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Jessica Duchen
Tuesday 1st September 2009
'Think of Yourself as a Packet of Crisps...'

The other day The Times ran this very pertinent and depressing article by Emma Pomfret about how to survive as a young musician in today's miserable, marketing-centred, TV-driven world. The excuse is probably the 10th anniversary of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme, which is absolutely wonderful for those youngsters lucky enough to be chosen for it.

The article has its downsides - Donizetti may be 'tits'n'teeth' stuff (according to supersoprano Elizabeth Watts) but that doesn't change it from bel canto to crossover... But it's all too true that in any sort of creative arts it helps, as one interviewee puts it, if you "think of yourself as a packet of crisps". No wonder we can't produce artists on the level of David Oistrakh or Sergei Rachmaninov. They might have had to battle Russian revolutions, exile and/or political pressures in the USSR, but they did not have to think of themselves as packets of crisps. If you can't think about the art, the art will cease to exist...

It's not only music that's turned this way, of course. As a writer surfing the London Book Fair back in April, I had a similar sensation: you spend years studying structure, revering Hardy, Lawrence, Dickens et al, battling to produce a halfway decent manuscript...and suddenly you find that books are just tins of beans and as a writer you're a baked-bean factory. 

There are a few questions in Emma's article that need to go further. First, and I really hate to say this, if you're a female musician, it helps if you sleep with the right person. Increasingly I get the impression that unless you have the most remarkable musical talent on the face of the planet, or you've enjoyed supreme good fortune, today you will miss out on certain opportunities unless you don't tell the relevant conductor/administrator/festival director/etc where to get off. I've met a horrific number of would-be women soloists who, for example, turn up to audition for someone only to find that the audition goes beyond the concert platform, and if they say no they don't get the concerto. (There's also a large gay scene, but for obvious reasons I don't get to see how it operates.)

Next, and I hate to say this nearly as much: is it perhaps possible that we are producing too many music-college graduates, and many who are simply not good enough to compete on an international stage? For example, and to use an argument I'd revile if anyone else were saying it, should we amalgamate some of our music colleges into one or two larger, more demanding institutions? The sorry truth is that in Britain third-rate young musicians are being churned out by the dozen and the majority of them are never going to make it in the profession in a hundred years. Should some of them perhaps be encouraged at an earlier point to study for a different qualification that will help them survive long-term?

What do you think, folks?

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October 25th, 2009
4:10 AM
As a university student, I am quite aware of the current situation in which you are talking about but I must disagree with your comment pertaining to women sleeping their way into employment. If this is in true fact, then I believe that these women are selling their souls for a generic opportunity. Why compromise your integrity when there are so many other, more creative, and moral opportunites, if you just have a little bit of an imagination. Also to your comment on your advice that maybe less talented students should be encouraged to follow another career choice, I would have to differ because sometimes these students are the ones that show the greatest amount of growth and in the end exhibit the greatest amount of potential after they have been given proper guidance, adequate time to mature,and overall inspiration in which they are propelled to blossom into arising stars.

Catherine Shefski
October 12th, 2009
2:10 PM
Jessica, I agree with you that some music students should be encouraged to to a pursue other fields of study, particularly if they have their heart set on a solo performance career and no desire to teach. The best of both worlds would be to prepare for a job that would bring in the money that would allow them to pursue their music without worrying about paying the rent. Unfortunately, many students and their parents don't want to hear that.

September 8th, 2009
5:09 PM
Thanks for this article, Jessica. Depressing indeed. I've thought a lot about whether some music students should be encouraged to pursue a different career- having been a student, a professional and a teacher at the Guildhall. It's clear there aren't enough jobs to go around. And yet, students still go off to university to study philosophy or Classics even those don't exactly lead to a prosperous career, per se. I've eventually decided that studying what you love is a wonderful thing in itself, even if there are no guarantees at the end of it, and most students realize that. And life is not just about career and money. It's about expressing your gifts. And I realize that many people would disagree with me!

Jessica Duchen
September 1st, 2009
8:09 PM
Istvan, that was NEVER intended as 'advice', I promise. It's simply an observation with a hint of sarcasm.

September 1st, 2009
12:09 PM
"if you're a female musician, it helps if you sleep with the right person." The morality of this advice apart, this tactic seems dangerous to me (having come across it among university teachers): the man will have his bit of fun but there is no guaranteeing that he will keep his promise.

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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