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Loaded language

For quite a long time, my non-singing work was sort of an open secret. When I started writing for Classical Singer Magazine, I used a pen name; and even after I started writing under my own name, I never mentioned to colleagues or admins at singing engagements; nor did I talk about my business consultations and workshops for singing. There was too much of a stigma attached --- if I was seen as doing something other than singing full-time, clearly I wasn't successful as a singer. 

Where did this idea come from? First, it was sort of conventional wisdom floating around school, where so much about the business was rumor and conjecture; but later, I picked it up from the attitude of colleagues and opera company admins. It wasn't until much, much later, when my career was fairly well-established and general directors started bringing up my writing to me that I realized that Ask Erda, the column I've written for many years, as well as my Business of Singing work,  had become part of my brand. It happened sort of accidentally, but as far as I can tell, it hasn't hurt me and in fact, may have helped.   And earlier this year, at a gig, when the general director introduced me at a patron party he spoke not only of my work as a singer, but as, in his words, a "mentor" to young singers. 

So, um, I guess the cat really is out of the bag. ;) 


The YAP Fee Controversy ... that's one of mine.

Nevertheless, when a writer whose work I admire very much characterized my non-singing work as a "day job", I objected very strongly. "Day job" is very much a loaded term when it come to artists. It almost never has a positive connotation. It implies that performing is a part-time job and the bulk of the artist's income comes from elsewhere; and this in turn connotes that you're not all that successful a performer, because if you were, you'd be performing full time. It's one reason many artists are reluctant to share, let alone broadcast, that they do something other than performing. The stigma is genuine. (Edited to add: the writer and I had a very cordial conversation about it and the term didn't end up being used).

Singing IS my day job, and the other activities supplement it; I've worked very hard to achieve that, and my other income streams developed because of my performing. The truth is -- and I've written about this many times before - the majority of professional musicians rely on multiple income streams, including performing, teaching, directing, conducting, administrating, and other music-related work, as well as work which is not related to music-making. It's time to come out of the closet about it, and to stop --- as educators, as performers, as administrators, as patrons and fans --- using loaded language to describe how artists make a living. It's time to stop institutional  and cultural shaming of artists for having multiple income streams. It's unhealthy, it's stupid, it's stifling, and it's cruel. 

Recently, a brilliant article was published on the Wholehearted Musician blog, entitled "Will I Ruin My Musical Career If I Take a Non-Performing Job?" How sad that so many young musicians think this way, and even sadder that their expensive educations frequently do not include practical and current information about how to make their way in the musical world. Students of art and music are not encouraged to see themselves as entrepreneurs --- as if spending time on anything other than making art somehow cheapens you as an artist, makes you less dedicated, makes you a sellout.

Bullshit, my friends. Artistic personalities are first and foremost hedonists. We are filters. It is passion for all the delicious wonders of the senses and the hard-wired urgent need to interpret and share the different color, shape,  sound, and taste of what passes through our minds and hands and mouths that makes us artists. We are driven to make art and share it, but we must be fed, literally and figuratively. Experience is what feeds us, and that includes both the beautiful and the mundane. There should be no limits to where you gather experience, and that includes, sometimes, working non-performing jobs.

Besides which, let's be practical. Those student loans aren't going to get paid off by your performance fees, not for a very long time, if ever. It's very expensive to start a career and it's expensive to maintain one. You can make a good living at it, but very few, percentage-wise, actually become wealthy from making art. There's no inherent nobility in poverty --- so why not take a job that supports you and allows you to grow your career as an artist?

Don't accept someone else's labels and standards. Professional musicians and teachers, don't tear down our profession by perpetuating the stereotype that the only worthwhile artists are the top dollar artists. Art is not, and has never been, primarily about money. Sure, artists want to make a living doing art, but if they don't, it doesn't mean they aren't artists. If you discourage artists from making art on the grounds that they don't make enough money at it, who knows what thing of beauty and importance you are preventing from coming into the world?

I'm one of the lucky ones. When I was still an undergraduate, my wonderful teacher, the great mezzo-soprano Mignon Dunn, told our opera class, "There are many ways to have a career as a singer, and they're not all in the spotlight at the Met." That was a great gift of knowledge and freedom, for those who don't want the spotlight, and for those who do but might find theirs in less lofty environs. It's still art. And art is a good thing.

Besides, as my parents --- hard-working middle class people who were both bewildered and happily surprised to find they'd raised, of all things, an opera singer --- any honest labor is worthy of respect. 

It's time to do away with loaded language and sneering at how artists support their art-making. Think it's shameful that an artist you know works at 7-11 to pay the bills?  You may be right. It may be a shame that a talented artist has to struggle to make his or her art.

So put your money where your mouth is, and make a donation.