Status, yes/no

19th March 2016 | Concerts, Musings, Teaching, Travel | 5 comments

In my travels as a guest tutor I come across post-grad and young professional musicians from lots of different countries. For some time now I’ve made it a habit to ask them how they’re getting on with making their way in the classical music profession – easy or difficult? Without exception they reply that they are finding it difficult. As one of them told me ruefully last week, ‘It’s not hard to get concerts, but it’s hard to get adequately paid for concerts.’ Everyone agrees with this.

Recently, as a refinement of the question, I’ve shifted to asking them whether they feel they enjoy a high status in the society in which they live. The answers have been varied. Of course my survey was entirely random; I just asked whoever came in to play to me. It could be that those who spoke up were the ones most worried, or simply the ones who found it easiest to put their situation into words.

So the results may not be ‘typical’, but from my own experience I suspect they are fairly valid. Musicians from Germany and Austria feel they enjoy respect and high status in their own societies (hardly surprising when much of the classical music we love the best emanates from those countries). Musicians from Eastern Europe seemed to feel that they enjoyed high status, but not an easy path to making a living. Chinese and Japanese musicians felt that they were definitely respected, and they seemed optimistic about their chances. I haven’t had a chance to ask any American musicians.

Musicians from the UK and France, on the other hand, said that they felt they had low or ‘marginal’ status. Many of them elaborated on people’s reactions (indifferent, uncomprehending) when they say they are classical musicians. They said their neighbours regarded their practising as a nuisance, or ignored their music-making entirely and never asked about their concerts. Pianists and chamber groups lamented how difficult it is to practise at home without arousing hostility. Whereas a Swiss string quartet told me that lots of their neighbours make a point of coming to their concerts. And a young Austrian player told me that her neighbours often say how it cheers them up to hear violin music floating from her window.

I wonder if these random snapshots fit with other people’s experiences?


  1. Fran Wilson

    I’m fairly regularly asked what my “proper” job is or what I do for my “day job”. Sadly, I think an attitude prevails in the UK especially that because musicians do something which does not have an obvious or easily comprehensible commercial,value, we don’t do anything important or we are regarded as hobbyists and therefore do not deserve respect that people in other profession such as medicine or law enjoy

    • Susan Tomes

      I agree, Fran, though there must be at least as much specialist skill and knowledge in being a successful musician as in any of the other ‘professions’. More, really, because most musicians have been training intensively from childhood onwards.

  2. Julian Davis

    Sadly I think you’re right about the perceptions of professional musicians in the UK. But I have been surprised as an amateur pianist, that some professional pianists that I admire greatly have themselves referred to my work (as a doctor) as a ‘proper job’, as if they too think that sort of work is more respectable or valuable than what they do. Being a musician is just as much a proper profession as any other, but it’s even more demanding and committing.

    • Susan Tomes

      Julian, I imagine that if pianists are referring to your job as a ‘proper one’ it’s only because they are aware of how people see the profession of pianist. I wrote a bit on this subject in my little book ‘A Musician’s Alphabet’ in which there’s a chapter called ‘J is for Job – not a proper’.

      I have professional musician friends in Vienna and when I asked them recently if they felt they enjoyed status in their city, they all looked surprised and said, ‘Yes, why?’ Not an answer that any musician in the UK would automatically give – alas.

  3. Richard Gold

    We run monthly lunchtime concerts for our community in North London. Our audience includes people from care homes, primary and secondary schoolchildren as well as “ordinary” music lovers. The concerts are free and are supported by donations and modest sponsnorship. We recruit musicians from various sources – mostly up-coming performers and often post-graduate students at music college – and we make a point of paying modest fees. We know that other organisations putting on similar events (including at prestigious venues) often don’t pay and we think that is unacceptable exploitation. Our performers have huge and exciting talent and we are very conscious of how difficult it is for them to gain experience and how difficult it will be for them to flourish professionally.


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