20. March 2013 · 5 comments · Categories: Ramble

Here are just some quick, “spit out” thoughts about the San Francisco Symphony and why people comment angrily about the musicians …

A good number of people played instruments when they were kids. In fact, just last night on Jeopardy a contestant was introduced and Mr. Trebak said something about her being a harpist. She said yes and went on to tell him she fell in love with the harp when she was seven, that she didn’t play it any longer, and when he asked if she ever owned a harp she said “no”.

But still she was introduced as a harpist.

When we are children we have toys that could allow us to call ourselves doctors, bus drivers, architects, mothers, artists … the list could go on and on. We study math. We study biology, chemistry and, for some, physics (I avoided the sciences whenever possible: my brain just switch off with them). We take history classes and language classes. None of those means we would call ourselves doctors, parents, mathematicians, bioligists, chemists, physicists, historians, or linguists.

But if you took music lessons you are suddenly a musician? For life?!

When one of our kids was in kindergarten another mom and I ended up chatting. When I told her I was a musician and played in the San Jose Symphony (RIP) she asked if I was paid for to do that. When she learned that I did, she actually got angry and said, “I should join the symphony too. I played clarinet in high school!” I was shocked enough I didn’t even respond. Her assumption — and I think the assumption of many — was probably threefold (at least). 1: She played an instrument in high school and, because of that, was just as qualified to play in an orchestra as I was 2: The arts are frivolous and don’t have meaning (she was a realtor and I suppose she saw that as quite meaningful and I know she made good money I would have liked to have said, “So you sell other people’s things and make a bundle, eh? I could do that!”). 3: What I did was “fun”. After all, I “only” played for a living … I didn’t work!

When I had a hand injury I went to the doctor to have it checked out. I explained that my hands were rather important in my profession — that I was an oboist and if I couldn’t play I’d be in trouble. He smiled, checked my hand out, and then asked, “What do you really do for work?” I replied again that I was a musician. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “Yes, but what do you do for your real, daytime job?” He never did accept that music was my real job.

How does one get people like those two to see things differently? How does one explain that what we do takes a skill they, most likely, didn’t and couldn’t have? How to explain that the arts have value and can be quite beneficial to a society, when that realtor had never even heard a professional symphony performance and probably never would? How do I explain that that verb “play” isn’t saying that we don’t also work, and that it’s hard work as well as extremely stressful? How do I explain that every time we get up on that stage we pretty much bare our souls and then we get home and read a newspaper that tells us, sometimes, about our failures and weaknesses? How can I get them to understand that a musician does have a real job?!

I guess I don’t. People who say, “I could do that!” and think that being a musician means I don’t have a “real job” just don’t get it. I’m guessing they never will. But I know that there are others who do get it, and do know that those at the top of their game, like the Big Guys up in San Francisco, are earning much less than the Big Guys at the top of their game in any other profession. If you want to argue about salaries, why don’t you complain about those who make much, much more instead?

Okay. Rant over ‘n out. And yes, I will screen comments here. It’s my blog, so I get to do that! 🙂


  1. Hi Patty,
    I champion your thoughts as well. I always love when people think that what we do is a “hobby”. What they don’t realize is that we receive “the calling” when we are very young and make sacrifices all along the way to learn and perfect our “art”. I remember when Christopher (who now is a colleague of yours with Symphony Silicon Valley) would practice. All the other kids on the block were playing outside. He would do homework and then practice until about 11:00pm-midnight on school nights (with a mute of course)! He had an opportunity to take all AP classes in high school but he made the decision to get straight A’s in regular classes so he would have more time to practice. It’s those kind of sacrifices that people don’t see.

    I had a simliar experience at a soccer field when my kids were younger. A soccer mom asked me what I did for a living I told her I was a professional musician and so was my husband. She then smartly said her husband was a doctor. She was telling me all about his medical training and then I started to enlighten her about my “training”. She told me that mine doesn’t begin to compare to his because he saves peoples lives! Truly pissed off by this time and realized this lady was clueless I said that I bring beauty into people’s lives and I save souls! I’ll never forget that because she is the “norm” of the clueless that are out there do not undestand and have no capacity to understand.

    What boggles me is why in Europe and South American counrties are artists held in such high esteem and in this country where there is much wealth and opportunity to experience such beauty as the “arts” are we seen as people who live this life as a “hobbyist”. People ask me why knowing the road I traveled to become a professional musician and teacher would I send my son into the same profession. I’ll tell you why because he is following His dream and music speaks to his soul and it is the essence of who he is just like me it is part of my DNA it is how God wonderfully created me so I will be there with him through the auditions, juries, and concerts because this was “his calling” from an early age and I can think of nothing better than to pursue beauty and to bring life and joy to people’s souls. (okay off my soap box). As for the San Francsico Symphony-they are amazing musicians and I will keep them in my thoughts and prayers as they deserve the very best.

  2. Thanks for your story, Lisa. It’s really amazing to me to know that some people shrug off music (and all the arts). Sad stuff.

    As to why it’s this way here in America, who knows? We also don’t value teachers like they do in other countries. We value money and possessions and outer beauty. Why? The media? Upbringing? A combo? I sure don’t know!

    I feel quite blessed to have been in music my entire life. I’m grateful. I love what I do. If someone else doesn’t get it, I tend to just let it go these days, knowing I’d never connect with that person in any case. Sigh.

    Anyhoo, thanks for the comment! I appreciate it. I know SFSymphony musicians will too, if they ever happen upon this little blog ‘o mine. (Doubtful, but I can hope!)

  3. I’m sorry, I get that if you’re an amateur musician, you might introduce yourself as a “guitarist” or “drummer” or “clarinetist”, but if you haven’t played for years, how in good conscience can you call yourself a “harpist”? I took figure skating lessons for 3 years when I was a kid and at one point got halfway decent, but then I quit. I probably couldn’t do a toe flip today if my life depended on it. I certainly wouldn’t go up to someone and say, “Hi! I’m Sara, I’m a figure skater!”

  4. patti with an i

    I wouldn’t get too ticked off at harp lady from Jeopardy. It may well not have been her decision to be introduced that way; it could just have been the unique thing that jumped out at some producer from whatever biographical information the show requests from contestants. The producer, in that case, though, certainly qualifies for a close encounter with a clue-by-four.

    The anger and cluelessness are very discouraging to confront. I suspect that some people resent being unable to make their own living from music or art etc., and take it out on those of us who have had the good fortune to do so. Maybe they weren’t good enough or lucky enough, maybe they were discouraged by parents or teachers, maybe a host of other things that could get in the way. Some of them resent that they are stuck in jobs that feel meaningless but provide benefits for their families that they can’t afford to lose, and they resent that we get a workplace that, as they see it, is spiritually uplifting, free of office politics, not dirty or dangerous, and fun all the time.

    Some people are intimidated by serious art. They feel unwelcome at the symphony or the opera, afraid that other patrons will look down on them for not being well enough dressed or their neighbors will glare at them if they clap at the wrong time. They think of what we do as elitist, despite the fact that most of the tickets to a professional sporting event, and certainly most of the tickets to high-visibility pop music performances, cost more than most of the tickets to any symphony, opera, string quartet, you name it. And often when this is pointed out to people, they simply refuse to believe it, even with hard evidence placed in front of them.

    Unions in general are under serious attack in this country right now. The entrenched corporate interests that dominate and drive the discussion on these issues have managed to divide and conquer. People accept as a given that the size of the pie is what they’re told it is, and in that situation people will turn on each other and fight over the perceived crumbs that are up for grabs. People who are worried about how secure their own job is can be incredibly resentful of the idea that someone else has tenure or similar protections. Witness the signs at the Wisconsin state capital not long ago that said “I don’t have health insurance from my job, why should you?” Somehow that’s become the narrative, instead of “Hey, he has health insurance from his job, why don’t I?”

    There’s the perception that non-profits are “takers,” to borrow from the recent election. Many people believe that if orchestras can’t support what we do from ticket sales, we don’t deserve to exist.

    I’m sure there’s a great deal that I”ve left out or glossed over or gotten wrong, but that’s my two cents for now.

  5. Well, that seems like more than two cents, patti with an i! 😉

    Yeah, I realize I was too harsh with the “harp lady”, but I definitely have had encounters with others who have called themselves a “clarinetist” or some such thing and when I ask where they play these days I hear, “Oh, I haven’t played since high school!” I guess once a musician, always a musician. And that’s the thing … if you ever did it, you remain one to many people. It makes it seem as if one doesn’t have to keep at it.

    But I’m not putting thoughts down well right now … so sorry! Just sort of on OldBoeBrain mode at the moment.

    (Speaking of which … it may very well be time to put this blog to rest. I know I’ve said that before, but these days I’m coming up with very little to say, and I think I’m actually getting weary of doing it. Go figure! What to do, what to do ..??)

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