Fatima, and an excerpt from ‘J is for Job (not a proper)’

13th October 2020 | Books, Concerts, Daily Life, Musings | 2 comments

In response to yesterday’s outrage about an HM Government ad showing ‘Fatima’, a young ballet dancer as an example of someone who might switch to ‘working in cyber’, I’m posting an excerpt from ‘J is for Job (not a proper)’, from my book A Musician’s Alphabet (Faber, 2006). It seems to have new relevance at a time when musicians are being advised to ‘rethink, reskill, reboot’.

J is for Job (not a proper)

‘All my life I have been squeezed between the contradictory opinions of people divided on the topic of whether being a musician is, or is not, a proper job. Sometimes it seems as if I hold an elevated position in the hierarchy of jobs, and sometimes that I never even made it on to the bottom rung of the career ladder.

When I was a child, the overwhelming message I got from those around me was that I was lucky to have a talent for something. Biblical language was often used by adults to convince me that I should not hide my light under a bushel or follow in the footsteps of the lazy son who was given some coins (poignantly identified as ‘talents’) by his father and who, alone among his brothers, did nothing more enterprising than dig a hole and put the money in the ground for safekeeping. It was often put to me that it would be wasteful and selfish not to make the most of my musical aptitude. If you had ‘a gift from God’ you didn’t decide to be a secretary instead.

As soon as I turned professional, however, I found that the outside world regarded music as a deeply suspect choice of career. Many people seemed to think it self-indulgent to be a musician. The long childhood training suddenly seemed as if it had only been preparation for a hobby, for clearly music was not real work. Did we musicians think we could do something we loved, and would have done for pleasure anyway, and be paid for it?

Looking around me, I realised that many people did not love what they were doing from 9am to 5pm. They accepted that boredom and routine were their only way of getting their hands on a reliable pay packet. They thought it was just greedy of musicians to expect an income from something which actually gave them pleasure. When I first complained about the hardships of the freelance music world, friends told me sourly, ‘Well, at least you like doing what you do.’ It was generally held that there was an inverse relationship between liking what you did and being remunerated for it. I was tricked into thinking that lousy income was a small price to pay for interesting 9-to-5 activity.

Of course, every society has its own view of what a proper job is, and the obvious question is, why is music not a proper job? The question must have a different flavour in different countries. In Britain, none of the arts are considered proper jobs. Most parents would experience a tremor of anxiety if their offspring announced they were marrying an actor, painter, poet, folk singer. But if society regarded these jobs as valuable, they would be better funded and better paid, becoming ‘proper’ in the process. In Britain a proper job means regular hours and reliable pay. Better still, you should be seen to be at work, seen by people around you in the same position; having a proper job contains a large element of fitting in.

If you laze around at home and occasionally produce something that earns lots of money, that’s not a proper job. If you work extremely hard and make almost nothing, that’s not a proper job either.  A prizewinning poet who labours for weeks over a poem and wins a £50 prize cannot congratulate themselves on finally having a proper job. If that same poet writes a film script that wins an Oscar, is that more proper? Is being Leonardo da Vinci a proper job? Is it more of a proper job to be Leonardo than to be Damien Hirst? Is being a supermodel a proper job, earning thousands of pounds each week? Is working in a Far Eastern sweatshop a proper job? Even the notion of a proper job may be under attack, now that many jobs are losing their security.

When I started off as a young professional musician, concert offers were slow to materialise. I sometimes worked as a ‘temp’ secretary because my keyboard skills had enabled me to become a fast typist.  These were the only times in my life when I worked office hours (I could say ‘the only time I worked as little as office hours’) in someone else’s office. I could not get over the empty feeling of spending eight hours a day typing someone else’s letters, filing someone else’s forms. Every day I came out at 5pm feeling as if my own mind had been ‘on hold’. Yet friends were impressed I was actually engaging with the world of work.  Was this the proper job that society would have preferred me to do?

I was used to spending the day practising, rehearsing, listening to music, memorising things, doing my own admin, trying to create concert opportunities (all unpaid). On concert days, I would work late into the night. My glimpse of office life was unsettling. I knew that any competent person could have done what I did there. In other words, I and any other competent person were interchangeable: it didn’t have to be me. This was not something I had ever felt in the world of music. Nevertheless, as a secretary I was paid by the hour whether I was doing anything useful or not. Being brilliant wouldn’t earn me more pay, but I couldn’t be paid less either. If there was no work to be done, I was paid anyway.

This was all utterly different from life as a musician. When I joined a chamber group, we spent enormous amounts of time rehearsing.  When we finally got concert offers, we were usually paid for the concerts, but the fees had to cover retrospectively all the unpaid time that we had spent practising and rehearsing. On paper the concert fees themselves looked fine, but they never covered all the time and effort spent in getting and preparing for the concert, trying to publicise it, buying music, travelling across the city to rehearsals, buying concert clothes and accessories, maintaining instruments, travelling to the concert itself, staying overnight if it was far from London, and paying commission to any concert agent who had been involved.

I felt this keenly when applying for my first bank loan. My bank manager looked through my accounts and pointed out that his secretary earned the same as I did, but that she was considerably richer in real terms because she had no expenses, whereas I had to spend about a third of my total income in order to get the work (and therefore should not be lent a large sum of money).

When we compared our lives with those more sensible friends who had gone into, say, civil service or accountancy, our position seemed foolhardy. If we did not play concerts, there would be no money. The satisfaction that we got from a successful concert would be offset by the worry of weeks without income until the next one. Clearly it was not a proper job in the accepted sense. And yet we loved music and were still fuelled by the years of preparation which brought us to this point.

In a pre-industrial society we might have found a happier place, with people around us making things and getting paid erratic prices for them, or not making things and not getting paid. If everyone around us were responsible for their own handiwork, living on the proceeds of what they could grow or produce, seeing the immediate result of their labours, we might fit in better. As it is, being a free-lance musician probably hasn’t changed very much for centuries, whereas many other jobs have changed beyond recognition.

These days, when we meet free-lance musicians from other countries, we like to compare notes. We envy them in at least one important respect.  Many foreign musicians thrive on the knowledge that their work is considered important. Musicians have high status in the community, even if they are not rich, and their vocation is regarded as a higher calling than a mere ‘proper job’. The luckiest ones are supported with all manner of grants, residencies and rewards unavailable in this country. Here, the status of musicians is equivocal. People are happy to come and applaud at concerts while breathing a sigh of relief that they are not married to a musician. Musicians themselves regard their work as culturally important, but wish it were equally valued by the community. And as for enrichment and reward, these remain largely metaphorical.’

from A Musician’s Alphabet by Susan Tomes, Faber 2006


  1. Mary Cohen

    Is it a ‘proper job’ to contribute to the mental health and happiness of people? I would say so. Let’s hope that the outcry from the Arts filters through the fog.

  2. Jen Gilchrist

    I suppose this is always a problem about how individuals see themselves, versus how others see them. For many years I was not in paid employment, apart from answering the phone for my GP husband which was more like a tax dodge than a wage. When asked what I did by someone newly met I never felt being at home bringing up children was an adequate answer. When I got my first job teaching music in school following a degree through the OU and a PCGE, I felt more equipped at last to answer the question, but the first time I said proudly “ I am a music teacher”, my acquaintance said, “ Oh no I meant outside work”.

    Of course the arts are important. Those of us who have worked in them know that intrinsically, but maybe a bit like the church which should actually exist for people outside it, the arts enhance the world for people not working in it, and they don’t necessarily value the worth of something they are not being exposed to. This is a tragedy of growing proportions. Meanwhile all of us not able to attend or play in concerts are in deep mourning.


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