The Ethical Musician
Renegotiating my relationship to music during Covid-19
Content warning: death and dying, classism, racism.
I usually begin the new year at the National YoungArts Week in Miami. As the strings panelist in the classical music division, I work with a small team to adjudicate a group of the 20 best teenaged musicians in the United States. We work in New World Center, the South Beach Frank Gehry building that houses the New World Symphony. It looks like a crumpled ball of copier paper that reveals its fascinating angles as you walk through it, as though you were holding it in your hand from the inside out.
We begin with auditions. We are seated at a conference table, our water bottles, legal pads, and Starbucks cups beside us. It’s 9:30 on a Sunday morning and a young woman in a floor-length ball gown is tearing into the Korngold Violin Concerto. A flutist in taffeta and sparkles roars through the second movement of the Prokofiev sonata. A young man in a sober suit renders all four voices of a Bach Prelude and Fugue with tender precision, as though each were confiding in him.
We are two long blocks from the ocean, but I rarely see it on these trips. I think, “All this is going to be under water” and then I yield to my helplessness. These young bodies hurl themselves into beauty, and I am swept into the world they make.
After their auditions, the musicians change into street clothes. They carry their suits and gowns in garment bags and get back on the bus as teenagers. At dinner, lanyards around our necks, we sit at the round tables in the hotel’s banquet hall, and speak. Sometimes one of the younger musicians will ask me a question about what they might major in college; whether they should dedicate the rest of their lives to music. There is a tremulous quality to the pause after their question. It is as if they suspect that they have come so far, so fast, that they may have already reached the end of the road.
Music in the Social Distance
This year will be different.
Covid-19 broke music’s contracts. That we can all gather, together, to hear and be heard. That if we take care of the music, then the music will take care of us. That music is a meritocracy, and the musicians who “make it” are the moral musicians: the ones graced with talent, discipline, and grit.
It took only a few days, last March, for live performance to grind to a halt. Broadway went dark on March 12. On March 19, the Metropolitan Opera closed its doors—force majeure. In city after city, around the world, the organizations that employ musicians went dark, and musicians were left to defend themselves.
Among my circle in New York City, some musicians have been able to survive. They have access to savings, inherited wealth, or the support of partners and families to help bridge the gap. Others are back in their parents’ homes, advertising for private students, or training for other jobs. Some, I know, I’ll never hear from at all. Survival or silence: the difference rests largely on social capital and social class. In the United States, being an artist is like being a circus performer. You’re walking a tightrope, and unless you’ve brought your own net, well, let’s just say that it takes a highly specialized set of skills and circumstances to make it to the other side.
Most of my income comes from teaching. I teach at two music conservatories—Boston’s New England Conservatory, and the Mannes School of Music in New York. My decision to focus on teaching was a deliberate choice, after the one-two punch of the 2008 recession and a 2009 car accident. (It’s hard to be a working musician when you can’t walk.) Conservatories are specialized professional training schools, and I see teaching as a way of being a musician. Not “on the side,” not “to give back.” To teach music to do music.
My teaching jobs, though not tenured, carry health insurance and three and five years of employment security. My experience of being a musician during Covid-19 is framed by two different views of the world gained from the same place: music institutions, as I navigate them from my laptop, and the “real” world outside my NYC window. I have struggled to reconcile their differences.
In the early spring, both my schools inverted their contents into online boxes. We were shocked and hopeful, and snapped into action. I team-taught, mentored other teachers, held open “office” hours on Zoom. I wrote guest posts, appeared in panel discussions, and was interviewed for podcasts and magazine articles about how to save the performing arts. (“How about maximum wage for administrators?” I suggested to one). For fun, I sang social distance songs—Solitude, Don’t Fence Me In, Who Cares?— on my friend Andrew’s stoop, craning my neck so my voice could meet his keyboard through the screen window.
At the same time, the pandemic, political and economic upheaval, were creating a tense and rapidly-situation. By the end of April, New York City had become the epicenter of the global epidemic: the United States accounted for nearly one third of global coronavirus cases and more than 25% of the global deaths. We kept reaching “grim, new milestones.” By April 27, more Americans had died from Covid-19 than in the Vietnam War, and nearly half of the deaths happened in New York City.
For weeks, sirens were a near-constant sonic pattern. A Christian charity erected a field hospital in Central ParkBodies piled up in freezer trucks—makeshift morgues for the bodies of those whose families couldn’t be found, or who couldn’t afford the cost of cremation or burial. (As I write this, 650 bodies are still waiting in a fleet of freezer trucks parked a mile from my apartment, on the 39th Street Pier in Sunset Park.)
Then, on May 25, a police officer murdered George Floyd, Jr. Floyd was a musician. A native of Houston, he’d rapped under the name Big Floyd as a member of Houston hip-hop innovator DJ Screw’s legendary Screwed Up Click. He moved to Minneapolis for work and a chance at a new life. But he lost his job when the club he worked at closed for stay at home orders, and then he lost his life over a report of a counterfeit $20 bill.
Floyd’s death galvanized great numbers of people in protests, night after night, in cities and countries around the world. In the United States, meanwhile, Covid-19 was killing Black Americans 2.5 times more than White Americans. (The racial mortality gap has only grown wider since.)
In June, performing arts organizations tumbled over their feet to produce statements of allyship. “There is no place for racism in the arts,” proclaimed the Metropolitan Opera on Instagram, while continuing to stream, for free, its archives of performances from a century of excluding Black singers from economic and professional opportunity. (For action on racial equity in opera, see the work of Black Opera Alliance, empowering Black classical artists and administrators by exposing systems of racial inequity and challenging institutions to implement drastic reform.)
The semester had ended, but all summer, and on into the fall and winter, I served on committees. They bore aspirational acronyms—DEI, EDI, DEIB, EISJ, EDISJ—where the words they stood for, “diversity”, “equity,” “inclusion,” “belonging,” and “justice,” were tokens for good intentions, rather than calls to action. This played out in an environment of economic exigency—cutbacks, job cuts—that pushed unsecured faculty farther into precarity.
In meetings, listening sessions, town halls, panel discussions, ad hoc working groups, committees and sub-committee meetings I watched the many ways that higher education and the performing arts—the places where I make my life and livelihood—used Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter as a means of performing allyship (“we’re in this together,” “now more than ever”) while shoring up the status quo (“there is no alternative”).
“That’s how we rebuild our humanity”
Presented with the challenge of Covid-19, classical music served a bromide of class- and color-blindness. Interviewed in July, 2020 on PBS NewsHour, cellist Yo-Yo Ma suggested that musicians unemployed in the pandemic should use their smartphones, if they owned one (”and I hope most musicians do,” he was careful to add) to perform as a public service.
He said they should “practice the one-on-one principle” by producing free, customized, musical performances (complete with a personal message) each day. "That's how we rebuild our humanity," he added, prodding the interviewer into her tears.
With a net worth estimated at $25 million, it’s easy for Ma to say. But for a working musician ten years out of school (average monthly net income $2513) a new smartphone (average cost, $580.27) might not be a given. After they’ve paid for student loans (average debt $27K, monthly payment $258), basic health insurance (bronze plan, $490.66) and rent on a room in a shared apartment ($1000-$1500 per month), there’s not much left. And that was before Covid-19 took away their ability to work.
Meanwhile, music schools are pressed to make a case for why students should invest in professional training for a profession that—however temporarily—no longer exists. Interviewed for a Jazz Times feature about the ways schools are adapting to the challenges of Covid-19, Keller Coker, Dean of The New School for Jazz and Improvised Music concluded:
“I never want to make a hard sell to a student, but if there was ever a time to be in school, this is the time to be in school. Students need training to be ready for the world in the way that it’s changed.”
The New School is doing excellent work—I don’t just say that because I teach there—but when I face my students, I know the difference between those for whom it’s a choice to be in school right now, and those who will pay for their choice for the rest of their adult lives.
Last week, The New York Times ran an article on a looming “great cultural depression” for unemployed performers. It begins with an account of my Mannes colleague, renowned concert violinist, Jennifer Koh. She’s receiving food stamps, but she insists she’s lucky. Thanks to her part-time job teaching at The New School, she’s held on to her health insurance. Many of her gigs have been rescheduled for 2022, and she secured forbearance on her mortgage payments though March. She lists friends and colleagues who’ve moved out of their homes, who lost their health insurance, their income, and neary all of their work. “It’s decimating the field,” she said.
Her status as a classical music star is at odds with a system that won’t ensure she can earn enough to eat.
If she’s not making it, what about the rest of us?
The Monster at the End of the Book
People say that 2020 was a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year (after Judith Viorst’s children’s classic) as though this year were a children’s book, and the next year might bring us a better ending. I think 2020 might be more like another children’s classic, The Monster at the End of this Book, where Grover, increasingly fearful of the monster, constructs a series of increasingly elaborate obstacles to keep the reader from turning the page. I think the best that 2020 had to offer us was the way it laid bare the obvious truth. The monster is us.
We are responsible for all of this—soaring deaths from Covid-19, Black and Indigenous people dying at three times the rate of White people, the US democracy in critical condition, white supremacy returning to mainstream politics (it’s not just the United States, but in Canada, Germany, and many other nations, too). Change depends on each of us confronting within ourselves the monster who sees some lives as being worth more than others.
YoungArts week starts “in Miami” (on Zoom) this Saturday, and the spring semester starts soon after. When I face the musicians at YoungArts, I want to be clear about why I don’t believe they’re at the end of the road, but rather at the beginning. And why it matters that they keep going.
I can’t do this with platitudes. (I loathe the phrases “now more than ever” and “these unprecedented times”. All times are without precedent. The time for us to do “more” was always now.) I will do this in the way I know best, which is to open up spaces that enlarge our concept of what a musician is, and who gets to be one.
I will do this with hope, because, as author Rebecca Solnit reminds us:
hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency
This is from the first chapter of “Hope in the Dark,” a radical defense of hope: I think, an essential reading for our times. She reminds us that it will take everything we have to steer a future away from war, catastrophic climate change, and the grinding down of the poor and the marginal.
She paraphrases German philosopher Ernest Bloch: Without hope there is no action, but without action there is no hope.
The Ethical Musician
Hope is not for when things are going well, but for when things are broken. I don’t want to teach musicians false promises; how to develop art that merely signals social responsibility.
I haven’t been The Productive Musician this year, definitely not The Millionaire Musician, or the The Bulletproof Musician. (If anything, I have been a souped-up Associate Professor version of Adjunct Barbie Musician.) I taught a triple full time load last semester. I have hardly played at all. But all the same, as I sat in countless meetings last fall, I could feel the stirrings of a change in my relationship to music.
In one meetings, we were prompted to “dream wildly” about the future of our school. I suggested, in the wake of hundreds of people having lost their jobs, that we imagine a model based on distributive justice for job and budget cuts or, dreaming wilder still, a wholly cooperatively-owned university.
“Haha,” said the chair. “I’m going to punt on that.”
I’m not willing to let “imagination” be a joke. I’m not willing to leave “music” to music institutions. I no longer want to be a Professional Musician. I want to be an Ethical Musician.
(As an aside, I just registered a cheap ten-year lease of the domain name ethicalmusician.com. What does it say that no one in the history of the internet has vied for this title?)
Hence this newsletter. It’s called “The Rest” because a rest is a breath; a pause; the silence that says everything that hasn’t been said. I’m thinking of it as a living laboratory, an unfolding journal where I articulate why I choose to continue to invest in music; what music profession I wish to work in; and how it is that I wish to go on.
For now, I’m thinking of three kinds of pieces:
Practice Journal: Notes from my process of active recovery from the old traumas of professional training: turning ghosts into ancestors, renegotiating my relationship to the viola, and building an ethical practice;
Critical Thinking: Rigorous research and sharp writing about musicians’ lives and livelihoods in the global pandemic that cuts through magical thinking about music, and takes seriously the ways in which gender, race and class bias shape concepts of musical success—what a musician is, and who gets to be one;
Practice Tools: For paid subscribers, lesson plans, worksheets, Q and A sessions, and other practical tools I use to help hundreds of people achieve proven success through my classes and coaching at the New England Conservatory and The New School.
I’m offering all of this because I want to sharpen my own capacity at creating spaces where musicians can activate their fullest potential. Because I want to model the process of reckoning with the monster in me, and I want negotiate a better relationship with music. I want to open the doors to invite others to do the same. Because a world without working musicians is a world that will suffer an incalculable and unnecessary loss.