Being a musician – a ‘proper job’ ?

There is an old story which relates how a world-famous pianist gave a brilliant recital in a Yorkshire town, receiving a standing ovation, whereupon someone commented that ‘well he should be good – he’s never done a day’s work in his life ! ’   I have often thought about this anecdote over the years.  I was brought up in Lancashire, and the overwhelming impression in those days, was that being a musician was not ‘a proper job’, in the way that being a doctor, for example, was.  Looking back, this was a major factor in my decision to opt for medicine rather than music.   I was expected to do a ‘proper job’ – with a proper income – rather than dissipate my life away practising Beethoven sonatas and Hanon exercises in a basement.   Later in my career, when I was a Consultant Physician but also maintaining a musical career of sorts ( ), senior medical colleagues (particularly surgeons) would often ask me, in a patronising and sneering manner, ‘Are you still playing your piano ?’   They seemed to equate piano playing with fixing jigsaws – a childhood activity that one should grow out of, and certainly not an appropriate activity for a middle-aged professional man.  So I am personally aware of the ‘stigma’ of being a musician.

This jaundiced attitude to musicians evidently extends to the teaching sector as well.  The ‘music master’ is always a figure of fun and ridicule in operas such as Don Basilio in Rossini’s Barber of Seville and many more.  Mozart, in his Salzburg days, had to eat with the servants, as a mere musician.  A friend who is Director of Music in a well-known school tells me that his post has much less ‘gravitas’ than, say, the Head of Classics or Science.  Classical music is regarded as a dilettante pastime, which is OK for children to devote time to, if only to have something useful to put down on their University Entrance forms, but not a suitable occupation to take up professionally.  In other words, it’s not that important thing – a ‘proper job’.

In reality, being a classical musician is perhaps the toughest profession around, as any pianist will readily tell you, and certainly qualifies in my eyes as definitely a ‘proper job’.  I undertook a medical career through sheer cowardice, not having the guts to pursue my original intention to pursue a career as a pianist and organist.   Medicine was, and has been, an infinitely easier occupation, and it has been immensely rewarding – but it was nevertheless a ‘cop-out’ !  So I have immense respect for all the young people who are now trying to pursue a musical career, in a hugely competitive environment, against all the odds.   The fact that large sections of the public have such a low regard for their efforts, and such little understanding of their motivation, is simply another cross which they have to bear.   It is a further manifestation of the profound ignorance and lack of interest in classical music which is all around, and which we musicians sometimes forget.   A world-class pianist playing at St Mary’s Perivale will attract an audience of 50, compared with 50,000 for a world-class pop-star or footballer.  So hats off to all our musicians, who face all these vicissitudes and nevertheless strive towards the goal of improving their art, and in doing so, enrich all our lives !