Working for free

I was surprised to read in the British press this week that Olympics organizers were apparently asking musicians to perform for free. Professional musicians get this sort of thing quite frequently from would-be presenters who are ignorant of our profession, but one expects better from the Olympics committee.

Like all professionals, I get irritated at organizations who expect professional musicians to play for nothing to “showcase their talents” with the assumption that it could lead to paying gigs. “Could” is doubtful, in my opinion. To use an expression normally reserved for more vulgar discourse, who’s going to buy that cow if they can get the milk for free? “Showcasing” doesn’t do us much good.

I could go off on a tirade about how no one expects dentists, plumbers, restaurateurs or hairdressers to do their work for nothing, even though most musicians went to school for just as long as or even longer than your average medical professional. I know doctors and lawyers are often asked to do pro bono work, but there’s also an expectation that their base income is much, much higher than that of a professional musician.

And yet, I think the reason requests to play for nothing grate so much on me is that I, and most musicians I know, already do a lot of things for free. I don’t play recitals for free any more, but I did when I was a postgraduate student and for several years after I finished my doctorate because I needed as much performing experience as possible to work on, among other things, figuring out which interpretative nuances and gestures work in front of an audience and which ones don’t. (Not so much the showcasing. Most of us don’t need that beyond a certain age and level.) I stopped a few years ago because I felt that audiences appreciated my work more if there was a charge, even a small one that didn’t really benefit my personal finances much. But I still give away a lot of my work. The private student whose parents can only pay for a half-hour lesson, but who is so eager and promising? I keep her at her lesson for an extra half hour most weeks. The gifted composer who dedicated a wonderful piece to me? Sure, I’ll perform at his recital for nothing because he’s my friend and collaborator and he’s not making any money from this either. I do these things voluntarily and without being asked because promoting the things that matter–such as making a difference in the life of a child that I like, or helping a dear friend–is important to me.

I should also mention that unlike many professional musicians, I am privileged to have a base income, my professorial salary, that enables me to pay my mortgage and bills, so unlike most professional performers I can afford to take on one or two projects that don’t pay anything. But I’m not going to “showcase” myself for someone else’s profit because that person or organization is too cheap to pay me properly. I know that performing music looks like it’s fun, and sometimes it is fun, but it’s also work. Living costs money. This is our livelihood, and our work is not, in general, free.

Changing tastes

When my daughter was born, several kind friends gave me CDs of nursery rhymes and other music specifically designed for children. The other day I finally pulled the plastic wrappers off them and put one into the stereo to try it out.

It was an arrangement of “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round, Round, Round” in a pop-ish style, sung in that overly enthusiastic, exaggerated, cajoling tone that people use to convince recalcitrant toddlers to eat their vegetables. I was instantly repelled and was about to turn it off and put on some good music (Mahler sprang to mind, for some reason) when I looked at my daughter, who was sitting in her rocker. She was entranced, and as the bouncy tune went on, she alternately sang along (her singing isn’t quite what you’d call melodic yet, but it’s very heartfelt) or burst into merry peals of infant laughter. I was perturbed and slightly disappointed that the offspring of two Doctors of Musical Arts should have such dreadful taste in music.

I mentioned this to a colleague whose field of expertise is music education of the very young, and she said “Oh, yes, they all love that sort of thing; it’s like crack cocaine for babies. They get better taste later.”

This made me think of an analogy with, of all things, food. (Not an original thought: others have written interestingly on the subject, including this clever, amusing piece by Jeremy Denk on music vs. broccoli.) Children like different foods from adults, don’t they? If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be a huge market for chicken nuggets and that radioactive orange macaroni cheese in a box. Parents despair that their offspring are going to get scurvy, but most people start eating “proper” food eventually. I remember disliking a lot of foods as a child that I now like, such as mushrooms, bananas, most types of fish, pizza, and (mystifyingly enough) jam. I grew out of it.

So maybe I’ll grit my teeth and continue to put on the children’s pop songs, and not throw out a particularly irksome music-box toy someone gave us that sings, in 1990s pop ornamentation, “Baa baa black sheep, have you a-a-a-any wo-o-o-ol, yes sir yes sir, three baaaags full” when you push the button with a sheep on it. Our daughter will learn to love Mahler eventually, if only because she may have fond childhood memories of hearing her father practising the opening trumpet solo from the Fifth Symphony every day.