‘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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