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  • Writer's pictureIlan Morgenstern, Bass Trombone

The Almighty.

"The US is a religious country, and god is flat and green."

I didn’t come up with that, sorry mom, but it has more than just some truth, and so I’ve been wanting to sit down and write for a long time about how pivotal having money is in entering our business. The recent open dispute between Juilliard students and their school (, and a social media post instructing students to have a "positive" approach, seemingly meaning a more optimistic outlook coupled with a more financially permissive one, were both catalysts.

While I think it might be impossible to calculate all that financially goes into what we do, I’d like to take a stab at some of the big ticket items.

In a recent interview with Dr. Colleen Conway, Prof. of Music Education at the University of Michigan, she made a statement that at the time went under my radar. She said that most of us who become musicians come from a musical environment, which she defined (I’m paraphrasing here) as an environment that allowed for the development of musicianship skills like singing, tapping, moving etc. Now I don’t know if there are hard and fast rules for our audience as well, but I think it stands to reason that if our audience are not able to appreciate music that they aren’t likely to actively consume it, and I don’t see a way how these basic musicianship skills don’t play a role in that (although to what extent I just don’t know).

To my knowledge the US is the only western country that determines public education expenditure based on local taxes. In other words, the more expensive your house and the related property taxes, the more money your children’s school gets. Add to that that according to a recent interview with Fareed Zakaria, roughly half of all ivy league students come from private schools (supporting stats here, we can all acknowledge that there is a stark diversity of opportunity in our country.

When we take into account that one of the main determining factors of success in our line of work is basic musicianship, and that much of what is not taught at home is acquired in elementary music programs. Under those conditions, it’s easy to see how where one lives could have a strong influence on their career choice.

There are of course alternatives. After school kindermusic programs do exists as well and can cost between 100-250 for group instruction ( Not altogether unaffordable, but given the time and effort added to that, certainly not available to all.

Once musical training becomes more formal there are some more predictable costs as well.

Private lessons: The burden of private lessons on families is difficult to calculate, but the factors seem clear. The cost of the lesson: usually $50/hour-100/hour at the school level, *weeks*years+time spent commuting. At 40 lessons per year private lessons will cost 8K-16K during high school. That’s not really super affordable for all. Add to that the commute, and one might see how parents are skeptical of this endeavor. Seems to me if you are a parent with a less than ideal car, you might prefer some weekend downtime, and might not feel like sitting through youth orchestra rehearsals or private lessons.

Ensemble fees: a google search tells me that ensemble fees in public schools seem to live in the several hundred dollar range. This doesn’t include uniforms or trips. Ensemble fees that are not part of public schools, i.e. youth orchestra etc., are an additional cost that seems to range from 300-1200/year for basic membership.

Marching band has the unique issue of competitions. Many of the schools I taught at in Texas would regularly participate in the various Band of America competitions all over Texas, and sometimes also participated in BOA's Grand Nationals in Indianapolis, which last I checked is nowhere near San Antonio. Rose Bowl parades feature school bands every year as well, and our dear friends at the Walt Disney Corporation provide structured band retreats as well. One of the bands I worked with went to Hawaii. Because Hawaii.

Let's face it: Nobody wants their kid to be left out, so while not a requirement I would hesitate to see these costs as truly optional. Between these fees and the related uniforms and trips, being a marching band member could easily cost 8K over a High School career.

So, for a high school musician, so far we're looking at a total of something in the neighborhood of 10k-30k for a high school music career. Per child. Plus an instrument.

Housing: in this short interview Karina and I did (, Robert Rowat of CBC Music was touching on a truth most people reading this blog know first hand. Practicing at home can be a pain. That means that if you’re a parent who can’t afford a large house you might not want a young musician in the family. In some parts of the US that isn’t as big of an issue, but in large cities in the US, and especially in Canada, real estate is extremely expensive and practice space isn’t always available. A family might just not be able to afford to have a young musician simply because the related real estate is out of reach to many.

Instruments. Let’s face it: I’m a brass player and so in a much better place than most in this department. You all know the drill if you made it to this blog: a few hundred dollars for an instrument-shaped object, and many thousands for a tool a professional would feel comfortable with. Cases, reeds, bows, headjoints, mouthpieces, sticks etc. are an added cost as well. Given how much time we spend holding these things, and the toll that takes on our bodies, I often feel this investment is extremely important to prioritize.

But I’d like to add another point to this. I’ve always played on used instruments. At first I couldn’t afford new instruments, then I didn’t see the value. Now, having spent thousands of dollars fixing my used instruments, much more than I would if I’d just buy them new, I can’t help but see the value in a well-made instrument. At this point, with apologies to my friends at the Edwards Instrument Company who’ve put up with my crazy over the years, I can really say that I do have a great instrument, it just took a lot of time and money to get there.

Now I’m not poor, not by a long shot, but I think this reveals a hidden cost of not having money sitting around; it costs money to need money in our business. Cheaper instruments, cheaper and more numerous repairs, cheaper and less-protective cases, cheaper accessories, cheaper flights, cheaper hotels and motels. Even without factoring in education, there is a hidden cost to not having money.

The costs of a higher education is on many people’s minds and has been for many years. The growth of tuition seems exponential, and those of us teaching in those institutions are often left speechless given our pay scale. It seems like a year of college tuition can cost anywhere from 5K to 60K, and that’s before factoring in summer festivals.

And that’s for tuition alone. If you’re a conservatory student who chose to study in a major metropolitan area you can easily spend an additional 25k/year just trying to live very modestly. Trying to work while in school takes away from schoolwork and practice time and could end up costing in our profession long-term. I know I worked my way through college in the early 2000s, and with some help from my parents, scholarships, and going to relatively inexpensive schools, I was able to graduate without loans. I simply don’t know if that is still possible or even advisable for musicians to do so anymore.

As an aside, given the cost, and the all-to-common complaints about the quality of education, It’s no surprise that in this environment alternatives to college started popping up. Rob Knopper of the MET offers an Audition Bootcamp that promotes itself as offering an audition-winning formula, for the reported price of 15K, Nathan Cole of the LA Phil offers an online virtuoso master course for a similar price, and alongside the many less expensive options, there is a good chance we’ll continue to see these ventures pop up it these trends continue.

An extension of issues of education is networking. Now, I really think one should be able to get a job in music without networking, but I also recognize that it isn’t always the case, Certainly not in academia! But my previous experiences, watching well-known teachers shamelessly contact audition committee members to advocate on behalf of their students during the process really taught me a lesson. I think it’s best to assume that at the level of playing we are all surrounded with, that really is incredible, sometimes little things can make a difference, and those small things don’t need to be intentional to make that difference. Where people go to school, their and their teacher's social and professional connections, previous experiences with members of the audition committee, can all make a difference. I imagine it's completely possible a person's name or skin color might make a difference as well. As a matter of fact, I won my first little audition in a VERY small orchestra seemingly by dressing better than the other candidates.

Auditions cost money. They cost in travel. They cost in networking. They cost in time spent preparing. But auditions also have an emotional cost. Let’s face it; rejection isn’t fun, but it’s not just that. According to the Psychiatric Times, (/ , there is a link between poverty and emotional health, and as I write this, I can’t help but think: Of course there is! Whether this link is in some cases the result of not being able to treat an illness, not being able to identify an illness, exacerbated by the added financial pressures some experience, or simply not being able to afford downtime to reflect and heal, I think it simply costs money to be sick.

It also costs money to be sick if you're entering the business, and perhaps are spending time subbing in orchestras where the people around you get regular relief and vacation that you don't. The choice of taking time off to rest or prevent or treat an injury, or turn down work and income is tough. I'm fortunate to not have been in that situation myself.

Other medical expenses should also be taken into account, both directly and indirectly, and can add up even if you're healthy.

It wasn’t until I started buying my own glasses that I realized how much those things cost (especially in Canada!), and until the last few years getting an inexpensive pair online wasn’t an option. It’s fairly easy to see how a decision to put off a new pair of glasses, not repair an existing pair, or simply not be able to afford them to begin with can present a serious issue to an aspiring musician.

In the health insurance paradigm alongside vision there is also dental Dental health in general is a big issue for wind players, and the cost is not usually covered in student health insurance, and most dental insurances don’t cover orthodontic treatment. Braces are a big deal if you’re a wind or brass player. They seem to range from 2K to 8K depending on the type of braces and testament. I’ve watched a few students come out the other side of having braces better and more equipped to play the instrument, and I know for me going through periods of teeth grinding that a simple night guard (mine was roughly $300) can do wonders.

Injuries also cost money, and so does the recovery from them. Physical Therapists and Occupational Therapists are doctors and charge accordingly. Massage Therapists can range from $1-2/minute and often need several 60 minute sessions before treatment starts to take effect. For my needs I prefer going to a chiropractor and find it extremely beneficial to my playing (especially when I practice contra!), and I have a colleague who frequents an osteopath.

There are also a range of movement instructors with a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and certifications. They all cost money as they should! The bottom line to all this is that we use our body for our job, and being able to access help when we need it is crucial to minimize loss of time and income and maximize odds of success. That costs.

Marketing is one of those hidden costs, and It’s one I list here with some care. On its face marketing should not be essential to what we do, and I really don’t think it is. However, if a person wants a career that involves some outside work, telling the world they exist is part of the deal. Headshots, a website, and audio and video chops are part of that deal, and the hardware and knowledge involved aren’t free. It’s true that one can do a lot with a good cellphone, but those aren’t free either! So while marketing is certainly more democratized now than it used to be, I would hesitate to think it’s without cost. In addition to all this there are services to curate and manage one’s social media presence, and like all professionals, those people deserve to get paid for their work. Those fees seem to run around $100/hour. Add professional headshots, a reasonably good camera at around $1000, lighting, a good microphone or two and maybe some professional editing services, and you'll understand why some people's social media just looks and sound better than others.

And finally I’d like to touch on what I think is actually the single most important aspect of not having expendable income in our line of work. Failure.

Failure has very different consequences depending on one’s ability to buy their way out of trouble. Let's face it: The US just bought its way out of a disastrous handling of a global pandemic by out-bidding other countries for favorable vaccine access. This country is so rich it can afford to fail repeatedly, while still conducting two wars halfway around the world, while going through the most expensive election cycle in history, do all that while lowering taxes, and the US can still buy its way out of trouble. It's really kind of amazing.

Being a musician inevitably involves failure, and the financial tolerance of the failure is extremely influential in one's decision making. Choosing schools, degrees, festivals, auditions; these all represent financial risk. Choosing an instrument is a financial risk. Choosing a part time job that doesn't offer benefits so that one can practice is a huge financial risk if your parents can't afford to cover you. Not saving for retirement because you simply don't have money left over is a terrible decision that some have to make and absolutely represents a financial risk. Finally, choosing a career where we know many outcomes are not always financially viable long-term, is the definition of risk.

The level of tolerance to these risks one has to take in order to enter our field is in my mind one of the biggest factors in determining one's future ability to have a viable career. Simply put, it's not just that one can't afford lessons or festivals or school: If one can't afford to fail, one can't afford to try.

So there you have it: an incomplete list of reasons for why I think my orchestras are largely similar: the pool of people who are able to navigate these financial stresses, who are able to be optimistic about entering such a tough business, are able to afford the training, the instruments, and the risk, is just not all that big. Those individuals and families that comprise the group that is able to accommodate this trade are on average more affluent by definition.

I would love for my industry to find a way to be more accessible, more inclusive, and more available. I don't think I'm alone with that, and I think how we collectively approach these challenges will determine our ability to thrive.

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