In Their Words ~ Part 3: "Paying to Play."

This blog is a thread of excerpts from my 2017 Ph.D. thesis, “Price of a Gift: Lives and Work of Professional Musicians in St. John’s, Newfoundland”, based on interviews with 54 musicians whose work is based in St. John's, Newfoundland. If this is your first time visiting, I encourage you to begin by scrolling to the bottom for my first entry and make your way back up to this latest instalment, and to return for regular additional excerpts in the weeks to come.


Many research participants described two big challenges confronting them at the start of their music careers: paying down costs and getting paying gigs. The two clearly go hand in hand. Startup costs include: student loans (for those who attended university/college music schools); purchasing, renting, and maintaining instruments and gear; and recording and touring. After all those childhood/adolescent years of lessons, instruments, Kiwanis competitions and school concerts, their parents are close at hand at the start of the new career, some demonstrating continuing unqualified support, others showing signs of reticence.

Most of my family are of the blue collar realm. There are a lot of labourers and a lot of workers. My Dad was a construction worker but he had his own company. Yeah, my parents have been supportive in a way, but they’ve really been pushing a kind of more stable job. My parents weren’t too pleased that I chose to do a performance degree and not an education degree, because they thought “What are you gonna do with a performance degree?” And they were right. What have I done with that? I mean, I really haven’t done anything with it (laugh).
— Mitchell
I remember my parents holding the same reservations that pretty much any parent would, rooted in just wanting the best for your kid and not wanting your kid to live a hard life. They heard all the things about how you can’t make a living. But they very quickly came around and were supporting me from the get-go, so that helped a lot in the early hard days.
— Paul
I think they were fearful that I wouldn’t be able to support myself, which is an absolutely correct fear. But I’m also resourceful enough that I was going to figure out a way to do it. But if I had a child and they told me they were going into music, I would tear my hair out and say “no you’re not!”
— Kim

The cost burden in the early career days was eased by one or more of parents, pay from other employment, scholarships, support from funding agencies, income from performances, and financing arrangements. New classical instruments are especially expensive. In the most extreme instance in this study, one classical musician acquired two instruments totaling nearly fifty-thousand dollars afforded through university scholarships and financial assistance from parents. Another was gifted an expensive instrument by his parents, then began earning income by teaching privately allowing him to afford additional instruments and gear. But as shown in previous blogs in this series, most musicians were not raised in wealthy homes, and expensive instruments were bought used, or were rented or leased.

My last blog revealed that a vast majority of my participants hold at least one university degree, 30 of them with music degrees. Many felt that higher education in music would increase employability in music. First gigs and university music studies often overlap, and tuition thus is component at the start of the career. Twenty-four (44%) participants credit their parents with helping pay university tuition and other initial career startup costs.

I’ve been pretty lucky. As an undergrad, my parents paid for everything and my job was to do well academically.
— Joan
My darling parents, yeah. And whatever work I do over the summer mostly helps. Every year I do a SWASP program, so I always have a tuition voucher. Normally I pay for my first semester and my Dad pays for my second semester. That’s from a savings plan they set up before I was born. (SWASP – Student Wage and Service Program – a Government of Newfoundland and Labrador program that subsidizes employers of university students and offers tuition vouchers to students)
— Charlene

But not all parents are able or willing to assist financially. The student debt burden on top of other startup costs causes some young musicians to shift their focus away from performance and toward alternate employment almost immediately.

When you’re a young musician coming out of school… I had two degrees in hand, and I had $56,000 in debt. I will never wish that on a young musician. It impacts every decision that they can make. So I can’t be a full time artist. I can’t. I can’t ever afford it. I have to pay back my loan.
— Steph

Several musicians spoke of feeling conflicted between their desire to demonstrate the full capacity of their creativity and producing music that most reliably will attract an audience. Residents of St. John’s are generally highly supportive of local musicians but there is a tendency for most support to go towards music that is familiar and fun. For patrons, music is leisure. For musicians, music is work. These well-educated and talented musicians have bills to pay, careers to launch and audiences to build. For some musicians in this research, delivering what audiences want to hear is sometimes at the expense of their own creative potential.

I just can’t do it. Someone of my experience and training, to pay me a few hundred bucks for a week’s worth of rehearsals and a weekend of shows, I just can’t do it. Sweatin’ my ass off, trying to get to rehearsals, bringing thousands of dollars of musical equipment, and years and thousands of dollars of practise and training to get paid like five bucks an hour. If I’m just going to make music, I’d rather have something creatively and artistically pushing my boundaries and making me think, and maybe making the audience think, and maybe make nothing… rather than, you know, playing some musical theatre for some money.
— Harry
In this city, you pretty much have to work for free. If you play a show, you never know what the crowd is gonna be like. You have to accept that fact that you’re probably gonna be playing for ten or fifteen people, you know? You’re not going to make anything. In fact you’re probably going to end up paying to play, because you’re probably gonna have to get a cab down, you’re probably gonna have a couple of drinks. The only one solid way to make money playing music in this city is if you want to play covers. Other people’s songs.
— Bruce

Many musicians, especially emerging artists, rely on agencies for career services and funding. In Newfoundland, MusicNL provides funding support for musician projects that include performing, recording and touring. A prerequisite to MusicNL project funding is paid membership to the organization. Another organization, The Canadian Federation of Musicians (CFM), has a St. John’s local office and offers contractual insurance, pension and royalty advice and other services to musicians. Its mandate is to assist member musicians with services that include legally-binding employment contracts, international travel visas, liability insurance, health insurance, and retirement pensions. Many musicians are encouraged to register for membership with one or both organizations. Membership fees are not substantial in the big scheme of things, but can represent a substantial cost for young musicians trying to get a foothold in the industry. We see in Simon’s experience the importance of continuing support of parents and family, as well as hints early in the career about its viability as a fulltime and long-term profession. There is plenty of evidence throughout my research of musicians struggling to manage the day-to-day administration of self-employment and freelancing from the beginning and well into their careers.

When you’re the guy standing in front with the mike in your face, everybody else gets their money before you do. The sound guy has to get paid. The venue has to get paid. The door guy has to get paid. You know? I usually had two or three guys on stage with me and everybody made fifteen or twenty per cent, whatever it was. The insurance on the band had to be paid every month. Every year the MusicNL fee and the CFM fee. But it was paying for itself because I was living with my parents. But then there got to a point where it wasn’t, and where I would be at home on EI (employment insurance) the winter, and EI was making the band payment and the insurance payment every month.
— Simon
It’s awful what musicians have to go through in terms of government. It should not be that difficult, but it is. I have to pay Workers’ Comp for myself. If I got injured, say, on the stage, it would cover. But I’m not sure if I’m covered driving to and from. I’m not sure if I’m covered in my house if I trip up. I don’t know, and you can’t get a straight answer. And so I don’t know what I’m paying for really. They don’t understand. And talk about gas. The tax person will tell you, “Okay, well you can only claim what you’re doing going to and from work, or this, that and the other thing.” But everything that you do... I mean, me driving down here today is work. If I drive anywhere, it’s work. If I go out to Gander, if I meet somebody and talk about work, surely that’s work. It’s work-related. It’s a really misunderstood idea that musicians are just, you know… when you’re up there (pointing to the stage) that’s it.
— Gene

Several participants said that the St. John’s music industry is characterized by social cliques that are often difficult to break through. Some explained that established musicians, while generally mutually supportive, are also careful to safeguard their carefully cultivated social networks and audience base. Mitchell is from outside of St. John’s and describes his experience of starting out here.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that St. John’s is very, very cliquey, and I found that my biggest challenge here. So I quickly realized that if I didn’t put more emphasis on socializing, then my career would actually suffer. But I still found it really hard to break into these circles. So then my approach was to write music. And I came to realize that if I write music and I have a product that I need people to play, that people would come to play it.
— Jimmy
St. John’s is weird. Musicians in St. John’s love to throw around the word “scene.” They love talking about how we have such a good “scene.” “We’re all best friends and everybody plays with everybody else.” It’s a big crock of shit. It really is. While they think they live in this great scene, musicians are the reason it’s not a great scene because they’re being very insular and very incestuous with who they play with. I happen to see lots of them.
— Winston

I want to remind that these blogs are not exhaustive of my research, but do point to the most  common and prominent themes throughout my findings that began to emerge early in the interviews. Discussion points that at first glance may seem to address separate issues will be seen to come into much sharper focus, as intersections across a web of experiences that collectively cause a musicians to continue, alter or exit from the music career. My next blog will summarize employment and income statistics among my participants and compare these to the latest available national figures for musicians and to the findings of other research.

In Their Words ~ Part 2: "It's not the livelihood first and then the music. It's the other way around."

A principle theme of this week's blog is the experience of many research participants in higher (university, college, or conservatory) education in music, an unexpected but informative discussion that emerged from a question early in the interviews asking musicians to describe the beginnings of their music careers. The conversations also delved into other issues in the early career stage, but it was difficult to not relate those conditions to the choice that most participants made at the start of their careers - to pursue higher education. Nearly all (52 out of 54) of the musicians I interviewed for this study have at least some college or university education, with 46 having completed at least one degree – 30 of those in university or college music programs, most at the MUN School of Music. Many participants said they acquired a university music degree as a step towards teaching in a school or university as their primary career in order to afford to continue performing, as well as a means of justifying a higher rate of pay as self-employed performing and teaching musicians.

I really wanted to go to another level of teaching. So I do feel like it’s a different rate. It should be. I really wanted to go teach at MUN.
— Karen
One thing I always knew… You are nothing unless you have an education. Even through hard times, I kept at school. I knew I had to get an undergrad. Have to, or it’s not gonna happen.
— Beverley

Other participants said that their university music education empowers them with validity, professionalism and stability in their work. Stability in particular is in the form of relatively secure classroom teaching employment that would enable greater affordability and freedom of choice in performing and touring. 

I can still keep performing, but at least I won’t have to be living out of a suitcase. For me that was just too terrifying. I get an amazing salary, so I have no problem delivering free lessons or performing for free.
— Katherine
Going here and there, I knew I didn’t want that. I knew I didn’t want that career of being away, alone, doing that kind of solitary lifestyle. I know you get a big payoff on the stage. But that kind of life of being away from home, being away from family, I knew I didn’t want that. So at the point I said I knew I didn’t want that, I just turned the page and did something else musically.
— Frances
Hopefully a DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts). It would be ideal if I was able to play in an orchestra even part time. But I’m aware that orchestra doesn’t pay the bills. So once I’ve got my tenure I’ve made it.
— Joan

My previous blog summarized some of the recollections my participants had of their music educators from childhood, and nearly all were fond, richly descriptive memories. When recalling their time as young adults in a university or college music program, however, only 11 mentioned their professors and instructors at all, and only four favourably. Several commented on differences between their learning experiences and career goals. This is especially so with participants who attended a classical music degree program while planning for a non-classical performance career.

I did feel an overriding sense of disapproval from many other professors in the music faculty, but the voice teachers were just worried about my best interests. I could be a better classical musician, but I wouldn’t be nearly the well-rounded musician that I am. I don’t regret taking time from one to improve the other. I didn’t have the time to study or practise as hard as some of my colleagues, but I think I’m a lot happier with my four years, and I made the degree and time work for what I wanted. I think any resentment came from the fact that I was happy and busy and thriving where they may have felt stuck. Again, I worked hard in my own way, but many just saw it as slacking off. From some views, it was self-indulgent. For me, it is a job, a networking opportunity, and experience. It’s a joke for others.
— Charlene
When they (professors) didn’t want me to go downtown, they had a good reason. ‘I don’t want you to go downtown, get drunk, scream through a microphone and lose your voice.’ Which I wouldn’t do anyway. I can see if you’re not involved in that world having reservations and being scared of it. But at the same time, you need to have the conversation. ‘Where do you see yourself in 3 months, 6 months, or a year, or two years? Why are you here? What is it you want to get out of this?’ I honestly think you would get people there for the right reasons… and maybe a lot of people would leave after having the chat.
— Eamon
I saw something greater than just being a classical singer. I wasn’t content to be a one-trick pony. I wasn’t content to just pursue a career as a classical singer. I loved too many styles of music. I loved too many outlets in music, in terms of singing and instruments. I loved music too much to be in a box. To be a classical singer, that’s a box.
— Ernest

Several participants were blunt in their assessment of university music schools, specifically their experience with the MUN School of Music, describing what they perceived as incompleteness of information, or even misinformation, with respect to transferring artistic ability into employment sustainability. 

I saw this with so many of my peers going through music school. A lot of them have no grasp on what kind of work is out there, or they have a misinformed grasp of what kind of work is out there. You can be playing every single weekend if you wanted to. You can be making thirty or forty grand a year. But people don’t realize the opportunities that are in this city for music. It results because there are three or four institutions and they don’t talk to each other, and everyone has a different idea of what kind of work there is.
— Russell
I think we have this false idea that everything we do is fantastic. No it’s not. Everything is a competition. So the sooner kids learn that, I think the better it is for them. And that’s the problem you have in university music schools today. ‘Oh, we’re all great.’ No you’re not. Everyone is told they’re special. And the truth is everyone is expendable. Everyone. And they don’t get that. And that’s a problem for a lot of up-and coming musicians. When it doesn’t happen, they don’t believe it. It’s somebody else’s fault.
— Kim
I put hundreds or thousands of hours into practise. By the university guidelines, I’m not allowed to charge money for anyone to come (to a student recital). Back then, I wasn’t like ‘I want to charge a fee.’ But now that I reflect on it… We’re not allowed to charge a fee? So is that already an idea that’s being engrained in our heads? Think about paid work terms. Others like engineering are getting paid. So for us, what would be unreasonable about donation by the door? Even as music students, we are expected to attend however many concerts. I do think that there are certain things from my education at a post-secondary level that encouraged me to be generous with my time, and in no other program would they teach that. Pharmacy program wouldn’t be ‘give your time away,’ whereas in music, that is encouraged. That was part of the course.
— Michelle

In the absence of sustainable performance income, the fallback for most participants who do not seek school or university teaching careers is private teaching, a type of self-employment for which a university degree is not required, which musicians who feel they have enough skill, experience and confidence can undertake regardless of age and education. Mitchell describes an unintended consequence of generating revenue from a more reliable source of employment in order to afford to continue to perform. His newfound income stream eventually displaced the work it was intended to support.

I was just trying to acquire the financial stability that I needed to pay rent and to do things that I didn’t have student loans for. I ended up teaching close to seventy students a week. I did that for two years, and I made more in those two years than I’ve probably made since (laugh). But what ended up happening was I looked at my life and realized that I hadn’t written much music in those two years. I was playing some shows but not a lot. And I quickly realized, ‘Hey! I’m not a musician right now. I’m a music teacher.’ And I didn’t want to do that.
— Mitchell
People have to make a living. I just think MUN is still locked into this traditional thing of ‘We’ll tell you what you want, and then you go do what you think you want to do.’ And I think that’s ass-backwards. It has to do with budgets and money and all that, but I just think at this stage that they’ve got to spread out a little bit. What’s available in Newfoundland besides graduating after four years and private teaching? Do you need four years of university to private teach on your instrument? So that’s a problem that I have with this whole business of ‘what are people gonna be doing after university.’ I just think we’re shortchanging the students. Some of the best performers, the first thing they do is get out of here and teach.
— Lucas

Other participants noted static performance income at odds with their increasing education, experience, and age. The result for some is reevaluation of the music career path and possible reprioritization, at least temporarily, of performance among their skills portfolio.

When you’re 16 or 17, you’re making deadly money. And then all of a sudden, you know, you’re in your 20s with a masters degree, and you’re like ‘I’m still making the same money.’ The main thing I’ve been trying to build up is the teaching because it’s a bit more regular. It’s a bit more structured. You can actually make plans with people, which is nice. Then it’s like, ‘Okay, I know my hours are this.’ Gonna be in a little bit more in control. If you’re constantly gigging all the time, unless you’re doing a steady weekend circuit, the late nights downtown can definitely wear on you after a while. If you’re just touring on the road and stuff, if you’re gone for months and stuff, it’s really hard to keep in good touch with anybody at all.
— Sam
One leg of a tour might suck, or two of the three nights in a place might be brutal and you’ll feel like you’re being robbed. That’s the nature of going full time. But I’ve waited until I could minimize the number of those gigs as much as possible. The only way I can do that is by keeping a job where the music has been supplementary to a certain degree. Now it pays me more than my day job, which is the ideal goal. But it took a lot of years to get there.
— Joshua

For the purpose of my research, I distinguished between professional and amateur musicians on the basis of whether musicians actively seek to promote their performance work to earn income. How musicians themselves distinguish between amateur and professional status will be discussed in more depth in a future post. However, for the purpose of this discussion on the early stage of their careers, musicians described various personal thoughts and circumstances that they feel defined or disqualified their identities as professionals and even as musicians. Mitchell (above) said that his work as a private music teacher came at the expense of his self-identity as a musician. Barb feels that not having a university music degree, in spite of her highly active income-earning performance work, disqualifies her as a professional musician. Sophie feels that engaging in music, whether as professional or amateur, is so inherently human and built into local culture that everyone has the capacity at some point to be called "musician." It will later be seen that this all points to ambiguity about the work that tends to carry through the career.

I think that’s why I never offered to be part of your study before, because I don’t call myself a professional musician at all. I refer to myself as a community player. But I guess rationally a professional is someone who makes a living by playing and making music, which is actually what I’ve done… which I’ve always done. My main source of income is music and not from my work in business (laugh). But I don’t feel like one (a professional musician). Because I never finished a university program, I never felt validated as a professional. Although I’m learning now that I’ve made more money than most professionals (laugh).
— Barb
I find it strange calling myself a musician because I never chose to engage in it. It’s something I always did, but I never thought ‘This is what I’m gonna do.’ I feel like, especially being in St. John’s, it just sort of happens. So it’s not like ‘I’m a musician.’ Everybody is a musician!
— Sophie

Early in their careers, professional musicians recognize the challenge of distinguishing their work from their non-income-seeking fellow musicians while respecting each other’s efforts and abilities. When musicians of this study began seeking income for their performances, many said they found it necessary to perform for free to develop an audience base. However, they were careful to avoid a reputation of performing for low or no pay without seeming ungenerous or ungrateful to hiring parties, or disrespectful to fellow musicians.

I try to get paid for the most part, but I also know the reality of trying to get people to do stuff. So sometimes I don’t ask about the pay. If something’s coming up and it seems like something that might be a self-funded project and it’s someone I really respect artistically… But I do try to get paid as much as possible because everything takes so much time.
— Keith
A free gig is a precedent every time. Free gigs don’t get you anywhere. Fairly early on when I started to get into more of it being part of my income, I got pretty hung up on the idea of not giving it away.
— Joshua
I would never suggest that there should not be an outlet for people that want to get together and jam, because I think that’s ridiculous. But sometimes that can really muddy the waters between the ‘weekend warriors’ and those who are trying to structure it and trying to do it and pursue it.
— Simon
I know teachers in the city who play in a pit band. They’re great players. And they’ll play for whatever because they’re already a teacher, so they don’t really need the money. Music in this city has a lot to compete with in that you have scads of people who do it for fun and don’t need the money. And then you have an entire industry built on feeding people a certain type of music. That’s a big, huge thing to contend with. So I think those are the kinds of things that make me question some of my gigs.
— Harry

Quite early into these interviews, it became clear that musicians – even the most prolific, prominent and formally-educated among them – are challenged by the conflicting objectives of presenting their performance work as a professional endeavour worthy of remuneration yet as an art form in a field that bears no restriction to when other musicians can enter as full-time, part-time, professional or amateur. Several of my research participants attempted to relate to other occupations in terms of pay, but in the same breath realized the contrast.  

You don’t call a plumber up to come over to your house and negotiate their wage or decide what they should be paid based on the work that you want them to do for you that day. The plumber would walk out. It’s so grey because it depends on where you’re at in your career. If you’re starting out and trying to fill a portfolio to get your name out there, it’s pretty hard to just turn down a gig, to turn down work, even if the pay isn’t great. But at the same time, if you’re early in your career, chances are the pay isn’t gonna be so great because you don’t have the experience to demand the higher wage.
— Ernest
Pipe-fitting is a job. You wouldn’t be doing it if you weren’t getting paid. That’s the difference with music. It’s art versus trade. Musicians, it is their life. No one is doing it for a job, so we would be happy to spend all day and night just making music. Usually the limits come from external factors. So it’s not something that we’re doing to get paid. It’s something that we’re doing anyway, and then people can realize that you can also still pursue that and find a way to earn a livelihood from that. So it’s not the livelihood first and then the music. It’s the other way around.
— Fred

All of the quotes above are from participants with extensive university music education. How do the experiences of the 46 university-educated musicians of this research compare or contrast with the eight who do not hold university or college degrees? Of those eight, five perform part time while holding down other part- or full-time jobs, two work entirely as performing musicians, and one is a former professional musician who has changed careers. As ratios, the outcomes are comparable among musicians with or without university degrees.

Sixteen participants, while working as professional musicians, hold non-music degrees and many of those indeed have partitioned their employment portfolio between music and non-music work. As participants recounted their first steps into the music career, there are hints early on of an open door to shifting balance between performance and other various kinds of music work and, for some, towards non-music employment. The next blog will discuss two other significant issues that emerging professional musicians face as they tried to gain a foothold in the local music industry. These will including managing startup costs and establishing relationships among fellow musicians. Future posts will soon follow that will address employment, income, competition, and what happens when and if musicians come to a career crossroad. 

In Their Words ~ Part 1: "What else Do You Do?"

Starting with this post, I will reveal some of the findings of my research into the work of 54 performing musicians (23 rock, 21 classical, 10 traditional) based in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and the ways in which their lives and careers intersect to impact their work. My previous posts (see below) lent some context to my research. It's now time to give voice to my participants, who were first asked to describe their earliest memories with music, especially those that would come to shape their future work in music. Names and incidental details have been altered to guard confidentiality. 

More than two-thirds (69%) described events from before the age of 9, and 80% said their earliest recollections were from before age 12. Almost all recollections (91%) involved their parents. Many fondly described a musical tradition in the household. Examples include having musician parents, house parties with instruments and dancing, or simply a general appreciation for music in the home regardless of whether there were other musicians in the family. Invariably, their voices and gazes would trail off, some became emotional, and many speaking on at considerable length of extraordinary detail from decades ago. Here's a few excerpts. 

I was very young. Probably three or four years old and standing on one of those big, old record players. Those long brown record players with the LP on one side, and the other side would have a radio. And standing up and holding on to that. It was definitely a folk song or something. Most likely, knowing my Mom, it was (singing) “Oh Mary, This London’s a wonderful sight.” That’s the first song I ever remember, and that was my Mom’s favourite song.
— Tracey
My grandfather played the fiddle. And he would love to tell you the story that he sat me up on his knee and taught me to play my first fiddle tune.
— Darrell
When we were growing up there was always parties and everybody would have a party piece. My mother and father I remember used to sing, (singing) “Juanita, Juanita…” And my party piece with all the family, with all the adults… I used to play “Für Elise.
— Gene

Many musicians referred to their music lessons. There were signs of their unwillingness to participate in music in the beginning, but they would grow to enjoy and appreciate music, largely because of the relationship with their teacher. A lot of participants said they were “put into” or “made to” or “forced to” take lessons, with little or no discussion with their parents. Meanwhile, music for many became the only career option, even at a very young age, many years before they would begin to understand what a music career might involve.

I don’t think I considered it as a career until I started playing when I was, like, six. I was kind of forced into piano lessons. My sister was also doing piano lessons at the time. And I just kept going with that.
— Bruce
In terms of actually choosing to pursue it as a career, I never really sat down and said, “I’m gonna do this for a living.” At no point did I really decide that. I mean, I didn’t really be the one to choose to play music. I was kinda shuffled into piano at three years old.
— Sam
We always had to take piano. I was in piano forever and hated it. I cried all the time. I hated it! I only got into voice because I made a deal with mom that I would quit piano and take voice and keep up music.
— Beverley
My mom signed me up for an audition without telling me, and I was freaking out. I didn’t like to sing in front of other people. I went and was more nervous than anything. I hated it. Hated it! Apparently my mom tells me that I sang a lot as a child, and then as soon as I started school I became really introverted and wouldn’t sing in front of anybody. So then being forced to sing was very terrifying. But then I got in, and that really changed everything.
— Sheila

24 participants (44%) stated that they have never considered a career alternative to music, many saying that they “always knew” even from early childhood that music was what they wanted to do for a living. Various timing of commitment to an occupation is not unique to music, but the pairing of career commitment and years-long methodical learning usually starting in childhood does set music apart from most other occupations. It would be extremely difficult for an adult without any musical knowledge, training, or experience to decide to become a professional musician, no matter how much they have dreamed about it.

I don’t know that I can even… I just, like, grew in. I did ‘Music for Young Children,’ and then piano lessons, and started trumpet in Grade 5, and flute in Grade 7. It was just… What else do you do?
— Cindy
I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t involved in music. From the time I was four, I remember being involved. My earliest recollections are involved with music, so I suppose to some degree it was just always a part of absolutely everything I did... everything we did... as a family.
— Rodney

For 50% of the musicians, their private music teachers were most influential in fostering their music career interests. Parents featured prominently in these recollections too because, after all, parents invest a lot of their time and money in instruments and lessons for their children, initiating the relationship with the teacher. However, the closeness many participants experienced with their childhood educators cannot be overstated. It is a mentorship that took root at an early age and stayed with them for a lifetime. Some said they loved their teachers like family, became and remain friends with them, and wanted to emulate them.

I was always told my parents saw me with a real interest in music. At the age of 6, Mom took me to Vera’s. I started voice with her at her mother’s house. I was her first student. I knew right away that I loved her and I loved that house. Their house is just really interesting texture-wise, and really cool. So I was very happy there and loved her right away, and we’re still very good friends.
— Karen
It’s always been music, honest to God. That seed was planted in Grade Six. I had this wonderful teacher. I just think that the idea was always there. He taught us all to play guitar, and he used to take me and record. He loved playing guitar and he’d make me sing all the folk songs of the day. And, just that an adult loved my voice! I thought, “Oh, this is good!”
— Katherine
I had a really great teacher, and she was like… I just wanted to be like her. She was so amazing.
— Janice

The later in life musicians of this research considered pursuing music as a career, the less influential were their parents and private teachers, and the more influential were peers. Among participants who expressed their first interest in a music career at high school age, there was a tendency for their parents to show reluctance in lending support.

I remember saying to my parents, “Yeah, I think I’m gonna go to music school.” And they were like, “What? You don’t really play that much.” You know, I was like “Yeah, I’m gonna work on that. Figure it out.” So I had no idea about a career in music. All I knew was that I enjoyed playing music.
— Mitchell
My parents were very supportive of me playing music, but not pursuing it professionally.
— Hannah
They were supportive, Mom especially. Dad was a bit more reserved… not unsupportive, but a bit more guarded and a bit more realistic with it all.
— Ernest

Twelve of the musicians interviewed are self-taught, all specializing in rock or traditional music. Self-taught musicians describe learning and developing their skills and interests methodically in their personalized ways and with the support of some combination of family, teachers and friends. But their friends especially played a much greater role in supporting their music interests than musicians who were taught music more formally and who began at an earlier age.

When I was in high school, I met a couple of guys. One guy, he had all the gear and said that he would sell me the bass, and his buddy the drums, and we would form a band. So we did. And it kind of became what we did. We took that and moved into St. John’s, and then at 17 started playing the bars downtown.
— Albert
I started playing music really late. I was in Grade 11 when I started playing with a hip-hop artist. We put together this little project. As we started to perform around the school a bit, my high school, we started to get other people that were interested in joining us. Just friends that were like, “I play guitar. I play drums.” Before we knew it, we had a little project happening. I was self-taught. I was just listening to our records trying to learn what this guitar player was playing and just trying to learn exactly the parts so we could keep playing the music. I started talking to my high school music teacher, and it just really went from there.
— Jake

Early on, my research identified the significance of a social network in cultivating a music career. The following two recollections decisively coalesce a wide variety of individual experiences around this general theme that emerged from this very first interview question and discussion. Their recollections especially represent much that is special and distinctive about music as a form of work and source of employment and revenue. Music is all at once fun and serious, casual and professional, play and work, free and disciplined. These juxtapositions speak to the appeal of music, where its practitioners bear a sense of control and expertise over their creativity honed over a lifetime, free of employment in the classic sense, yet filled with challenge to improve and remain relevant, feeling no less professional in their field than anyone else in theirs. Through it all, though, make no mistake about the central role of family.

I grew up in a house where playing music was not unusual. There was always kind of a sense that this was a completely legitimate enterprise, that you would go and you would work and this was a job that people did. I got to see that up close and personal. A lot of band rehearsals at my house. On Saturdays, generally two bands rehearsing at the same time. Yeah (laughing). Poor Mom and Dad. They were great. Mom and Dad were great, tolerant, wonderful people.
— Gary
I was lucky to have grown up in a family where music was just the rule. So I was surrounded by it right from out of the womb. Dad was a performer, and was still doing that quite heavily when I was born. Mom was a singer, so they were singing all the time. Whenever they got together with friends all of those gatherings, if they didn’t start with a few songs, they ended up with a few songs. That became so normal for me. Really lucky to have been born into an organic and authentic singing tradition. I look at that as a blissful time because it didn’t have any implications for money or finance.
— Joshua

Joshua’s last comment would factor significantly through many of the experiences that follow. Commitment to music seems to often happen with little or no consideration of how exactly to earn a living from it. Most participants “just knew” they wanted to do it. Furthermore, commitment to music early on does not appear to be weighted in favour of those born into wealthy families. Many of the research participants made a point of telling me that they were not born into material wealth, but experienced a different kind of richness where artistic expression was welcomed and made available, often with used, borrowed or handed down instruments. While a few spoke of material wealth in terms of parents purchasing expensive new instruments and hiring prestigious teachers, commitment to learning and the eventual career appeared to be neither adversely nor favourably impacted by material wealth. The most important factors with respect to commitment to music as a career venture include the consistent support of family, music educators and friends. Later, we will see what happens when support from one or more of those links in a musician’s social network, especially family, is altered - either strengthened, weakened or withdrawn.

Next: Starting Out– from student to employment

Music for a Living.

Try to imagine shopping, exercising, driving, dancing, worshipping, drinking, Christmas, mourning, or marrying without music. Try giving up listening to music for Lent. You can’t. Either you will seek it out or it will find you, like that tune you can’t get out of your head when you’re not even looking for it. The challenge for career-minded musicians is that there is so much of it and so many of them, that they have to work like dogs for their song to be the one you can’t get out of your head, or the song you should buy, or the musician you should hire for your next event. The sometimes fickle and leisurely tastes of music patrons, and for musicians the consequent employment unpredictability and disproportionate income and costs, have caused me to wonder for years what leads a musician to choose to live a life trying to be seen and heard above everyone else and – harder still – to sustain the attention of audiences who primarily use music to satisfy their passing interests, activities, moods and budgets.

I know plenty of people who rarely if ever will take the time to see a local singer/songwriter or a great choir for $20 or less in a cozy, up-close setting but who won’t bat an eyelash at spending $100 or more in a stadium to see someone with star power. When a new neighbour recently asked me in my driveway what I did for a living, I told him I’ve been working as a pianist for nearly two decades. He asked me what bands I’m in and if I play stuff from the 70s. I said I don’t play in bands, but play in other kinds of ensembles, and yes I do play music from the 70s. The 1770s, the 1870s and occasionally the 1970s. His eyes glazed over when I told him that I have classical and gospel albums and have worked for several choirs. I also dropped the names of several prolific local singer/songwriter friends. He hadn’t heard of any of them, but tried hard to connect with me by telling me about a recent trip he and his family took to New York to see Billy Joel and the band America. A great trip and a fabulous musical experience to be sure. But a patron of the local music scene he is not. That’s not at all a critical commentary on his tastes. My neighbour chooses to spend his time and a good bit of money on a particular kind of music away from here. More power to him. I have chosen to make a career out of trying to sell another kind of music in which he has no interest, here. Less power to me.

……..

My Research

It’s often said that Newfoundland has a “rich” musical and artistic culture. That’s a valid statement. Music here is incredibly diverse, producing something to satisfy every taste. What is much less known are the lives of local musicians and how they feel about their music as work. How do they feel about spending a big chunk of their adult lives trying to balance their artistic creativity with the nuts & bolts of self-employment? What attracts them to a career that fiscally speaking is anything but rich and often needs to be backed up by other jobs to make ends meet, in a field where there is plenty of mutual support and an air of a music “community” or “scene,” but also plenty of evidence of professional and social cliques where friends and colleagues are sometimes strategically selected to safeguard and advance one’s niche in the crowded marketplace? Standing not far into the background are parents, spouses/partners, and music educators, some combination of whom usually have a profound influence throughout musicians' careers. 

My previous four blog posts (below) hinted of some of the key issues that emerged from my interviews by recounting real-life anecdotes spanning several career phases: a child’s first introduction to music, a teenager’s tentative first steps towards the career, the two longtime musicians who remain passionate about creating music but are challenged and frustrated with music as a career, and a discussion of the long and complicated course of transitioning one’s love for music-making into a financially viable living. While there is plenty of general media attention on musicians, there is little scholarly coverage of the entire trajectory of a music career that takes into account personal and professional circumstances that intersect and effect career commitment. The kind of study that traces a musician’s involvement in music from early childhood to the present day could go a long way towards illuminating an extraordinarily complex occupation.

One of my interviewees wryly said to me, moments before I pressed the button to record our interview, “No one will want to be a musician after reading this thesis, will they… “ This research is intended to neither deter from nor attract to the music career. Rather, it aims to fill in gaps in sociological literature on a type of work that is not thoroughly understood and appreciated, and can also inform young musicians and their families about the rewards and pitfalls of a career in music and how to prepare accordingly depending on their career goals.

My research uses St. John’s Newfoundland as a case study of the entire working, musical lives of 54 performing musicians whose careers are based here. These are the general research questions I set out to answer:

1. What roles do parents, other family members, private and classroom music educators, and peers play in musical development and pursuit of a music career?

2. What conditions lead musicians to think about career alternatives, and how are those conditions different from those experienced by musicians who commit to their music careers over the long term?

3. How do musicians navigate the uncertainty and precarity of their chosen occupation?

Here’s a little insight into my methodology. In my role as a musician and researcher from St. John’s, the likelihood was high from the start that I would personally and/or professionally know some of my interviewees. So to minimize bias, I issued a general call for participation through the Music Industry Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (MusicNL), the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra, the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Arts Society, and by placing posters throughout the city in live venues and other public spaces. I sought representation of the broad genres of classical, folk, and rock music. Some of the participants perform full-time, while most perform part-time and are engaged in several other kinds of work within and outside of music. In any case, it is the income-seeking/earning, career-oriented performing musician that is of interest in this study. My calls for participation were answered very quickly, a researcher’s dream, so that nearly all of my participants had contacted me within a couple of weeks. Here’s the final breakdown:

-       32 men, 22 women

-       23 rock, 21 classical, 10 traditional (Research participants were asked to self-identify one of these categories as their primary professional identity even if they perform in multiple styles.)

-       Ages ranged from 19 to 72 years. Average age was 36. Three-quarters (41) were under 45 years of age. Four were in their 60s and 70s. 

-       45 were active, income-earning/seeking performers at the time of our interviews. 9 others had left music for alternative careers and were deliberately recruited to explore those experiences.

Sure enough, some participants were well known to me and I to them. I asked all participants identical open-ended questions. The musicians did not know the questions in advance. The first question, asking them to recount their earliest involvement with music, proved to be an effective icebreaker that established a good comfort level and laid the foundation for some incredibly poignant, richly detailed experiences that shaped their lives and work. The questions that followed approximated a chronological order through their lives to the date of our interviews.

It’s useful to remind that this is an occupation that is unlicensed, where contracts range from casual and verbal to signed and legally binding, where anyone – amateur or professional - can enter, exit and return regardless of education, age or experience. Early in my research, I arrived at one wholly nonacademic conclusion: the musicians I interviewed are tough as nails and are among the most thoughtful, honest, insightful, resourceful, intelligent and ambitious people I have ever known.

Starting with the next blog post, I will take a back seat to these fine participants whose words will hopefully steer you towards a deeper understanding of and appreciation for their lives and work. They reveal much about working in music that is pleasing, rewarding and worth the pursuit, and much besides that reaches into the corners and shadows not often seen or talked about publicly but - with my assurances of confidentiality - were revealed openly and frankly and will not be sugar-coated here. This is their story, it's real life, and I hope you enjoy. In the meantime, I invite you to read my preceding blogs below and to follow me on Twitter where I can alert you to updates. Thank you for reading. 

Price of a Gift

Ten years ago I recorded my first album. It landed me my first award, a nice bit of publicity, decent album sales, and awesome media attention. It’s an album of piano arrangements of old-time, well-known church hymns. It struck a chord with a lot more people than I thought it would, so I followed it up with another album a year later. I didn’t receive funding for either project. Both were entirely paid out pocket. Before I knew it, I was being asked to perform in benefit concerts, and even co-produced a couple of church benefit shows without pay. I confess to not being completely altruistic. I was just trying to get my name out there, doing what I could, including working for free, to establish my career by building my very own audience base. In the process, I created a reputation for myself as a musician who works for nothing. Transitioning into a pianist for hire was difficult and sometimes resulted in uncomfortable conversations.   

One day around that same period, I received a phone call from the organizer of a church fundraiser in a town about an hour’s drive away from my home. He was looking for someone to produce and perform in a benefit concert. He told me he asked another musician first but rejected her because she insisted on a fee of $300. She was quite prominent, and $300 would have been a steal. In our chat, he complained about her unwillingness to negotiate downward, given that it’s for a church. So he asked me to perform for free. I declined, politely telling him that a fee would be expected and that I would charge the same as the musician he first contacted. He tried to negotiate with me, saying that I could have my CDs for sale in the church foyer as a form of compensation, and that the real payoff would be audience exposure. When I reminded him that I play piano for a living and that developing, rehearsing, travelling to/from, and performing such a show would demand a massive amount of my time, he responded by lecturing me on professionalism. I was asking for a nominal fee that would equate to way under minimum wage. He, a lawyer, tried to argue that professional behaviour for a musician would be to graciously accept this non-paying gig as an “opportunity.” The more we talked, the deeper the impasse. So I ended the call. 

……..

About 15 Sunday mornings every year, I can be found playing church service music in my capacity as a freelance musician, subbing in for the regular music directors when they are away. I enjoy doing it, I think I’m pretty good at it, and I’m paid every time. I got into a mildly heated discussion once with a fellow church musician who saw a problem with my taking money from a church. He argued that our music is a “gift from God” that we are offering back in thanks. I argued that my “gift” was something for which I’ve been working my ass off since I was 8 years old. There I was at another very different impasse. Two musicians who earn part of our livings from performing but who had decidedly differing views on when it is appropriate to work for free. I think this discrepancy is an outcome of the idea of individuality that is baked into music-making. Sometimes when I sub in on Sunday mornings, I invite a musician colleague to perform with me. Usually, the church offers a monetary token to my guest. Sometimes the musician declines the pay. Most times they take it. That’s up to them, but it sure makes for a hazy area, blurring the line between personal and professional conviction and speaking to inconsistency in musicians’ work and pay.

So how about an example from outside the grey area of churches and charities? Like the time I recorded my second album, a duets album, where each of my ten duet partners commanded a different fee ranging from zero to several hundred dollars, even though they each participated equally in terms of time commitment. One partner said, “I get lots of gigs. You don’t need to pay me anything.” Another partner, a close personal friend, requested a substantial fee. And still another declined pay on the promise that I would do the same for him on a recording project of his - a barter system of sorts. The costs of this album were as varied as the lives of the musicians who participated. Ever since then, several years before even thinking about my research, I’ve thought a lot about that scenario, the careers we’ve chosen, and how we manage them. In my work as a pianist, I teach, accompany students, accompany choirs, play Sunday morning church services, weddings, funerals, and perform solo occasionally. My fee for each of those tasks is different, different from other pianists, and sometimes I vary them depending on whether I know the person, or on the budget of the hiring party just so I can land the gig and keep playing.

The love for performing and creating music is undeniable across everyone I interviewed for my research. Things get complicated when musicians try to reconcile music as passion with music as commerce. Almost to a person, every musician I interviewed for my research commented in their own way that they didn’t take up a music career to get rich, and many of them entered the career with an exit strategy that was usually closely connected to dealing with age, money, competition and family. It’s as if some of us accept or brace for a career of low pay and an early expiry date before it even starts. My last blog post referenced a few summer jobs I held when I was about 19 and a university flunk-out. It was the music gig, the lowest paying and least certain of them all, that appealed to me the most and which I tried to turn into a career. So from the start, it was the fun, dynamism, and love of making music that took precedence over fiscal common sense. Not to mention that I am a professional trying to exist in an occupation where anyone with or without formal music training can enter, exit and return to the field freely at anytime, at any age, and where fees thus vary from one musician to another based not only on how much a particular audience feels they’re worth but also on how much musicians feel their own work is worth in a particular performance context. I can’t think of another career like it.

………………………………………………..

I’ve written a lot about myself over the past few blog posts, trying to take care to write in the context of my research findings and preview some of the bigger issues that emerged from my interviews. My thesis, “Price of a Gift: Lives and Work of Professional Musicians in St. John's, Newfoundland”, recounts my interviews with 54 musicians who rely on performance for at least part of their annual income. Starting with the next post, I will introduce you in more detail to my interviewees including how they came to be part of my research. In subsequent posts I will share with you some interesting outcomes from our discussions that traced their lives in music from childhood to the day of our interviews. Key discussion points have to do with the roles their families and peers played on their music career path, the impact on their work of music educators, how musicians cope with competition and conflict with fellow musicians, and the conditions that lead some musicians to quit their music careers and others to commit to it for a lifetime.  

At it for so long.

If this is your first time here, I’ve been posting items that point to my recently-completed doctoral research on musicians’ lives and work. I suggest you scroll down to the bottom and read your way to the top.

Today, I’ll share two casual conversations I’ve recently had with two musician friends. Names and a few other minor details are changed to protect their identities. I'm posting two conversations here because they are with musicians of different backgrounds, specialties, and age, but who happened to utter the same phrase about their work.  

Mike

Mike is in his late-20s, doesn’t yet have a university degree, and has been working hard to realize a viable career as a singer/songwriter and instrumentalist. I try to catch his performances whenever I can, but his shows are usually long past my bedtime. So I follow his progress online, and we message back and forth pretty often. Best of all, we catch up a few times a year over a leisurely downtown brunch. I haven’t known a musician who works harder and loves being a musician more than Mike. Over the past ten years to make ends meet, he’s worked numerous part-time jobs for extra revenue to help offset some of his music costs. 

At the end of a recent long Canadian tour, Mike performed a show downtown at a reasonable hour that wasn’t past my bedtime. The venue could accommodate close to 200 people. There may have been 125 or so in attendance. It was an enthusiastic crowd, mostly of his family and fellow musician friends. I’m not sure how many new audience members were there. The show was amazing and energetic. Partway through the show he briefly recounted his tour, ending the tale with how he returned home with less money than when he started and how he had to take a job as an after-hours janitor to offset some of his tour debt. Then he sang a song about it. His honesty was striking to me. He seemed humbled by either the janitor job, or his financial troubles, or something… there was just something in what he was saying to his audience that conveyed feelings of his perceived non-success in music. Yet there he was performing better than ever, promising future shows, albums, upcoming tours, with the crowd going wild.

A 20-something-year-old musician is still young, but it doesn’t feel young if you’ve been trying to gain a foothold in that scene for a decade and you’re up to your ears in debt. Over lunch, he says, “I can only be at this for so long.” Tired of the part-time jobs he has to take on for the chase of a music career he feels he hasn’t yet been able to grab hold of, he’s thinking about going back to school to learn an employable trade. He’s caught between a rock and a hard place. He can’t afford to move to a bigger city to make a go of his music career someplace else, nor does he feel he can he afford to stay in St. John’s working full-time as a musician. But for all that, Mike soldiers on, posting online nearly every day new things about his music.    

Pete

Pete has much in common with Mike, except he’s about twenty years older. Pete is in his late-40s, and has been working as a composer and performer for about 25 years. He left St. John’s a while back to live in a bigger city to see if he could realize a better living from his music.  Not long ago, he returned to St. John’s for a short visit and contacted me to re-connect over dinner. I was excited to catch up with him. But when we met in the restaurant, he was a mere shadow of his former self. He seemed troubled, a little agitated, sad, and he looked exhausted. Pete said he was still doing as much writing and gigging as possible, and still trying to peddle his recordings. But whatever he was seeking in a bigger city had not yet materialized musically. And he was lamenting his current job in a warehouse. He said, “I'm a forklift driver... I can only be at this for so long." After we parted ways that night, I wondered what he regretted most: the warehouse job itself, or that this job he couldn't afford to quit was displacing his many years of trying to establish a music career. Nevertheless, Pete did make it clear in our chat that quitting music was not an option. 

...........

When I was 19, the year I flunked out of university, I entered the labour force with four part-time summer jobs: stocking shelves at a liquor store, serving customers at a shoe store, building a house, and playing piano at a restaurant. The one that paid the least was the music job.  All four collectively taught me more about social interaction, time management and life choices than anything I’ve learned in a classroom. In a single summer, I worked with food servers, salespeople, carpenters, electricians, warehouse workers and truck drivers. I remember not enjoying that summer in the moment because I was feeling down about having flunked out of school and having no other choice but to either stay home or go to work. The former was not an option in my family. In retrospect, however, the experience was priceless and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, school failure and all. 

But even though I made heaps of money that summer, I decided that I didn’t want to live the next 40 or 50 years of my life doing any one or more of those jobs. So back to school I went, eventually graduating with a degree in commerce, and going to work for several years in accounting. I made decent money but felt unfulfilled in other ways, I left my accounting work to go back to school and shoot for a career in music. Way back in that fateful summer, the job that paid the least and was the most nerve-wrecking was my piano-restaurant gig. And this is what I left accounting for…? Where’s the sense in that?

Pete and Mike represent a big proportion of my research participants – all active income-earning musicians who love making music but who also tell me they think frequently about quitting music as employment and going in new career directions. Most of them haven’t yet. Here’s the thing: Pete and Mike are happiest… profoundly happy… when they are making music. When they talk to me about their performances and the creative process, they just light up. Yes they get discouraged about the imbalance between their years of experience and the money they earn. But to them the act of making music transcends the idea of music as a job, a career, or a profession. It’s not an overstatement to say that music is who they are. They, and I, have been participating in learning, studying, and developing our skills as musicians since we were little kids. Mike for over ten years, Pete for nearly three decades, me for more than 40 years.

Yet there’s so much about trying to earn a living in music would seem enough in just about any other occupation to send you in another more promising direction. Think about any job you’ve held that you didn’t enjoy, maybe because of the people you worked with, lack of growth potential, low pay, bad scheduling, and so on. Did you cry when you talked about leaving that job because you knew you’d miss it? Have you ever felt drawn back to that job since you left it? So what is the attraction to music as work, as a source of employment and revenue, that is so attractive or – as several of my research participants referred to it – addictive? There’s something about music as a career pursuit that draws us in and keeps us there, and draws back in some who tried to quit. Why can’t we just walk away when it makes perfect sense to do so in any other occupational world? Are Pete and Mike just plain stubborn, doggedly determined, foolish, irrational… or is there something much more to it than that?

Spoiler alert: the path to a music career is complicated, and the pursuit is rational. To be continued.

The next post will recount one more conversation before I start taking you through some of my research findings.

Thanks for stopping by.    

"But there's a Beemer in your driveway..."

The next few posts will recount unexpected, casual and revealing conversations I’ve had with musicians outside of my research over the past few years. Think of these conversations as preludes to my research findings that I will be revealing here soon. Let’s begin.  

Barry

A few years ago, I had a piano student who, at age 16, was thinking beyond his high school years and had already decided he would audition for university classical music schools, including Memorial University of Newfoundland's music school here in St. John's. Barry (not his real name), from a small town in Newfoundland, had another teacher for several years before asking me to work with him when he was 14. He asked me to continue his learning and to help him prepare for his university auditions. Usually, Barry would leave at the end of our scheduled lesson time. This time, though, his father came to my studio door and asked to come in to have a chat with me. I invited him in, and the two clearly had something on their minds. Both seated facing me, the Dad said, “Barry wants to be a concert pianist just like you! So we would like to know how to make that happen.” Barry was silent, staring at me, not blinking, apparently excited, maybe nervous.

I asked Barry, “Do you want to stay in Newfoundland?” When he answered yes, I didn’t even give myself a chance to gather my thoughts. I hastily let them know that I’m not actually a concert pianist. I told them I’m classically trained, but the last recital I gave was in 2008, not very many people showed up, and I barely broke even. I said that I make my living from private teaching, accompanying kids at the university, accompanying some choirs, playing in church on Sundays, playing for weddings, funerals, private parties, and the scattered conference as background music. And it’s competitive. There are lots of pianists around. I added that to make a living here as a pianist, I need to play lots of music other than classical. If the bride and groom want you to play Michael Jackson, then that’s what you do, because they’re paying you to play Michael Jackson.

I realized in the moment that I may have come off as a little too blunt, if not a tad bitter. Barry and his Dad seemed dumbfounded. The Dad said, motioning in the direction of my driveway, “But there's a Beemer in your driveway, and you have this big house!” I responded, “The Beemer is my wife’s, not mine. She’s a doctor. If I weren’t married to her, I’d need to teach a whole lot more students and take on at least another job to get by, and I definitely wouldn’t be able to afford to live in this house.” Barry’s Dad, with a little nervous laughter, responded with, “…. I see….Okay...”  Barry didn’t say a word. They left politely, quietly.

Did I just shatter Barry’s dreams? I didn’t mean to. I felt terrible.

I realized during my rapid-fire, no-filter responses to the lad and his Dad that I was feeling guilty, annoyed with myself, for not having this conversation sooner with Barry, or with my other career-minded students who have passed through my studio over the years. My blog last week (see below) recounted my time with my two childhood piano teachers. As much as I respected them in different ways, and as much as I ultimately credit them for nurturing my eventual career path, I didn’t have a clue what a music career involved. Of course I wouldn’t have expected Mr. Whitten to talk to me about a music career when I was 10 years old. But it dawned on me years after I quit taking lessons that, unlike Barry and his father, I never once thought, or had the courage, to ask anyone about how to make a living in music. And no one told me about it. So I came into the career with no knowledge about writing grant proposals, fiscal management, self-employment, self-promotion, hobbling together and balancing gigs and other work, and adapting my playing to the tastes of people who hire me. Even through all six years of my university music education there was not as much as a breath uttered about how to parlay music knowledge into meaningful, sustainable income. I had no musician friends, and no one in my family pursued a music career. So, good on Barry and his Dad for gamely having the conversation with me.

So what became of Barry? I remember thinking after he left that day, “Well, so much for his music career.” I thought for sure he’d quit because of what I said. But… he continued to coming back for lessons for a few more years, more determined than ever, and was successful in all of his university music school auditions. He’s now a university undergraduate piano major with his sights squarely set on a performance career.

It so happened that on the day of this piano lesson with Barry, I was just out of the starting gate with my Ph.D. and struggling with my research direction. This unexpected conversation with a young pianist and his father, and my unfiltered response to it, gave me the direction I needed. Depending on the family or the young musician, my experience in music could turn some kids away from a career in music, or draw them to it. For Barry, my description of my everyday lifted the veil off of a career that he imagined was very different and may have helped keep him on his musical path. His Dad opened the conversation by saying that his son wanted a career like mine. I responded with a dose of reality. But this was just my reality. So I began to imagine what an entire thesis of musician lives and work experiences would look like.

Check in again soon for another conversation.

Thanks for stopping by.    

Mendelssohn and Mr. Whitten: How I Became a Musician

Today, I want to give some background about me, and how I landed in a music career. In so doing, I’m also answering the first question I put to all of my doctoral research participants. I asked 54 St. John’s musicians who regularly earn income from performance to describe their earliest memories of having music in their lives, and to trace those recollections up to the time when they began to think seriously about pursuing a career in music. I'll get to their responses to that and all of my questions in a future post soon. For now, I just want to give you some context as to my place in the research. If you’re a working musician, I invite you to share your story of your earliest memories of music and how these shaped you as a musician and as a person. If you’re not a career musician but took/take music lessons, share your experiences in learning to sing or play an instrument.

Between my sisters, Dad, and my earliest memories, I’m able to patch together a story that goes like this. I was two years old when my oldest sister started taking piano lessons at age seven. Money was tight. We were three very young kids, and Dad was not yet 30 burning the candle at both ends as a young accountant. He bought a used Mendelssohn piano from a blind piano tuner in Topsail for about $200. To us it was luxurious. My earliest memory is of piano music coming from the dining room when my sisters were practicing, or when my grandfather dropped over and played folk songs. He could never have afforded lessons and couldn’t read music, but could he ever play. Mom tells me to this day that years before taking lessons, I went to the piano whenever it was free to try and make sense of it...which I’m still trying to do.

By the time I was eight, my oldest sister stopped taking lessons, and mine began. The $200 used Mendelssohn was soon traded in for a new $600 Baldwin (1970s prices). My love for piano in those earliest days runs so deep, I remember every single detail. I remember the piano was dark brown, and there was a crack in the drywall next to it. I remember my piano teacher Clarence Whitten’s house, about the same size as ours, and his piano – also a low upright like ours – tucked in a corner of his living room. And that’s where he taught me. My lessons were around Mr. Whitten’s suppertime, so there was always a smell of fresh cooked food, and Mrs. Whitten clattering dishes in the kitchen a few feet away. There was a student before me, so my parents would drop me off a few minutes early and I’d sit on the green sofa right behind the piano bench and watch the end of the preceding lesson. 

No one made me take lessons or had to remind me to practise. I just did, and I loved it. Mr. Whitten was incredibly engaged in our lessons. He sat on the piano bench with me, demonstrating, or making up an accompaniment as I played. I remember all of his knuckles swollen with arthritis, but it didn’t seem to slow him down. He was a great player and an amazing teacher. Lessons were fun, and I left every Tuesday night feeling accomplishment and that this all had a purpose. Years later, Dad told me Mr. Whitten wasn’t a career musician. Teaching piano was something he did at night and on weekends for a little extra cash. His “real” job was as a bookkeeper for Browning Harvey, a bottling company in St. John’s.

When I was 14, our family moved to another neighbourhood only about 15 minutes away, but it meant a new piano teacher. I wished I could have stayed with Mr. Whitten, but I remember him telling my parents that he had taught me as much as he could. My new teacher, Andreas Barban, had a wide reputation as an accomplished private piano teacher, performer and recording artist. Unlike Mr. Whitten, he was a full-time musician and educator. You had to audition to be taught by him. So this was my first taste having to prove my worth as a musician. The next week I was in his studio, a far more serious environment than I was used to. He rarely smiled at me, and I don’t have any clear memory of him telling me that I played well. He was never mean. He wasn’t unpleasant. At times he was sort of funny, usually in a mildly sarcastic way that would sometimes go over the head of this teenager. But encouragement just wasn’t a thing. So the message, as I interpreted it, was that my time as a pianist had an expiry date. About a year after entering university, I stopped taking lessons. Years later, Mom told me that he phoned her quite upset that I was quitting. I wish he told me that.

Mr. Whitten was a part-time piano teacher who seemed to utterly thrive on that work. Playing along with me, laughing, making me a part of his home life. Everything was so inviting and memorable: the green sofa, the shag carpeting, the sounds and smells of his supper cooking. It’s speculative, but I can imagine that his piano teacher life was a welcome, enjoyable release from his day job. I felt a closeness to him and his work. He loved to teach and I loved being taught. After my audition, I never again saw the upstairs of Dr. Barban’s house. Our lessons were in his basement studio, darkly furnished, dimly lit, cluttered with an old record player, walls of records, books and music scores, and his window sills filled with plants that seemed to block most of what little natural light could peak through. His waiting area was a tiny space outside the closed door of his studio, with a couple of hard chairs and file cabinets. I progressed as a pianist with him. He was a fantastic musician. But there was distance and separation in our work together that left me uninspired.

I wasn’t a great university student when I was starting out. That's an understatement. Sparing you the ugly details, let’s just say that I took a very circuitous route to my eventual Bachelor of Commerce degree. Even though my grades weren’t great, and it wasn’t music, I did enjoy the social networking part. I made a bunch of new friends, and the program included three employment semesters where students were left to our own devices to land a job in a professional commerce environment. So there I was in my early 20s working for big accounting firms. I was comfortable socializing with people far more experienced and older than I was, and settled into the idea that accounting would be my career. But seven years after graduation of bouncing around from one employer to another didn’t exactly motivate me to do this for the rest of my life. But I felt I gained some important non-musical skills to help me take a shot at a music career. One conversation with my wife was all I needed to go to Memorial University’s School of Music, line up an audition, and see where that would get me. The last time I auditioned was 18 years earlier for Dr. Barban. At 32, even with no musician friends and no professional musicians in my family, it felt much more purposeful this time for some reason I can't explain. 

Six weeks later, I was accepted, quit my accounting job, and went on to earn my Masters degree, taught by the amazing Kristina Szutor. Along the way, I was picking up private students, adopting a teaching style that was shaped by my previous work experiences and, I believe, by Mr. Whitten. Alongside teaching, I recorded a few albums, performed, got lots of work accompanying choirs and MUN music students, and was working in my living room at my piano, where I belong. I wonder if my parents saw this coming when they bought the Mendelssohn and introduced me to music through an unassuming, kindly bookeeper who taught piano on the side. 

My next post will be about how and why I ended up doing a Ph.D. in sociology studying the work and lives of St. John’s musicians. Here’s a hint. It’s ultimately the result of an unexpected conversation I had with a piano student of mine and his father. I'll share that with you next time. Following that, I will tell you about a few recent conversations I have had with other musician friends and colleagues. That will be my way of introducing you to some of the key themes in my study. I hope you check back in again soon.

Thanks for stopping by.

Welcome to DavidChafe.com

Hello, welcome, and thank you for stopping by. If you have been a visitor to the predecessor DavidChafe.ca, you can make this your new place to find out what I’m up to and going on about.

The new DavidChafe.com is very different in appearance and content from my old site. I've tried to make it easier to navigate and will keep it much more up to date. You’ll see a performance schedule (most of my performance work is with choirs and student recitals), recent photos of my goings-on, my five main album recordings and listening samples, my live Twitter feed (I invite you to follow me @davidchafe), and a new and hopefully more engaging blog.

This blog page is the biggest change. I recently finished my Ph.D. in Sociology (Memorial University of Newfoundland, 2017) tracing the work and lives of 54 rock, classical and traditional musicians who work in St. John’s, Newfoundland and who depend on income from performance for at least part of their annual income. My interest was in understanding what sorts of conditions lead musicians into a music career and, as the case was with several musicians I interviewed, what conditions cause them to exit the music career and head down an entirely different career path. For example: what roles do family members, friends, teachers, and money play in a musician’s decision to persevere or quit? My full dissertation is available for not-so-light bedtime reading. But for the purpose of these posts, I want to dispense with academic jargon and start what I think are some really important conversations to be had about music careers in St. John’s, music work generally, and the musicians who inhabit them. Here, I'll be sharing some everyday conversations I've had with musicians, as well as excerpts of interviews with my research participants. Needless to say, there are many fabulous, highly attractive qualities of the music career, along with some not-so-pleasant realities that are ever present but rarely discussed. These blogs, informed by musicians themselves, are intended to provide fodder for conversations among musicians, music patrons, and prospective career musicians who might appreciate a little more insight into the work before they begin.

For starters, my next post will be up later this week and will give some context as to my life as a musician. The following few posts will be a series of short conversations I've had recently with fellow musicians. Along the way, I'll pepper my writings with relevant findings from my research. I'm interested in and curious about lots of topics other than music too. So I will sometimes bring up other observations of interest to me and hopefully to you. 

If you have a Twitter account, follow me there and you will see announcements of fresh blog posts, which I plan to post regularly, sometimes picking up where previous posts leave off. Old blogs will remain on the site. You’ll also see an opportunity for you to leave your comments and questions for me or among one another. If you comment there, please keep the conversation polite. Sensitive to the possibility that my students and other young people will be reading, I will not permit any comments containing foul language or that could be considered offensive. But if you have experiences or thoughts similar to or that differ from my own of those of my research participants, by all means let me know. If you’re not comfortable sharing publicly but have something meaningful to share, you can email me privately.

Of course, feel free to leave comments on anything else you see on this site. I may not respond to every comment, but will read and appreciate your thoughts. 

Come back and share as often as you would like. See you again soon, and thank you for visiting.