When Genius Outpaces Jobs: Music's Virtuoso Glut

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There are a higher number of talented musicians than every before, which makes the job market for performers especially competitive

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New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini writes:

The overall level of technical proficiency in instrumental playing, especially on the piano, has increased steadily over time. Many piano teachers, critics and commentators have noted the phenomenon, which is not unlike what happens in sports. The four-minute mile seemed an impossibility until Roger Bannister made the breakthrough in 1954. Since then, runners have knocked nearly 17 seconds off Bannister's time.

Audiences now are taking virtuosity for granted.

The pianist Jerome Lowenthal, a longtime faculty member at Juilliard, said in a recent telephone interview from California that a phenomenon is absolutely taking place. He observes it in his own studio.

When the 1996 movie "Shine," about the mentally ill pianist David Helfgott, raised curiosity about Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto, Mr. Lowenthal was asked by reporters whether this piece was as formidably difficult as the movie had suggested. He said that he had two answers: "One was that this piece truly is terribly hard. Two was that all my 16-year-old students were playing it."

Recordings of some interwar stars suggest that today they would not even be admitted to major conservatories like Juilliard. The reasons have little to do with new technology--instruments have not changed significantly--and much to do with better pedagogy and wider recruitment.

So what's the catch? Opportunities in music are not expanding with talent. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that while total musical employment is expected to grow at an average rate with other occupations,

[t]he vast number of people with the desire to perform will continue to greatly exceed the number of openings. New musicians or singers will have their best chance of landing a job with smaller, community-based performing arts groups or as freelance artists. Instrumentalists should have better opportunities than singers because of a larger pool of work. Talented individuals who are skilled in multiple instruments or musical styles will have the best job prospects. However, talent alone is no guarantee of success: many people start out to become musicians or singers but leave the profession because they find the work difficult, the discipline demanding, and the long periods of intermittent unemployment a hardship.

One sad sign of the times: the Philadelphia Orchestra has already spent $2.4 million in legal and consulting expenses in its Chapter 11 bankruptcy process--and of course there's a glut of lawyers, too. Budget labels and electronic sales also can't provide the same level of royalties as the old recording industry did, and in any case digital music means a performer is competing with the best of the best of the best at least from the beginning of the LP era.

In The Atlantic I have already explored the unintended consequences of the similar explosion of the number of highly skilled young chess players worldwide, in this case closely related to the rise of software and Web resources extending practice opportunities beyond the small circle of urban chess clubs of Bobby Fischer's youth. The result is that it is harder for established masters and grandmasters to earn a living from tournament play although teaching, for chess pros as for musicians, can be a good living--at least for those who can be excellent teachers.

Few people say there has been a comparable explosion of great prose, yet the combination of word processing since the 1980s and academic writing programs has meant that the number of writers expanded faster than any other arts group--just as the crisis of periodical and book publishing has made its future even more problematic.

The big issue for education in the arts is not cutting enrollment to match supply, depriving gifted people of the chance to develop as far as possible. The challenge is to develop alternative career models that let people continue to develop their gifts.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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