September 29th, 2010

The conversation began promisingly enough. I’d stepped out of my house to go on an evening run and almost smacked headlong into a woman of about 50 who lives in our street, walking up the other way. So I guess in a way, any conversation that didn’t begin with an angry expletive was going to be positive. But I wasn’t expecting to hear “Are you the person whose piano playing I enjoy listening to as I go past this house on my walk every night?” How lovely, I thought. “Well it would be either me or my housemate” I said self-deprecatingly. I was even trying to work up a blush, although that was sort of wasted in the dark half-light. “I guess you’re both STUDYING are you?” she asked, somewhat emphatically. Emphatically? Maybe I was just being paranoid.

Except that I’ve been asked this many times before.

My initial reaction when asked if I’m still STUDYING is one of false flattery – as someone who is technically old enough to have a child who could be studying at tertiary level it’s kinda nice when someone assumes you’re still University age yourself. But then paranoia comes back again. Did they ask that because the playing sounds studenty? Because I look dishevelled and bohemian? Because they’ve seen the state of my bedroom? No – as I’ve come to learn, the reasons are much more mercenary. Let’s return to the conversation in progress:

“No, I work as a freelance classical pianist” I replied. Her eyes narrowed.
“Really?” She didn’t sound convinced. “Doing what, mostly?”
I explained that I collaborate a lot with students at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM), accompanying them for their recitals and coaching them in the odd chamber music project.
“So you’re sort of like their backing track?” I’d never heard a job I found quite satisfying and rewarding reduced to such bald terms before. It was quite startling, but I supposed she was right. I told her I supposed she was right.
“Surely you can’t earn a living just from that?” This woman was a tough customer. I was thinking fast.
“Um, er, I also perform with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra”. Ha! EVERYONE’S heard of the MSO – surely this would placate her.
“Lovely”, she said. But then, “Although I know that orchestras in Australia don’t employ pianists full-time, so that must still be casual, right?” Geez, she was onto me. Was there no satisfying her? The fulfilment I’d felt that morning getting out of bed and being musician for a living – that fulfilment I feel MOST mornings – had all but drained away. I felt, briefly, like an underacheiving bum. As a parting gesture she patted me on the forearm patronisingly. “Well, it’s a hard road you’ve chosen for yourself dear. I hope it works out for you.” It was as if I’d announced to her that I was giving up a life of luxury to become a horse-hair-shirt-wearing hermit in Yemen.

But it was food for thought. She hadn’t meant it condescendingly, of course. She just had an inherent understanding of how difficult it is to make a living as an artist on one’s own terms. It’s something I rarely think of most days, and it’s the elephant in the room when artists are in discussion with the public or even when they’re in discussion with each other. Fees for performances are not standardised and even seasoned musicians are often unsure what to charge for their services and what reactions broaching a fee are likely to bring out. Quoting, for example, $1000 for a 90-minute concert will elicit everything from “Are you sure? I’ll happily give you double that” to “Um, are you joking? How about recommending a good Uni student who’ll do it for free?”

There simply isn’t enough money to go around. Most working musicians I know think nothing of putting in a 16-hour day to earn roughly what a checkout operator at Coles will. The difference is that free-lancers don’t get group certificates, don’t acquire superannuation and don’t get sick leave. Because it’s hard to show consistency with one employer, the paper-trail never looks good – applying for the simplest of credit cards is difficult; applying for something like a home-loan is often nothing more than a far-fetched fantasy. ANAM was set up to be a sister-institute to the Australian Institute of Sport , yet receives approximately 4% of the budget of the AIS. Rank-and-file orchestral musicians have to jump through some of the most extraordinary cruel hoops to land a job in a professional orchestra and then generally earn less than someone in low-level management. And yet the overheads for a musician are enormous – 20 years or more of lessons (it only takes six years to become a doctor), instrument purchase and maintenance, the collection of musical scores, the travelling to compete and audition – most musicians by the age of 30 have spent in excess of $200 000 on their craft and are functioning at a perpetual loss.

I probably sounds like I’m whinging at this point. Actually, I’m not. I’m simply listing a few negatives in a career where the positives are too numerous to mention. They include utterly priceless things like emotional satisfaction, creative control, bringing joy to people’s lives, the opportunity to travel and, of course, the opportunity to meet like-minded, crazy people who share the same vision and drive that you do.

And so this entire blog has been one ridiculously self-indulgent upbeat to this last paragraph, which is simply to say thankyou to Laila and Julia for a wonderful first season of Syzygy, and thankyou to you, patient reader and careful listener, for sharing the first stage of our Syzygy journey. The second stage looks set to be wildly exciting, and includes many guest artists; some gorgeous works by Berio, Turnage, Ades, Edwards, Harbison and others; an excursion to Holland (our first foray on the internaional competition circuit); and I daresay more spicy food than you can shake a red wine bottle at. As if I’d have it any other way. I’d love to say to this woman that my decision to be a musician is final. But I don’t want to say ‘No correspondence will be entered into’. I’d love to enter into it. This career is worth defending. Let’s talk.

Thanks everyone,
Leigh :*

One Response to “$heesh”

  1. You guys are awesome, and a little verbose…

Leave a Reply