An Honest Living

December 1, 2012
By Houston Nelson BRONZE, Tempe, Arizona
Houston Nelson BRONZE, Tempe, Arizona
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

In the heart of Phoenix lies Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, a thirty-five minute ride on the Metro light rail from the Arizona State University Tempe campus. It was here that I first began singing in a collegiate level church choir and playing the pipe organ. From the moment that I introduced myself to the organist and choirmaster Erik and said, “I’m interested in joining the choir here,” I had a feeling that I was in the right place to follow my passion by studying sacred music.

It was during my first pipe organ lesson that I felt that I had a future in music performance. As I played a Bach chorale on the heavy ivory and ebony keys, the Baroque harmonies echoed through the high-vaulted Trinity Cathedral. I could not help but marvel at the console and pipes before me of what is considered by many to be the “King of Instruments.” The movement of my hands and feet across manuals and pedals coupled with the smell of cedar wood from the organ console brought back the countless memories of music performed in that cathedral ever since it was first erected about a century ago. When I shared my idea of a career in pipe organ with Erik after we finished the lesson, he responded with a chuckle and said, “Follow music if you cannot see yourself doing anything else with your life.”

For those with the natural talent, music performance yields finances adequate for a living so long as one allocates them effectively. However, the elements that define a successful career in performance are often overlooked by the competitive nature of the industry. These factors range from the facet of music one chooses to one’s educational background and the location in which one pursues a job. All of these influences contribute to the competition of acquiring a job, which is no more competitive than other occupations like teaching college or becoming a partner of a law firm. In this sense, a career on the pipe organ will yield more work opportunities than the “dime a dozen” guitarist due to demand. Where an organist is located can widely affect income, for example: working in a large city cathedral like New York City or Boston will yield a much higher salary than one in a town chapel on the Great Plains of Nebraska, still somewhat higher even when adjusted for the cost of living. Receiving a graduate education will also make securing a career all the easier, and lend itself to occupations in more prestigious institutions like operas and cathedrals as opposed to commonplace cabarets and community musical theaters.

Often times those who pursue music performance on or above a collegiate level face the doubt of their significant others who see the probability of success as dichotomous, like bathwater being too hot or too cold. For this reason, college graduates sometimes get “cold feet” after realizing the difficulty of finding a job in the performance industry. Rather than take the risk of investing in grad school in the hope of landing a stable career later, some simply pursue an occupation that is more financially sound from the start. The successful musicians in the professional world are those that apply their resources wisely (managing hot and cold water knobs) and work hard (monitoring the intensity of the water stream). Through this balance in resources, a musician can successfully land a career and be fruitful in his or her efforts long term while experiencing minimal cases of cold feet or scalding rejection upon entering the job market “bathtub.”

The musicians that achieve this balance between “hot and cold water” in their lives usually balance several part time jobs and gigs. These people do everything from playing multiple instruments to teaching, conducting, and composing. The versatility of these people allows an adequate financial “temperature” in which to fund a living. I personally know a musician who is a fine example of this bathwater balance because throughout most of his life he worked as a jazz pianist, organist, and teacher. Until he retired, this pianist made upwards of $75,000 a year.

There are many “hobbyists,” whose boiling passions for a music career are commonly redirected to another occupational field at the collegiate level, sometimes beyond. However, there will always be people that will assert based on these musicians that revert to a different job, that a performance career is not capable of funding a living. The negativity bias that results is built on the claims of starving musicians that supplement their income with other jobs, like bussing tables at sports bars by day and performing by night. Yet they do make a living. In fact, performance jobs continue to increase in the bathtub of opportunity, especially in the sacred world. These new church jobs are continually becoming available for positions like organists, since there is a national shortage of such instrumentalists. Granted, these musicians will be paid little more than a trifle of what their work is worth, but many (including myself), claim that they are “not in it for the money.”

With the right balance, musicians can make ends meet in the performance industry and support themselves without overexertion. The balance of hot and cold water in the performance industry is not inherent as in other careers, which gives musicians the reins to alternate the red and blue knobs of their lifestyles until a happy medium is reached. The spirit that drives musicians ultimately allows them to be true to themselves while making an honest living through managing the “temperature” of their lifelong performance.

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