As a former music teacher, I have seen many articles like this one from the NYT make the rounds. They describe how so many successful people were musicians, how learning music helps you be smarter, how music makes you a better creative thinker or team player. Or articles like this one, about how being involved in music improves brain function. How music major undergrads are more likely to get into medical school than biology major undergrads. There are lots of these kinds of articles flowing around; there are lots of research studies on the value of music.
These are all well and good. The science is in. Music is great and good for you. No arguments on that one.
The problem, though, is that music teachers have to post these things around desperately, as an effort to prop up their profession. To convince people that their work is valid, because if they didn't, the music program would get cut. To convince parents and "core curriculum" teachers that music class is about education, too, and not just an entertaining little activity that students do so their homeroom teachers can get a break.
How many times did I get emails from parents, irate that I would actually give their students a less-than-A grade based on the work they did in the class, because "my child isn't going to have a career in music" (and... the unspoken but very real question behind the question was: "...therefore, why do you have standards?")
Without getting too much into the politics and practicalities of school funding, I want to address the larger issue here. Our culture does not value music, and this is getting worse and worse. Notice, I didn't say we don't "love" music--everyone "loves" music. The problem is that we don't VALUE music, and by that, I do intentionally bring up that evil word--money.
There's this idea that music should be free. I mean, heck, we go to the mall, and there's music playing over the speakers, without us even paying anything, so that proves it, right? (Sarcasm intended.) Music just seems to magically appear around us everywhere we go, so it feels ubiquitous, pervasive, effortless... therefore, it FEELS, de facto, low in value.
I did the math once, trying to figure out what it would take for me to make a middle-class level income as a private piano and voice teacher. I'd have to charge the highest rate of all the teachers in town (it's a small town, and cost of living is low), and I'd have to find 80 students. Eighty students! --do you know how hard it is to build your studio up to a healthy 20-30 students? Eighty would be nigh impossible. But that's what it would take, to earn a basic, lower-middle-class income as a full-time private music teacher.
The problem is that a music teacher can't charge what an electrician, a landscaper, a doctor, or a marketing consultant can. People won't pay it. Even though the amount of education and experience needed to be a good music teacher is decades longer than any of these professions. To be a good music teacher, you must, of course, be a good musician yourself. And to work yourself up from beginner status on an instrument to late intermediate level takes at least several years, for most people. To get yourself to the point where you can actually teach music, though, is quite a long time, a lot of money invested in lessons and musical equipment, a lot of long hours spent practicing. All so you can charge $40 per hour as a private teacher, when the tech-college graduate, who spent 2 years (at most) studying air conditioning systems gets to charge $60-80 per hour.
I'm not complaining about the air conditioning guy charging that much per hour. People should, absolutely, be paid a living wage for what they do. I'm complaining that our culture sees music as a throwaway commodity, something cheap and easy, and only there for our amusement or entertainment. And that attitude is reflected in how we compensate our musicians.
We pay $15 for a basic meal that we spend an hour enjoying at a restaurant, and $1.29 for a downloaded song that could potentially give us many hours of enjoyment listening to the rest of our lives.
Take, for another example, the few times that I've been asked to play piano at a wedding. I tend to be expected to charge $50-100 for my services. (That's a little better than what I can charge per-hour for private lessons, yes, but wedding gigs are sporadic.) The absolute minimum amount of time I would spend in the service is one hour, in which case, if I make $50-100 for an hour, I'm doing pretty well. But usually I spend a lot more time than that. There's the several hours of practicing the music they want for their wedding. And there are the many many years of practicing, period, to be able to do this at all. When you add up the hours, $50-100 is ridiculously low. The bride will pay more than that for her bouquet.
Yes, there are incredibly hard-working private music teachers out there who have managed to defeat the odds and create a decent life for themselves as private music teachers. They are rare. They are fighting against a culture that tries to devalue them.
(And let's not even start on trying to make it as a performing musician.)
The only safe way a music teacher can earn a middle class salary is by working in the school system. And even there, her safety is rather tenuous. She faces a constant barrage of attacks on her profession. The science teacher approaches her and says "We're going to do a chapter on insects this week. Would you do some fun songs about insects during music class to support us?" (I.e., "would you change your plans to suit me, since you're just decoration anyway?") The sports coach schedules a last-minute game the same night as the concert, and half the students don't show up on stage. Class times get shorter and shorter, the district decides one teacher can serve 5 different schools, and sometimes the music program is cut altogether.
So music teachers try to defend themselves by passing out articles about how music will help students be successful. But they aren't really listened to, because these articles aren't about how musicians became successful musicians. They are about how musicians got smart enough to get out of music and choose careers where they would be valued, rather than treated like slaves.
What's wrong with a society that doesn't value (compensate) music? The inevitable result is that fewer and fewer people will choose to pursue music long-term, and the overall quality of music in our society will decline. It's already been happening. Today's hit music is largely vapid, from a musical standpoint. You know those kids you see croaking on YouTube? Someday people will actually think that's the epitome of good musicianship. Because they don't know better. Because society didn't value music enough to ensure that good musicians, who could provide a higher standard for musical expression, were compensated with a living wage.
OK, that's the end of the rant for today. What's the answer to this problem? I'm not sure I know. I have a few ideas. I know that my little voice isn't going to make a difference. But the next post will include a few ideas, nonetheless. Stay tuned...
Valuing Music, Part 2