck. It certainly doesn’t hurt your chances to be good at shooting hoops, and there’s a lot you can do to gain a stronger intuitive sense of the space around you, but ultimately, there’s no way for you to guarantee your success at this game. Statistically, if enough people give it a shot over a long enough span of time, a small handful of people will make the shot on their first try. Likewise, there’s going to be a handful of people who never make a basket, no matter how many times they try. Most people will fall somewhere in the middle, taking shots until they make it, for however long that might be.
The good news is, there’s no limit on how many times you can try, and there needn’t be any time in between attempts. You could try to make that basket all day, over and over again, get a good night’s rest, and resume the next day, and so on until you get lucky. But there’s a catch: each attempt costs $1,000.
There’s no formula for success, but the more you can afford to try, the more likely you are to make the shot. There will be some people who can try thousands of times, back to back, and at some point, most of them are going to make it. But $1,000 is a lot of money for the average working adult, and while a working class participant can eventually save up for a shot, it’ll take them a long time to do so, and if they fail, the process repeats: It’s back to the drawing board. Most people in this situation are going to reach a point at which it’s no longer worth it to even try anymore. The cost and the odds are too high, and no matter how badly they might want it, you can only stand to get their hopes up for nothing for so long. The rules seem fair and neutral, but the more you try in vain—the more you work and train for nothing—the more you realize that you’re playing a game that wasn’t meant for you. Even luck is a rich person’s game.
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Art, too, is a game of luck. The rules are made by rich people for rich people. This is doubly true for music, and doubly true again for classical music. It is a game you can train for, a game you can become tremendously skilled at, one where you can be viciously adept at playing, but that skill and work is such a basic requirement for your job that it may as well not matter at all. People don’t win this game by being good at it, they win by being able to foot the bill. And like the basketball game, the more money you can throw at it, the better your chances of success, and the earlier that success will likely come.
When an artist achieves success or notoriety in their field at a young age, they did not get there through skill, or talent, or hard work, or even sheer force of will. They didn’t get there by being pretty, or charismatic, or a team player. These things can help, but ultimately, they got those juicy commissions and choice gigs and florid profiles because they could afford them. Every once in a blue moon, a regular, working-class person gets lucky, and each time it happens, every person who paid to get where they are will never let you forget it. They’ll point to each statistical anomaly and say to you, “See? You can make it! The game is fair. It’s a meritocracy.” But just because you hypothetically can do something doesn’t mean the odds are in your favor, and everyone who pretends as though the arts are more fair and equitable than they really are knows this. People don’t bring up such statistical anomalies in good faith, they do so because they hide an ugly reality that nobody wants to admit: All your hard work, all your hours of study, all your passion and dedication means nothing if you don’t have an abundance of cash.
People don’t win this game by being good at it, they win by being able to foot the bill.
This is not to say that wealthy musicians don’t work hard, or that they aren’t good at what they do. Rather, that skill, hard work, and dedication is such a basic requirement for this industry that it becomes irrelevant. Most musicians are very good at what they do. To even have the opportunity to try to make it in this industry, you have to work very hard for a very long time. You must be good. But go through any university music program in the world—and especially in the United States—and you’ll meet countless people who are smart and driven and undeniably excellent at what they do who will go nowhere with their art. We don’t like to admit it, but a significant plurality of the people you graduate music school with will burn out, give up, find another career where they can make a decent living, and try to forget that they ever thought about playing music professionally. Most of those people worked very hard and became very good, and it didn’t mean a thing. Even many of those who do make some sort of career out of music will never be able to do it full time. They’ll pick up gigs and commissions when they can find them, but it’ll be after they get home from their day jobs.
Very few people will write or perform music full time. Nearly every one of them will have come from money, and almost none of them will be honest about it. In between vacations to Europe, or the Hamptons, or Martha’s Vineyard, they’ll write from their expensive apartments in the trendiest corners of Brooklyn about “the grind,” about all the hard work they do and how proud and humbled they are to be able to do it all themselves. They might, in their infinite kindness, even find the time to teach you how to succeed like they did—for a price, of course.
I don’t think this is entirely about dishonesty. Such people are absolutely lying to both themselves and everyone around them, but the hitch is that they usually buy so thoroughly into their own mythology that they don’t even know they’re lying. In America especially, everyone wants to think of themselves as the very picture of the Rugged Individual, who carved out a good, honest life through hard work, gumption, and good old fashioned stick-to-it-iveness. Nobody wants to admit they had help. Besides, it’s always been a faux pas to talk about your finances in the hallowed and rarefied halls of the classical music world. In these spaces, you are rich until proven poor. Every classical musician or composer from a working class background has stories where their colleagues casually told them something that sent a chilling message about just how profoundly different their lives are from those of their peers. What do you mean you can’t apply to 20 graduate schools? Just ask your parents for the money! And please, when you’re in grad school, don’t get a day job: Your scholarship might suffer if you’re working too much. But of course, if you’re driven and self-sufficient enough, grad school is a waste of time and money. If you really want to succeed, all you have to do is move to Manhattan, get a few unpaid internships, and people will be practically busting down your door to commission you in no time!
Nobody wants to admit they had help. Besides, it’s always been a faux pas to talk about your finances in the hallowed and rarefied halls of the classical music world. In these spaces, you are rich until proven poor.
How do you react to being told such ridiculous things? If you’re smart, you don’t react much at all. You smile, you change the subject, and you move on, because no matter how embarrassed and discouraged these things make you feel, you can’t afford to waste connections, and you already know whose coattails you’ll have to ride. In a few years, they’ll have “made it,” and you’ll be working some soul-crushing office job while you run yourself ragged in your free time chasing gigs in a city you can’t afford to live in but can’t afford to leave. There are certain people you can’t afford to piss off, and nothing pisses off a rich kid more than being told they’re rich. You learn to keep your head down, and while it’s never explicitly stated, you realize that your life and career will be much easier if nobody finds out how broke you are. For my part, I’m going to keep biting the hands that feed me until they agree to serve me a proper fucking meal for once.
The rich often don’t know they’re rich, and they don’t like finding it out. If you spend the bulk of your life socializing mostly with people from the same economic background as you, you begin to view your life as default. Wealth is, at least intellectually, understood to be an outlier, and you and your friends can’t possibly all be outliers, right?
The first time I was confronted with this idea, I was about ten years old. I went to a friend’s birthday party and found that he lived in a three-story house. I said to him, “Wow, your parents must be rich!” And he was very confused and even a little offended that I would say such a thing. From my friend’s perspective, his folks weren’t rich, they were normal. When I got to college, I was the odd student out, as I had never regularly taken private lessons, only taking lessons briefly off-and-on in order to prepare for an audition or competition. Lessons were cheaper back then, and cheaper still due to where I lived at the time, but even a $20 per week expense adds up quickly. $80 per month is no small expense on a tight budget, and that cost has only gotten larger: For a student in 2022 in a larger, more metropolitan city, the cost of private instruction will almost certainly cost twice as much, and will very likely cost more. For someone fortunate enough to be able to bear such a cost, it’s easy to take those several years of private instruction for granted. It is worth it, but worthiness only matters if the cost is well within your budget.
When an affluent student goes to college and is, for perhaps for the first time in their life, confronted with the fact that not everyone lives like they do, their reactions to learning about the challenges of a working class life often sound incredulous. More than anything, they cannot understand the meaning of the sentence, “I can’t afford it.” You might be having a normal conversation about gear, and you might tell them about, for instance, a beautiful tenor saxophone you played. You’ve wanted a tenor sax for years, and this one plays beautifully, like a perfect extension of yourself. It makes you sound good. Too bad it’s $10,000. “That’s a lot of money,” you tell them. “I can’t afford something like that.” Tell that to another working class musician, and the two of you will probably commiserate about how much it sucks that gear can be so expensive, and you might perhaps find a little solace in knowing that it could be worse (at least you don’t play the bassoon).
You learn to keep your head down, and while it’s never explicitly stated, you realize that your life and career will be much easier if nobody finds out how broke you are.
Tell this to a rich student, though, and you’ll likely hear some variation on the following: “Wow, that sure is a lot of money, but you know, it’s worth it. You should ask your parents for help! Just tell them it’s an investment into your future as an artist. I’m sure they’ll understand.” And you might explain to them that your mother doesn’t have ten grand kicking around either. But the conversation doesn’t end there. They’ll tell you it’ll be fine, because most music stores have payment plans available. Yes, many music stores do have payment plans available, but you might not get approved for one if the price tag of what you’re buying is too large. Or you might get approved only for that price tag and the interest that comes with it to be too much to bear, trapping you in a vicious, destructive cycle. Money and debt are not things to be engaged with frivolously, even if they’re for investments in one’s future. Some of us will simply make do with cheaper investments. And as for that future, it’s a privilege in and of itself to imagine that it’s guaranteed. It’s a privilege to assume that such a future is likely.
For what it’s worth, I did eventually buy not only a tenor saxophone, but my dream tenor sax– the best instrument I have ever played– and it cost me far less than ten grand. It was a vintage Selmer from 1931, and it was the ugliest thing I have ever laid eyes on. But it was the good kind of ugly, the perfect center of the venn diagram between excellent mechanical condition and awful cosmetic condition that immediately telegraphs to you that this was something that really got played. But when you find yourself in a predicament where you have very little money and nothing of significant value except your instruments, owning that perfect instrument can be a terribly fleeting joy. Life and its innumerable expenses got in the way, and a year after buying my dream instrument, I was forced to sell not only it, but all my gear, including the alto sax I had played nearly every day since I was a freshman in high school. I’ve rebounded a little, and with some generous help, I have a new tenor saxophone, one that sounds almost just like that 1931 Selmer. It’s a beautiful instrument, and I feel lucky to have it, but I can’t help but dwell on what I lost. Those old horns feel like phantom limbs. I’ve been told that someone in Germany has that tenor sax now. I hope they play it often. Maybe it’s for the best that someone else has those instruments; I don’t play very much these days. My skills have atrophied over the last several years due to a combination of day jobs and the weariness that comes from working them, and while I often dream of building my chops back up, I haven’t been able to find the time.
A common refrain among people with enough money to avoid the classic American tradition of working a miserable job that you hate is that “we all have the same 24 hours.” Like any assertions that the classical music industry is a meritocracy, I think most of the people who say this know, at least on some level, that this isn’t true. But I firmly believe that things aren’t going to get any better as long as we allow people to get away with saying such things unchallenged. I’d like to break down exactly how much time being working class can cost you in this industry.
Let’s start with practice: Most teachers generally recommend somewhere between two and four hours of focused practice a day. Let’s aim for the lower end, so two hours a day. Minus eight hours for sleep, finding somewhere in your 16 waking hours to devote two hours to your instrument doesn’t seem like much of a challenge. If your parents are paying your rent, you’re right; the rest of us have to work. Let’s assume you’re one of the lucky among us: You have a regular nine-to-five desk job that pays OK and gives you benefits, which is the way the American corporate sector likes to refer to basic human rights like healthcare and sick leave. That’s eight hours a day, five days a week, with weekends off and a few vacation days. To paraphrase an old saying, you have eight hours for sleep, eight hours for work, and eight hours for what you will—two of which will be spent practicing. That doesn’t sound too bad, and like so many before you, you might enter the workforce believing that you really can have it all. It might take you a little longer to find success than your trust-funded peers, but success is not impossible as long as you really want it.
The reality of the working day is not nearly as clean as that old adage suggests. There are things that must be done before you get to work and more once you get home, and each task cuts into that precious what-you-will time. Your day doesn’t really start at 9 a.m. after all, since you have to wake up early enough to get dressed, grab a bite to eat, and maybe even have a cup of coffee. Since you’ll want to look professional and presentable, you’ll probably want to shower and comb your hair. And while more people than ever before are working remotely since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, most people still commute to a physical location away from where they live. Let’s say you’re fast, and you can get all of this done in two hours, arriving at the office with just enough time to spare that your boss doesn’t fire you. You now have six hours of personal time in which to practice. But your day doesn’t really end at 5 p.m. either. You have to commute back, and while that time can vary wildly based on where you live and how you commute, let’s say for the sake of argument that you can get home within 30 minutes. You ate two meals already, but you need to eat a third when you get home. Again, this is a broad variable, but let’s say you’re able to prepare dinner and eat it within another 30 minutes. You now have five hours.
I’ve lost count of how many practice hours I’ve lost to my dumb brain refusing to supply me with the requisite dopamine and serotonin I need to get through the day, and I’m far from the only artist who’s been in this predicament.
That’s a tight schedule to be sure, but it’s not impossible. Right? After dinner, you can practice for two hours, watch TV for three, and drift off to sleep at 11 p.m., assuming it’s that easy. But wait, there’s more! As an artist, you probably live in the city—not necessarily New York, but at least a city, because that’s where the gigs tend to be. Since you live somewhere with a high population density, you probably live in an apartment, with neighbors close by and very thin walls. Cities are also expensive, and rents are on the rise, so there’s a good chance you have roommates as well. And while some people can find quiet solutions like an electric keyboard with a headphone jack, most of us make a lot of noise when we practice, and you don’t want to practice too late, out of respect for the many people who surround you. This means you don’t have much leeway in these what-you-will hours, so any unexpected change to your schedule may well result in a day when you can’t practice at all. Have a gig tonight? You’re not practicing. Stuck in traffic? You’re not practicing. Dishes piling up? You’re not practicing. Your roommate has a friend visiting? You’re not practicing. What if you have a neurological condition like depression or ADHD that makes this kind of relentless schedule exponentially more difficult to stay on top of than it already is? I’ve lost count of how many practice hours I’ve lost to my dumb brain refusing to supply me with the requisite dopamine and serotonin I need to get through the day, and I’m far from the only artist who’s been in this predicament.
All these things add up. The relentless work weighs on you, and no matter how great your burning desire to succeed is, you’ll still reach a point where there’s no fire left inside you. The once-smoldering coals have long since turned to dust and smoke, and you’re left hollow, like a dead tree after it’s been struck by lightning. There comes a time where you look back at all this hard work, these long hours, these for-exposure gigs, the meals you skipped so you could afford to apply to Aspen (whose tuition costs $4,950 for a full session with an application fee of $25-125, depending on when you apply), or Bang on a Can (whose tuition costs $2,900 with an application fee of $40), or any number of wildly expensive networking opportunities where you’ll surrounded by people whose lives are so different from your own that they might as well be a different species from you, and you wonder to yourself: What was the fucking point? It drains you, and twists a thing that once brought you such immense joy into something that brings you nothing but dead, dull pain. The hauntology of the life you deserved, one you never got to live. This is the final punchline you get to experience as a working class musician: For the rich, even the burnout is better. ¶
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