It’s Time We Retire the Label, “Semi-Professional”

semi-professional*:

adjective

  • Receiving payment for an activity but not relying entirely on it for a living.

‘a semi-professional musician’

noun

  • A person who is engaged in an activity on a semi-professional basis.

‘My parents were lay musicians, but Dad was more of a semi-professional.’

 

*Note, the above definitions, from the Oxford Dictionary, do not mention anything regarding quality, worthiness, or merit of said activities

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I make my living from a combination of university teaching, conducting part-time ensembles, and occasionally performing on viola. As a conductor of several types of ensembles, and a teaching and performing musician as well, I consider all of my activity to be “professional-based.” Yet the music industry often does not always agree, as it assigns arbitrary value based on perceived prestige of any activity. What is often deemed important is often no more than a matter of who you know, where you studied, and being in the right place at the right time. There is also the plain fact that once you get a break and do something with it, then you are on your way. (That last one is a good thing if you can maintain it).

Not so fast, you say. This sounds a bit like sour grapes. I assure you it is not. I am quite comfortable in my life and consider myself as maintaining and continuing to build a successful career. But time and again, I hear things, read reviews and see evidence that the industry often discriminates, not on artistic grounds, but on other dubious criteria. The topic du jour, then, is artistic merit based on factors that the artist has little control over; namely what is and is not considered to be a “top-tier” experience; as case-in-point, a simple word-designation: the dreaded “semi-professional label.”

In my opinion, it is high time the musical-world eliminate the practice of labeling an activity as “semi-professional.” This is particularly true as it’s assigned, whether deliberately of by inference, as a signifier of worthiness or quality. Simply put, “semi-professional” is not considered to be as worthy as “fully-professional.”

But I’ll counter that if one is paid, it is professional activity. Period. If one continues to receive pay engaged in such activity, whether from one organization or by cobbling together various opportunities, it is still professional work, and is part of one’s “professional profile.” Whether intended or not, no penalty should be assigned due to location, budget size, number of concerts/recordings of a group or individual, or perceived prestige of an organization. Work in the field is work. Work builds into more work, and if it is good, it will be sustainable. I am only one example among thousands that this is true in the arts.

Here are some interesting facts:

  • Most paid orchestras in the U.S. are classified as semi-professional, by a huge margin. There are only 18 or so that are considered “full-time.” There are hundreds more ensembles that pay their musicians, a little or a lot, to play
  • The “part-time” organizations often employ a full-time music director and part-time ensemble players. That is a budgetary reality, and a proven organizational leadership model. It says nothing, however, as to the quality of the artistic leadership, musical product, and certainly not to the worthiness of the endeavor.
  • There are many, many more opportunities at those “part-time” levels for music-making. Do the math.
  • The music industry does not generally value these second or third tier endeavors, instead assigning only the top-tier experience as artistically valid. Doing so actually limits opportunities and creates ever-contracting circles of work.
  • All “tiers” are arbitrary. The industry considers them, but as individuals we may also place ourselves in boxes of our own design. The key is in seeing both realities.
  • The so-called “top tier” of the music biz is certainly populated with talent; but also is bloated with too many fish and way too many cooks—Alpha-types bent on controlling who gets opportunities. This is most often couched as an artistic decision, but is more often based on favors, the who-you-know buddy system, and, occasionally, box office concerns. It’s not always intentional, but blinders are worn by many in the profession. Institutional blinders and individual blinders both exist.
  • Despite the industry preferences, an appearance with a top-tier organization does not guarantee quality.
  • More importantly, a lack of top tier work does not indicate lesser quality in other musical ventures.

Some of the finest musicians I know cobble together a career consisting of various opportunities: performing in several orchestras, multiple teaching positions, freelance work, composing, writing reviews and articles, etc. I know musicians in practically every state in the U.S. and also in countries in both Europe and Asia. Most of them are engaged in professional work, regardless of their employment status with any particular organization. All of them are committed, engaged musicians. They work in the field. All work is professional work.

I’ll likely not change the English language, nor the opinion and practices of the music industry. But I will contend that all musical activity is professional, especially when the musician is paid. Anything less would be semi-genuine.

 

Copyright, July 5, 2018. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat.

Definition source:

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/semi-professional

 

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The most driven, courageous people on the face of the earth.

This quote by David Ackert in the LA Times pretty much sums it up. 

“Singers and Musicians are some of the most driven, courageous people on the face of the earth. They deal with more day-to-day rejection in one year than most people do in a lifetime. Every day, they face the financial challenge of living a freelance lifestyle, the disrespect of people who think they should get real jobs, and their own fear that they’ll never work again. Every day, they have to ignore the possibility that the vision they have dedicated their lives to is a pipe dream. With every note, they stretch themselves, emotionally and physically, risking criticism and judgment. With every passing year, many of them watch as the other people their age achieve the predictable milestones of normal life – the car, the family, the house, the nest egg. Why? Because musicians and singers are willing to give their entire lives to a moment – to that melody, that lyric, that chord, or that interpretation that will stir the audience’s soul. Singers and Musicians are beings who have tasted life’s nectar in that crystal moment when they poured out their creative spirit and touched another’s heart. In that instant, they were as close to magic, God, and perfection as anyone could ever be. And in their own hearts, they know that to dedicate oneself to that moment is worth a thousand lifetimes.”

– David Ackert, LA Times

Link

Advice for Music Students (click link)

This is definitely worth the read.  Click the link above for Karl Paulnack’s Welcome Address to the students of the Boston Conservatory. The future of our music schools take a positive turn with this sort of guidance. Here’s a sample of Mr. Paulnack’s address:

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do.