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 Problem of Pigeon-Holes

Could it be that the accepted practice of categorizing musicians into subsets is affecting our ability to make new art and advance what we do?

Pigeons

Today’s 6-hour drive back from adjudicating an orchestra festival allowed me to kick around the above idea—something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The basic issue at hand is the continuing trend of how we reduce everyone into categories, and progressively smaller and smaller subsets, eventually limiting all of our potential. For example, the musician today might be thus categorized reductively:

musician to instrumentalist,

then to violinist,

on down to orchestral violinist,

to specific section violinist (1st or 2nd),

to a section player in a specific orchestra,

 which belongs in a specific category,

with a specific budget,

in a specific region,

of a specific city/country

likely sitting in a specific

chair.

Similarly, composers only compose (and usually only certain types of music); conductors only conduct, and get typecast even more strictly into career straight jackets, etcetera etcetera, etcetera…..And God forbid the musician who goes into administration. That choice is seen as some sort of betrayal of the muse: “The Artist Formerly Known as Worthy.”

I contend that this is a 20th-21st century phenomenon, unlike the accepted understanding of an educated professional artist (or professional in any field) from past eras. For example, Franz Joseph Haydn was a musician, perhaps now only remembered as a great composer, but in his time also hailed as an excellent singer, performer of several instruments, and a most able composer of a variety of types of music (everything from religious music to operas, concert works, and “background music” for royal patio parties). He was also a pretty effective music director, music administrator, music teacher, and all-around-great-guy. His story is not an anomaly. Wagner was also admired for his writing, stage direction, and unfortunately, some of his philosophies. Liszt could play a mean piano, and later in life, pray a mean Catholic Mass. Bach, well, I’ll let you read the tomes about everything he could do, including handling a sword as well as a manuscript pen. The list is endless.

I’m not referring to hobbies or interests here. It was considered part of the complete package to be involved and competent in a variety of things. While Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson may be America’s great examples of Renaissance Men, it really was considered the model for anyone of a certain education. Sadly, today it is relegated to the quaint last sentence found in professional bios about how: “in his spare time he enjoys reading, writing, hiking and spending time with his family.” (Source: the actual last sentence of my current professional bio).

My point is this. When the 20th century came along, we were required to specialize. There are exceptions (Leonard Bernstein among the most obvious), but think about 20th century musicians and what they are known for. Shostakovich played piano (WELL) but was forced by the system to be first, a composer. True, he was used, but also the expectation changed. Wilhelm Furtwängler, who was also a fine composer, was mainly promoted as and encouraged to encapsulate the image of the “Modern Maestro.” Had he been allowed to fill the old role of Kappelmeister or Impresario, we might still enjoy hearing his music. Indeed, his entire career would have been different.

DBPB_1955_128_Wilhelm_Furtwängler

Starting from about 1920 or so, musicians were expected to specialize in a certain instrument and even narrow it further into genre. “Oh, you play viola? Are you an orchestral player (principal or section, please state who, where and how many famous people you’ve studied with); or are you a chamber musician, soloist, or ahem, a TEACHER? Such a shame you had to “settle” for teaching music.” Double-God-forbid if you ventured into alternative styles like jazz or fiddle music! Special curiosity points are given for musicians who are also pretty damn fine composers. Tibor Serly, Alan Shulman, and Emmanuel Vardi being three from the ranks of my particular instrumental specialization: the viola.

Please understand, I’m not complaining about anything. I’ve no personal gripe, in any way. It is what it is. That was the expectation—the way the profession developed. It was the same for scientists who developed things so specific for NASA that they barely saw the end product, perhaps spending an entire career developing a rocket booster O-Ring that could not fail. Well, ok—maybe that’s a bad example.

But the arts are not as specific, nor should be as complicated, as rocket science. We are now on the other side of that century of specialization, faced with a choice. We’ve been teaching music to the test: The Major Professional Audition. But for certain, not everyone can, nor should, play with the Chicago Symphony. Not everyone will play in a major string quartet or play a concerto with an orchestra, either. But musicians must have the liberty to have different choices on the horizon. I look forward to the day when musicians might have the freedom to market themselves as “musicians” again, and are not forced to sub-categorize themselves into packages that fit into the mail slot. Let’s allow some latitude to build our own slots.

So I’ll start.

Hi, I’m Rob. I’m a professional musician with training in viola and conducting, recently branching into viola d’amore, and writing about music. I make my living as a conductor and music professor today. But remember, first and foremost I’m a musician who loves to perform and discuss music—any music. Highlights of my career include such disparate events as playing with the Moody Blues as well as concerts with Native American, Iranian, American-folk, tango, jazz, opera and a myriad of other artists. I’ve worked with all ages of musicians, and at all levels of achievement. I’ve also had a great time conducting and performing in thousands of concerts since I began playing viola at age 9 in Mrs. Brown’s 4th Grade Orchestra Class at Madison Elementary. Like Mrs. Brown, I’ve had some success teaching music, too, and am very proud of my students’ accomplishments, no matter what field they may ultimately choose to pursue. I’ve served in a variety of administrative roles in the arts as well, although admittedly that is not my favorite activity in the field. I simply cannot wait for my next musical adventure. I love music.

Oh, I also write poetry, and enjoy hiking, reading, and spending time with my family.

Copyright, 2017 Robert Baldwin. Before the Downbeat