what am I worth?

I did a search on a local (Portland, Oregon) real estate site a few weeks ago looking for a home in the price range for which I could qualify for a bank loan. I got two hits: both were single-wide mobile homes in less desireable neighborhoods. This shouldn’t have been a surprise to me: over the past five years, houses that once cost around $130,000 now cost upwards of $350,000 – and there is not an end in sight. Every six months or so, there is a front page headline stating that the median price of a home in my metro area has increased upwards in double digits. Right now the average price for a single-family home is $282,900. For a condo: $233,800.
And what has happened to my salary? My salary went down by 5 percent in 2002-2003, and has stayed flat since then. I’ve lost around 12 percent of my buying power in real terms, and even more when you factor in the rapidly rising cost of living in my oh-so-popular town (at least for Californians selling their $1 million McMansions).

I have three degrees in music – a B.A., an M.M. and a Graduate Performance Diploma. I’ve got $8000 left on my student loans, which have been consolidated and refinanced twice. I am paying for an instrument that I purchased four years ago, and really need a better bow to go with it. I teach four students and take side gigs whenever I can fit them in to my schedule, and play with a string quartet.

Why is it so difficult to persuade donors and board members that I deserve a raise? Not a huge raise, just an adjustment back to the equivalent of where I was five years ago. I sit and watch members of our management team get promoted and get pay raises, and hear how little can be done for the livelihoods of those of us how actually make the sounds that they manage.

I watch virtually every orchestra in our peer group surpasses us in working conditions, benefits and weekly/per-service wages. I watch my savings dwindle and my ability to ever own a home slip away with each passing year. As one of the top graduating string players of my classes at each of the schools I attended (University of Puget Sound, University of Maryland, Peabody Conservatory of Music), I watch as top graduates of pharmacy school start at salaries at least three times my own after a decade of service and a modicum of overscale.

I have counseled patience when others have advocated for vigorous responses in the face of wage cuts, wage freezes, changes of health plans, increases of co-pays, dwindling audience sizes, increasing management salaries, and the stunning disconnectedness of the elite (to which we go to beg for the scraps to keep the whole enterprise going) from the plight of the very people who they applaud each Monday evening between dinner and a nightcap. I know that I am much more fortunate than some, but I labor under the public’s mis-conception that I work only for the love of my art.

I love what I do, make no mistake about that, but love does not pay my rent, my health care statements, my grocery bills or my car payments. I am asked to play at a higher level of artistic excellence in each succeeding week, and I comply, with all my heart and all my mind. I face the audience at the completion of a performance and put on a game face regardless of the empty seats, the skill of the conductor, my health or mood, the merits of the piece, and the amount of applause given. I practice on days when I don’t even have the wherewithal to get out of bed.

Playing in an orchestra is a job – not a game. It’s too bad that we “play” music – it should be called “working” music or “exerting” music. I listen to 87 colleagues at the same time, decipher the meaning of the arm motions from my boss two feet in front of me, listen to my inner voice mulling over the fight I had with my wife earlier in the day, in spite of the difficult, exposed passage coming up, and I’m expected to play perfectly in tune with my colleagues, anticipate where they will play, how the conductor will react to the entrance, and phrase the same as the nine other people in my section, using the same vibrato, pitch, bowspeed and part of the bow as my principal and the concertmaster. If I don’t do it very close to perfection, at least six people right around me will hear, as will my boss, and I could be held accountable, just as I hear them, and hold them accountable. Now, tell me – do I “play” an instrument?

3 Replies to “what am I worth?”

  1. If I had the money, I’d endow your chair with perks of bows and med/dental benefits. Alas, not to be. Your music, photos, and insight are tremendous. Thank you….

  2. Although I’m not in a position to increase the compensation you receive, if I were, I would do so without hesitation. The work you do is invaluable, and it touches and enriches the lives of others on an ongoing basis. I regularly attend performances by the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, and I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve been brought nearly to tears (of joy, sorrow, and a range of other feelings) by the music brought to life by the orchestra. I appreciate each and every one of them for choosing the path they did, and I would like to express my thanks to you, too. Your worth is immeasurable… Truly.

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