Carving out a career in music involves a lot more than talent and technique
Is talent enough to succeed in a musical career?
Should a teaching institution wise up its students for the world as it is – inequities, imperfections and all? Or should it encourage them to reject the shortcomings of the industry they hope to enter? To me, those are the questions prompted by the extraordinary incident that ended with the Royal Academy of Music paying £186,181 in compensation for the wrongful dismissal of one of its teachers, Francesca Carpos-young.
In the RAM’S eyes, Carpos-young’s offence (for which she was dismissed) was to have circulated a document to
800 students suggesting ways in which they could cultivate a ‘good reputation’ in the profession. In her rather clumsily phrased notes, she reflected on the nicknames in use among musicians, including ‘pond life’ (string players in general) and ‘gypos’ (violinists).
It was this last label, particularly, that sparked the furore. For centuries, ‘gypsy violinist’ might have been a familiar phrase, but these days ‘gypo’ is seen as a racist slur on Romani people. Carposyoung wasn’t endorsing the term, merely noting it. But that and other labels and generalisations to which she referred (such as the injunction that ‘what’s on tour stays on tour’) incensed the RAM’S students union. It fired off a letter to the Academy’s management accusing her of – deep breath – ‘violating the Academy’s Equality and Diversity Policy by encouraging the development of a toxic educational and working environment in which musicians are complicit in the harassment of and discrimination against colleagues on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, age and physical appearance’.
Hmm. An over-sensitive overreaction, typical of the ‘snowflake’
generation? Clearly the judge chairing the employment tribunal thought so. She said that Carpos-young’s words ‘were ironic in tone, intended to convey the real world in which instrumentalists and singers would have to find work, and how to behave to get on in the precarious world of sessional booking’.
Well, I agree that the RAM was insanely hasty in siding with the students and sacking Carpos-young without time for reflection. But I have more sympathy for the protesting students than the judge did. ‘Ironic in tone’ though Carpos-young’s remarks were intended to be, they seemed to suggest that musicians entering the profession should accept every dubious bit of banter or conduct. That’s wrong. There must be limits, especially given the arts world’s recent abuse scandals.
That said, even the protesting students admitted that Carpos-young’s observations were ‘likely an accurate portrayal of behaviours that will help advance one’s career’. And that brings me back to my first question. Isn’t it a conservatoire’s job to convey precisely that ‘accurate portrayal’ to its students?
Of course, when those behaviours are based on sexist or racist prejudices, or on being deferential to outmoded hierarchies, students should be encouraged to question and reject them. But it’s surely best that they are acquainted in advance with what might confront them in the workplace. Forewarned is forearmed.
Besides, having read Carpos-young’s sprawling observations, I find myself agreeing with their fundamental thrust – that sustaining a career in music is about more than just talent. In such an insecure profession, where people are working closely and intensely with each other, it’s also about maintaining high levels of empathy, sociability, tact, charm, courtesy, flexibility, pragmatism, stoicism, humour and (I hate the phrase, but it’s here to stay) ‘networking skills’. It’s also about punctuality, reliability and presentation. And it’s about knowing how to deal with jealousy, criticism and the ruthless competition built into the music business, while retaining your grace, civility and decency.
I once asked a veteran LSO member why, having performed just once with a highly rated but dictatorial German conductor, the players decided never to work with him again. ‘It doesn’t matter how talented he is,’ the player said. ‘Music should always be made in a pleasant and encouraging atmosphere.’
That’s the nub of the matter. For every job in music, there are 10, 20, even 100 well-qualified contenders. With such an excess of talent, the opportunities will inevitably go to fine musicians who are also personable and co-operative, rather than difficult and disruptive. That’s the essence of what Carpos-young was trying to convey, and students would be well advised to heed it. After all, you won’t reform a profession if you can’t get into it in the first place.
Opportunities will go to fine musicians who are also personable and co-operative