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(Photo from a CBC blog post on unlikely classical music venues, featuring members of the Blythwood Winds.)

Once upon a variety of times in Western history, making a living as a musician was a reasonably straight forward affair. There were employment opportunities at opera houses, concert halls, churches, and schools. There were patrons of the arts who would commission new creations, and publishers who would canonize them. The musical training classical musicians receive today are based on very similar assumptions. That is, there are employment opportunities out there, as long as you are a well trained musician of the western classical tradition.

Today, musicians seem to lament the disappearance of those good old days, and struggle to navigate the latest social media technology that allows them to freely and economically reach out to an audience. They try every free service out there that promises to help them get hired. Some are lucky to have access to that kind of know-how in their network, or just have an intuitive understand of how it works. Others grapple with the proper balance of their time to their musical craft, and improving their bottom line.

Regardless of the era we find ourselves in, the principle of supply and demand will always play a role in how people decide to make a living. Seeing as we no longer live in a world where people go to operas as a pass time, classical trained musicians are hung out to dry with a rude awakening after they graduate; After many years of hedging a bet that they will ‘make it’, they noticed the world is changing quickly, and classical music has a heck of a lot more things to compete with as a pass time, with fewer and fewer secured employment opportunities when performing organizations prefer to stay nimble and flexible. Not that their teachers are addressing these real-life issues—that will be their own problem to solve once they get out there as professionals.

This problem doesn’t apply to just new graduates, it also exists for seasoned musicians who find themselves no longer contenders for the same rare and high-profiled opportunities that established their pedigree, because preferences are given to new names in order to attract an ever new audience that will hopefully turn into life-long patrons. Others are also at a stage in their life where they don’t or can’t move in order to pursue performing opportunities, leaving them the option of starting their own practice as teachers, their own performing ensembles, or perhaps pursue parallel careers in arts administration, or entirely different ones.

These are the kinds of phenomena that makes people proclaim classical music as being dead, and yet it has resisted extinction, I think, because classical music is not an object waiting to be retired, it is a musical practice lived by the people and institutions that are also responding to the rapidly changing landscape of the 21st century. Singers, instrumentalists, soloists, accompanists, chamber musicians, orchestral players, conductors, composers, arrangers and teachers abound, and while each group have unique challenges related to the way their business is changing, there are also overarching themes.

This spring, I am starting a research project to explore this issue further, starting with self-employed musicians in the city of Toronto. There has certainly been recent studies, such as the one done by the Cultural Human Resource Council to name but one, which offers an excellent overview of challenges within the industry for large and small players. In addition to providing training opportunities, however, there is also a need to recognize the innovative solutions at the grassroots level that is emerging in response to these challenges.

As the scope of this study develops, I am engaging musicians in a conversation about what matters to them. By involving them from the very beginning of the research process, I hope the findings will be more relevant for them, and result in a study that will have practical value.

There has been very positive responses in the few conversations I’ve had so far, and I’m looking forward to see how things unfold. If you are interested in this study, do get in touch!

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