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.