Who says music is essential?
First, let me make sure that the title of this blog entry is read with the right emphasis. It's not "Who says...," it's "Who says..." In other words, when the extraordinary claim is made that music is an essential part of the human condition, our culture, our community, our schools, etc., who's making the claim, and where is he/she coming from?
This particular bulb went on over my head this morning when, as always, I checked the "Slipped Disc" blog of classical journalist Norman Lebrecht. I wish we had someone else to turn to for the daily classical gossip than the unreliable, inflammatory and often slapdash Mr. Lebrecht (oh, could I and others give him a little inside insight into this underinformed and misleading report!), but he's kind of all we have.
What caught my eye this morning was this list of three lessons learned from the recently ended strike of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's musicians:
Lesson 1: Players in luxury orchestras cannot afford to strike. In 2012, musicians with average pay of $175,000 cannot expect much solidarity when their fellow-professionals across the land are enduring savage pay cuts and lockouts.
Lesson 2: Orchestra managements should not let negotiations drag down to the season-opening wire. Cut the deal by August, or find another way.
Lesson 3: The American way of running orchestras needs to change. Players and managers need to get together round a bar and find a better way of doing business. The kind of dinosaur play we’re seeing in Atlanta, Minnesota, St Paul, Chicago and elsewhere looks lumbering and ridiculous in the 21st century. Call a national conference. Get a new agenda.
Before you read the whole blog, please guess which of Mr. Lebrecht's three lessons attracted the most comment, and from whom? Of course — the first, and from musicians. Here's one Chris Worswick (probably the same as on this page):
Why do we all have to be in poverty before a working group is permitted to fight for their salary? Chicago Symphony is a world class orchestra in a world class city, and should be paid appropriately. They have a right to collective bargaining which includes the possibility of striking to put pressure on management. Most workers aren't permitted to discuss their salaries because it raises dissension and dissatisfaction with the continuing erosion of people’s welfare. If anything all musicians should be in arms about the crap they take to make a buck.
Note first that Mr. Worswick is principally engaged here in responding to what Mr. Lebrecht didn't say: that the CSO's musicians are overpaid, or that their bargaining rights should be taken away. The way I read it, Mr. Lebrecht isn't saying these things; rather, he's questioning the wisdom of a strike, and cautioning the relatively well-remunerated CSO musicians to be more circumspect in making large financial demands during perilous financial times, lest they come across as insensitive to the plight of other working people. Sound like reasonable points to me. Then, Mr. Worswick compounds the flaws in his response by engaging in empty oratory and straw-man arguing:
Music is an essential part of a culture (and you may disagree, but I believe this). Too many people in this country are unwilling to stand up for their rights to make a living wage.
I doubt that anyone who's ever attended Mr. Worswick's concerts — or who's ever read this blog, for that matter — doesn't think that music is pretty important. Then whom is he placing himself above by saying this? And remember, as you are stirred by Mr. Worswick's inspiring words: he's a musician. Of course he thinks music is an "essential part of culture." He wouldn't have gone through the years of training and practice necessary to make a good musician if he didn't think that.
But once we've all agreed that music is essential, what follows? That therefore music should be well-funded, and musicians well-paid? Again, we may all still be on board. But how much funding and how much pay follows before the majority of us who are not musicians begin to say "Wait a second? Where do we come in here, and how much is it going to cost us?" Then and only then does the conversation start to get interesting and meaningful.
The distinction between what is essential and what is a privilege is among the signature issues of the upcoming election. By contrast, in the comparatively small world of classical music, however much we love it, much less is at stake than health care, national defense, schools, the deficit, you name it. With that in mind, and with boundless admiration for the current state of classical artistry, a little modesty about just how essential music is might be warranted and appreciated by those of us who have to pay for it. And in the end, those of us on the receiving end of the music get to decide how important it is and how much of it we can afford, not the musicians.