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 (www.hughmather.uk ), 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 !

Author: hmather@btopenworld.com

Organizer of classical concerts at St Mary’s Perivale and St Barnabas Ealing. Pianist, organist and retired physician

23 thoughts on “Being a musician – a ‘proper job’ ?”

  1. Well said Hugh. It’s a 24/7 proper job, often with minimal financial reward and very lonely – especially for pianists.

    1. Thanks Stephen. I think I need to write another post about the specific problems of being a pianist, as opposed to a string player etc – the loneliness, competition, career problems etc. But ‘you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do’ ! Despite the difficulties, most really good pianists I know could never contemplate doing anything else. Perhaps that is the real talent… Best wishes.

    2. Well said Hugh. I recall even my own parents uttering similar admonishments about my entering the music profession (in Yorkshire, too). It frustrates me on a daily basis how many people outside of it don’t (or won’t) comprehend how undervalued, as well as underpaid, professional music-making can be. And not simply in terms of reward (financial or otherwise): it’s the perception of musicians and artists by others that alarms me.

  2. An excellent article. I chose to follow a musical career, mainly as teacher, organist and choirtrainer, and now as ABRSM examiner, and know that what you say is true. However, I could never, ever have been a successful surgeon! Do I remember you from Clifton College many years ago?

  3. Dear Mr. Mather,

    For decades I struggled with the decision to follow my dream and become a musician and not a medical doctor. I didn’t have a choice, as the deafening voice to follow that path was…well deafening! Your writings will make more to realize that for many of us was the hard path to follow and in the years of financial and sociological despair we hoped that we made the right decision… But, it wasn’t a decision… I wasn’t given one and for everyone real to the heart musician it was the same. If I had a choice most likely I would have become a medical doctor. I am glad also that I was lousy in chemistry…

    Much appreciation for your letter.

    1. Thank you. I know I chose medicine over music through cowardice. I still don’t know whether it was the right decision, but I do know that many non-musical colleagues thought my piano-playing was a sort of regression to childhood ! Thanks for your kind and interesting response.

  4. Thank you.
    It gives me comfort in knowing that there are people who feel that being a musician is actually a proper job.
    I have been teaching music for many years and I have been very fortunate to have had many excellent students over the years. However, there are times when people I meet feel that musicians or music teachers are just folk who are academically unsuccessful, and have turned to music for a living.
    The dedication and disincline through the years are unseen. Parents are eager for their little ones as they think it is just tinkling on some black and white keys. When the discipline comes in the form of daily practice and also when time is taken away from other activities or school work, that’s when the instrument becomes secondary matter.
    Once again because being a musician is thought of as unsuccessful career.

    As a child I have always loved my piano and I have always wanted to work with it.
    If I had to go through life again, I would certainly still be a musician.

  5. Thanks for this, Hugh! Really needed your argument at this point in my life, when I am struggling to make those around me understand it is not just a phase I am going through, it is a life-long passion and dedication and can be a ‘proper’ job, too.

    1. Yes, when a pianist of your calibre has to explain to those around that it’s not just a phase, it is very depressing ! Nevertheless, you give such pleasure to those around that you need to keep going regardless ! Looking forward to you playing at St Mary’s Perivale again… Best wishes

  6. I’m not especially musical although there are some pieces I like right across the musical spectrum but then I’m not much of a dancer either but I do love varied types of dance. What sort of life would it be without the beauty of paintings and sculptures? Thought provoking literature. Man cannot live by bread alone. I feel sorry for those who cannot appreciate the diversity of life. I work with dogs – is that a proper job? Who wants a proper job?

  7. Thank you Hugh for this excellent piece and indeed for providing opportunities for musicians to give concerts in beautiful St Mary’s Perivale. I’m sure other professional musicians, like me, will have been asked after concerts ridiculous things like “what do you do during the day?” and “what do you do for a living?” or “going on holiday again?” when embarking on a taxing if rewarding concert tour…and yet, even if you only touch or move a handful with the music, it’s worth it.

  8. All too true and too sad. But then, classical musicians historically were servants…first of the Church, then of the various aristocrats who hired a “house orchestra” and a “house music director”. Mozart and his father made their various livings by being hired in this way. Once classical music life moved into the concert hall, concert musicians occasionally attained a kind of super-star status, as they still do in a small percentage today. But the old comment “Are you still playing the piano” or its equivalent, still prevails today amongst those who are ignorant and ill-informed.

  9. Benjamin Grosvenor spoke of deciding to practise eight hours a day because non-musician friends of his were doing eight hours a day at their jobs…

  10. Your article is too true. I’ve been a professional musician all my life earning a living in many areas of music as a freelancer in recording, TV and radio studios, by touring in concerts and clubs playing all kinds music with classical orchestras, light music, pop and jazz groups. My first love is jazz however, and I can assure you that that is most difficult area of music to survive in of all. This country has produced some of the greatest jazz musicians anywhere in the world but they are routinely ignored and even treated with total contempt by members of the public and, if they are lucky enough to be mentioned at all, by the press too. We are all pleased by the BBC’s initiative in creating the Young Jazz Musician of the Year Award but it’s sad to expect that that will probably be the last time any of the winners will ever appear on television again.

  11. I did it all upside down – have always loved music, started piano age 4, and gained such satisfaction from my music degree. Also had medical interests, but put them on hold. Kept on playing piano, and teaching, for many years, and then started medical school in my late 30s. Hmmm…. now 42, a junior doctor, still love playing piano and am looking forward to various musical endeavours in the future. I wasn’t ready to bring my best self to medicine all those years ago anyway, but I was certainly ready at age 18 to devote years to professional piano training. I think the main point of all this is – absolutely devote yourself to music, it will always serve you well and enrich your life, and yes there is space for it and other pursuits too.

    1. Thanks for your fascinating reply. Am full of admiration for you, doing junior hospital jobs in your forties… I know a couple of other musicians – both violinists as it happened – who have done the same thing. Combining the two careers always meant, for me at least, that if my medical career was not progressing, I would say that ‘I am really a musician’ – and vice versa ! So being a ‘jack of all trades’ does have its compensations. Thanks once again and best wishes.

  12. I’m a bit late reading this post, but just one instance of what you are talking about, Parent collecting child after a music lesson, “….and what is your job?” Me, “THIS is my job!” Parent looks at me blankly.

  13. Well said, once again , Hugh! Belated response, as I was away for a month…..
    I so agree, and find it so depressing that musicians of your calibre (also Florian, Henry Lowther, etc) should be treated in this way.
    I was “lucky” – with music teacher parents, and considering a career in music, we sat down and had a realistic talk, including the concept of “having to make compromises if the thing you love is your profession and way of earning a living”, not to mention precariousness, so I became a College/University lecturer in Communication instead (a “proper job”!) ….keeping music as a “love”, and on balance don`t regret it.
    However, I might add that even my own father (in the early 1960s) professed to be shocked at what he considered to be a high fee his choral society was paying a soloist, protesting “Well, he sings it all the time – he`s only got to mug it up!” My mother and I never let him forget this, and teased him unmercifully for the rest of his life……(Yehudi Menuhin on TV …..”well, let`s hope he`s “mugged it up” properly….!”)
    Later in life I undertook very serious training in African and Latin drumming and percussion, over many years, and now play at a professional level (but often refusing payment, as I am lucky to have a good pension) in various guises, including with world class and well-known musicians…..I am cautious about talking about this, but often shocked and offended when sometimes even intelligent, close friends treat it as a benign curiosity, trivialised and worth about 3 minutes` airtime, before a joke, even when I have spoken about it with intensity and made it clear how much it means to me, or that I have been invited to play or run sessions at the Royal Society of Medicine, (Dept of Hypnosis) and with stroke /Parkinsons sufferers, and at the Royal Hospital for Neurological Diseases, with patients in waking comas, etc. I sometimes feel like saying “Is there something precious to you that we can all have a good laugh about?” However many times I use the word “conga”, I get “still playing your bongos?”!!
    I have come to believe that it stems from a fear 0f intensity, a fear of trying to understand something which perhaps some people feel they lack and are even subliminally envious of…….
    “These strange musicians have something I don`t have …..so I`ll benignly ridicule it, and feel safe.”
    Could say much more but have already rambled on more than intended……!

    1. And a PS / further reflection……..

      Thank you, Hugh, for being a highly-credible and quotable “case” on this subject. If it happens to even you, God help the rest of us……….!

      I`ve found it useful to have some phrases ready, and practised, to be trotted out casually with (I hope) benign yet thought-provoking effect: (deliberately exaggerated, to make the point)

      “A drum is like a cross between a laser and a Porsche”
      “Music is rather like ice-skating…… decades of painful and arduous practice in order to float out and make it look easy”
      “Well, with X years / decades of training and X hours of rehearsal, my fee/ salary works out at about Xp per hour ……somewhat less than the minimum wage…..think I might apply for a job washing up, but it would ruin my fingers……”
      “Music – What else can move to tears, rouse to war, soothe to sleep, inspire to love and sublimity, transcend language and culture, destroy the walls of Jericho, heal the sick and raise the dead?”

      Every profession has its list of “infuriating things people say” …lawyers dread the dinner party question “Can I just quickly ask your opinion……?”, and antique dealers the “Would you mind just having a look at….?” (An antique dealer friend used to say, “Certainly!” And then {depending on the person`s profession} “……..And when we`ve finished, would you mind having a look at {Dentist} this annoying molar……{Urologist} ……………….!?!”

      And there are the famous stories (accurate versions on Google) about the fee for Whistler`s brief sketch versus lifetime`s work, and the engineer`s “for turning screw …….$1 …….for knowing which screw to turn…..$9999……….”
      Does anyone else have any useful phrases/tactics, I wonder………….?

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