I recently received a notice asking me for recommendations for a part-time applied violin/viola position (approximately 25%) at a university. The job entailed teaching applied violin/viola, serving on string juries and audition committees, participating in recruiting activities, and teaching string classes for music education students, along with other duties that may be assigned. A Master’s Degree was required, and a Doctorate in Music was preferred. Other requirements were evidence of excellence in teaching at the college level as well as significant accomplishment as a performer.
A tenure track college job usually pays between $50,000 and $60,000 a year, and 25% of that would be $13,000 tops. That kind of compensation, considering all the work required, as a reward for all that education (costing perhaps $50,000 a year) really annoyed me.
I thought about my time as an adjunct professor at a university where, in addition to being ridiculously underpaid, I was constantly being cheated by rules and regulations.
When I began teaching at an unnamed university I was asked to prepare a senior music education major for her senior cello recital. When I met this student at the end of her junior year it was clear to me that in the three years she had been studying at this university she hadn’t learned anything about how to play the cello. I tried to remedy this by spending the summer before her senior year giving her three and four-hour lessons, and I continued giving her lessons throughout the first semester of her senior year.
After all this work, the music department told me that they did not pay for lessons during the time that education majors were doing their student teaching (to say nothing of the fact that they obviously did not pay for the long lessons I gave her during the summer). Still, because of all my work, this student was able to play respectable performances of the Brahms E Minor Cello Sonata and the Debussy Quartet at the end of her senior year.
This student had paid the university $80,000 in tuition (this was some years ago) in order to become a cellist, and I made it possible for the money she had given to the university to not be misspent. However, the music department, even at the low hourly rate that they paid adjunct faculty, couldn’t come up with a few hundred dollars to compensate me for all the extra work that I did. I did not need the money, but in order to maintain self respect, I was forced into a position where I found myself doing volunteer work. It didn’t mitigate my outrage at the university music department.
I didn’t stay in school long enough to even get a Master’s Degree, I thought about what I learned in my first year in the “University of Adversity” (the real world) instead of what I might have learned at the “School of Hard Knocks” (music school). Perhaps I would’ve learned great and wonderful things if I had stayed in school, but I wouldn’t have learned the valuable lessons that have made my successful career in music possible.
Of all the employment opportunities that existed the most déclassé were bus tours, and it was in this ignominious world that I started my career as the fourth of four cellos on a nine-week tour with the Mantovani Orchestra. In spite of its low standing in the world of music, I found Mantovani to be a fabulous musician and a great showman. His arrangements were elegant and always had a light touch that was totally engaging. At the end of every performance he would address the audience saying, “To have played for an audience this appreciative has made our journey of ten thousand miles a privilege and a pleasure,” which would be followed by an encore of his signature piece “Charmaine” and yet another standing ovation. One day, some place in the middle of Iowa, Mantovani caught me backstage playing the last movement of Kodaly’s solo sonata. He came over to me and very gently said, “Young man, if only you realized that if you play with perfect intonation, a beautiful sound, and elegant phrasing, you wouldn’t have to play music like that.” 50 years after the fact, I can say that he was absolutely right. Also, I learned how to be on a bus tour, interact with all kinds of people, and come home with a little bit of money and my playing basically intact while I was still 22 years old.
Because of my associations in the Mantovani Orchestra, I was recommended to William Brohn, who was one of the conductors of the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra, to be the cellist in a 17-piece orchestra on a ten week tour of one-night stands. We had 15 hours of rehearsal for 17 ballets, including some very difficult ones like, Fancy Free by Leonard Bernstein, Billy the Kid by Aaron Copland, Theme and Variations by Tchaikovsky, and various other ballets, some of which are still in the repertoire.
There was often little time to practice between performances on tour, so I got in the habit of warming up properly before playing. Since we repeated the same ballets, I could experiment using the very familiar material to improve my sound from performance to performance. Since I was the only cellist, I could try whatever outlandish solutions came to mind, even those that failed. I never got bored with trying to sound better, and I developed a lifelong habit of enthusiastically embracing whatever material I had to play, whenever I had to play it. I was consequently very well prepared to make an excellent impression when I found myself in the principal cello seat at the New York State Theater in 1965, particularly when I knew my older colleagues didn’t expect much from a 24-year-old.
The most important thing I learned during this tour was how to make the cello part work with the entire orchestral score effectively without help from anybody, since there was nobody for me to get any help from. I believe that over my entire career, this mindset of making the cello part effectively empower an orchestral score and always maintaining my highest possible level of playing served me well. ALSO, the most important thing that I learned was to use any means possible to sound as good as I could in exposed passages. That became my lifelong motto, to “Sound as good as you can, any way you can. And if you can’t sound good, don’t sound bad.”
In all honesty, I don’t see that I could have learned more if I got a Master’s Degree. In the time it would have taken to get a Doctorate (three or four years later) I became the principal cellist of the New York Orchestra of the American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House, which I held for 35 years and principal cellist of the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra, which I held for 44 years. These positions gave me a lifetime of continuing education and no need to work for a pittance.