If I had the power to grant the best possible life to young musicians today, I would grant them a musical life just like mine. I have been lucky enough to play in a great American orchestra for forty years, during which time the level of music-making as well as the level of compensation have risen steadily. Nothing in my early life pointed to such an outcome.
My father was a music educator in a working-class New Jersey town eleven miles from the Lincoln tunnel. When my piano lessons with him threatened to ruin our relationship, he chose the cello for me, and I began lessons at the relatively late age of eight.
From the first, I had excellent training with teachers I adored, but never did it include what we now think of as career counseling. At eighteen I entered the Curtis Institute of Music with only a vague sense that I wanted to be the best cellist I could be, and I graduated without having revisited that goal. I did further study in Europe, went to competitions and finally sought an orchestra position feeling like a failure because when I did win an orchestra audition, it was for a section position. Not even principal chair. I didn’t know yet that in a great orchestra every chair matters.
When I began what many said was the perfect job, I was terribly lonely. I had no preparation for the transition from conservatory to a professional life with colleagues twice or three times my age. And, naïvely, I had given scant thought to the fact that few orchestras paid well.
Little did I know at the time that the symphonic world was beginning to undergo a transformation that would place American orchestras among the very best in the world. Medium-sized cities that wanted to be taken seriously now began to establish or expand their orchestras. Major orchestras went to fifty two-week seasons. The formation of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) helped musicians to obtain increasingly decent contracts, which in turn attracted finer and finer musicians. My colleagues all over the country worked hard to secure effective and meaningful roles in all artistic matters, including hiring, programming and the evaluation of conductors. They served on committees, helped with fund-raising, and safeguarded their own musical development by teaching, organizing chamber music societies, commissioning new works, and continuing to musically challenge themselves and each other.
We have taken seriously our role in keeping great music, well-played, alive and available across our country. But we have had to grope our way, often improvising, stumbling, or taking the least direct route. No one anticipated that this was to be part of our lives as symphonic musicians. No one had spoken to us about self-authorship, entrepreneurialism, or interpersonal skills. Quite the contrary. As students, we had been discouraged from letting anything distract us from our central goal—mastering our instruments.
I am truly grateful that my career has coincided with a golden age of American orchestras, an age which musicians themselves have had such a hand in creating. And I have always felt that this golden era was only the beginning of what we can achieve. Yet in spite of our best efforts and considerable success, this model that has served our cities so well seems to be in peril in the twenty-first century. Threats come from many corners, not least of which is the increased marginalization of classical music in our Pop-Culture culture.
The challenge today is no different from when I was starting out: how to define and create authentic musical lives in the real world. And how to ensure that truly great music touches as many lives as possible. No one is more invested in the success—financial as well as artistic—of our profession than musicians themselves. This website is part of our effort to shape the musical world in which we live and work, to forge our own vision of music’s role in the world, to communicate our ideals, and to promote effective paths toward satisfying professional lives immersed in the music we love.
Adapted from my Foreword to Life in the Real World: Making Music Graduates Employable. Editor: Dawn Bennett. Publisher: Common Ground 2012
Marcia Peck, cellist