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17.1.05

Music as Profession

I will join the ranks of fellow arts bloggers who are praising the contribution of harpist Helen Radice, blogging at twang twang twang, to Blogistan. If you are not a fan yet, get started by reading her latest post (the nasty sty, January 12). It is about Helen's experience of being asked to perform on a television show, negotiating a fee, and then finding out that another harpist was asked instead to do the same engagement for a lower rate.

Less than you'd get for an amateur choral soc date, for chrissake. And while I haven't seen the Big Budget, I find it hard to believe a show with five million viewers a night really can only manage a tenth of cash-strapped Covent Garden's largesse.

Persuading people to play for peanuts is the prerogative of the free market, but it is exploitation which may eventually price us out of a profession. I have moaned this moan many times before: once again, musicians, if you give in, it will happen.

I am reasonably militant on the subject of fees, not because I care only for money (if I did, I would have gone to the City), but because I care about music, and the performance of it to the highest level; the amount of work it takes to do that requires a living wage.
Read the whole thing, because it really is on target. What Helen is saying is something that I have complained about to lots of friends, but in the context of choral singing. I find it scandalous that the concept of the volunteer singer is so prevalent in the United States. I have no problem with volunteer choruses, which are an important part of civic life. God bless the people who love music and want to give their time to singing. However, for music above a certain level, all musicians should expect to be paid.

Sadly, because of this image of choral singers as devoted volunteers, even we professional singers are routinely paid far less than an orchestral musician for the same gig. At rehearsals for events that involve instrumentalists, not only do I envy the fee I know they are receiving (five times or more what I make). I also watch in admiration as our conductor has to observe limits on rehearsal time and required breaks, because the instrumentalists belong to the American Federation of Musicians and we do not. Is it any wonder that the stereotype of choral singers is that we have less musical skill than instrumentalists? If we had a union, could we not only guarantee a living wage for skilled singers, but also guarantee a higher quality of performance? Although it is not in this context that Helen wrote what she wrote, she did single out the low expectations for the "amateur choral soc date." Enough said.

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