VALUE or Not

The other day, I received an inquiry from the Development Department of a major music school. The woman who reached out to me wondered whether I would be free for a bite to eat or a cup of coffee. Of course, what she was after was a provision in my will to support the school. This inquiry brought back many memories, most of them negative, about the time I spent as an undergraduate, so, no doubt, a bite to eat and a cup of coffee would have caused her severe indigestion.

Like all music schools, the tuition is $60,000 per year plus, which I find outrageous. First and foremost, how many jobs do you think there are that pay $60,000 a year playing the cello, or any instrument for that matter? And how many do you think there are going to be 20 years from now?

One of the big things that every music student hopes to achieve is getting a job in an orchestra. It seems that the getting of the job is the fire that impels unbelievable amounts of effort and a considerable amount of good luck. Most people don’t think beyond that point, but if you want a quick view of what a future will be like if you are lucky enough to be able to get one of those jobs, look around the different sections of major symphony orchestras, playing masterworks by Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, etc., and see how much enthusiasm you see on the faces of those that are over 40. 

A colleague of mine inquired about an orchestral studies program at another major school. My response to this was, “Have your student go to Los Angeles and offer the principal cellist $300 a lesson if they’d give you ten lessons. Then go up to San Francisco and offer that principal cellist the same $300 a lesson for ten lessons, and finally, up to Seattle and ask that principal cellist whether he would give you ten lessons for $300 a lesson.” This investment would give the student the advantage of learning tips for preparing auditions from professionals who have worked as section leaders in major orchestras. It would also afford the student personal contact with important people in the profession.

I am not in the position to prognosticate anybody’s future in the profession. I have worked with students who have made it into the finals round in auditions for major symphony orchestras, but haven’t ever gotten a job. The Chicago Symphony once held an audition where 130 cellists played, and they didn’t give any of them the job.

One of the selling points of major institutions, since they have such low acceptance rates, is that the student will be rubbing elbows with the giants of the future and making connections that will last a lifetime. I can honestly say that I never earned a dime because I went to a major music school. Not only did I know these giants, but they also knew me, and even if they had used what influence they may or may not have had on my behalf, I can’t see how it would have ended me up in a better position than I eventually achieved.

For me, one of the great advantages of creating a career I eventually had was to create it myself. The requirements of any kind of a career are a sustainable income, recognition from important third-party sources, and the opportunity to keep on creating these opportunities year after year.

Even in my own case, the best I can say is that I was a good teacher, and my various students did well and have said so in print. During the 1980s I had a reputation for being able to help cellists sound good when playing under pressure, so young professionals, many who were graduates of the Juilliard, Manhattan, and Yale music schools, would come to me for lessons. I had the good fortune to play thousands of solos in big opera houses, and those solos gave me a laboratory in which to experiment. It has been a great privilege to be able to pass on some of the knowledge I learned from my experiments to some of my professional colleagues.

Although it didn’t cost $60,000 a year to study with me, I do feel I offered value at my $35 an hour rate. I think Sam Levenson said it best, “You don’t have to be in Who’s Who to Know What’s What.”

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