How Dedicated Are You to Your Profession?

Harvey Rachlin • April 2023Commentary • April 2, 2023

As educators in music, I think it is safe to say we all feel dedicated to our profession.  We spent years of studying, practicing and hard work to get to where we are today, and we do our best in teaching our students and conveying our enthusiasm for music.  But in mulling over the concept of “dedication” I got to thinking about what that meant in previous times and how it compares to dedication today.

Imagine a world without records, streaming, radio, television, movies, computers, smart phones, social media, electronic instruments, and all other forms of modern technology.  The only way for musical performances to be heard by the public in the distant past was venues, and they weren’t exactly ideal by our current standards. 

Performing in public for musicians could involve long-distance travel which could be arduous.  Many musicians and composers of the 19th century and earlier crossed the ocean for gigs, opportunities, or to live in another country.  That meant a potentially perilous voyage across the sea and then travel by foot, horse, train, carriage or boat, often over rough and dangerous terrain or water and sometimes with poor weather conditions.  In the second half of the 19th century in America, you might have a combo of a fiddlers, banjoists and wind instrument players traveling by wagon over dirt roads and hills who would have a scout traveling a few days ahead trying to book gigs at local towns. 

Despite the sometimes-difficult journeys required to perform in public or attend concerts people did it back then.  At the International Peace Jubilee held in Boston in 1872, some 2,000 musicians comprised the orchestra, 20,000 vocalists made up the chorus and 50,000 people showed up to hear the music.  

For musicians in the past the pay could be low (in some cases the same may be said today!), and while composers could earn royalties from sales of their printed music they often entered into bad deals with music publishers or were cheated or paid unfairly on their royalties, not to mention that print pirates often sold unauthorized copies of sheet music and never paid the composers and publishers of their rightful earnings (another case which may not be that different today).

We need only look to Stephen Foster, arguably America’s greatest composer of popular music in the 19th Century, to see how fame didn’t necessarily yield riches.  Foster’s marriage to Jane Denny McDowell was an unhappy one perhaps due to his music profession and he famously died broke in a New York City hospital.  

Although the composer of such songs as ”Beautiful Dreamer,” “O, Susanna,” and “The Camptown Races” was already famous by his mid-twenties, earning income from his work was often a struggle for him as can be seen from the recollection of Parkhurst Duer, an employee of a New York City music shop that was visited by music professionals:

Every day I met teachers and composers and was hoping that Stephen Foster would appear.  I had heard that he was living in New York City and had never known anything about his life; yet his songs had created within me a feeling of reverence for the man, and I longed to see him.  One day I was speaking with the clerks when the door opened and a poorly dressed, very dejected-looking man came in, and leaned against the counter near the door.  I noticed he looked ill and weak.  A clerk laughed and said: “Steve looks down and out.” Then they all laughed, and the poor man saw him laughing at him.  I said to myself, “Who can Steve be?”  It seemed to me, my heart stood still.  I asked, “Who is that man?” “Stephen Foster,” the clerk replied.  “He is only a vagabond.  Don’t go near him.” I was terribly shocked.  Forcing back the tears, I waited for that lump in the throat which prevents speech, to clear away.  I walked over to him, put out my hand, and asked, “Is this Mr. Foster?” He took my hand and replied “Yes, the wreck of Stephen Collins Foster.”

So touched was the composer by Duer’s kindness he began to weep.  Would an extremely successful composer of pop music experience such penury in our digital era?  Today we live in an age where the music catalogs of tunesmiths like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Justin Bieber are selling for hundreds of millions of dollars and back in those days of yore a major composer was lucky not to die penniless.  To me, Stephen Foster’s perseverance in composing through thick and thin is the quintessence of dedication.  

For the average musician today, music is not a particularly high-paying profession as can be seen from the long-standing cliché “starving musician.”  We do not see that cliché applied to other professionals such as doctors and lawyers.  But dedication has a special application to composers (and others in the arts) as much of the profession involves spec work with possibly no or little financial return.  A pop songwriter or composer of school music endeavors to compose a piece and then make the best possible recording of it for submission purposes.  There are often numerous submissions for particular purposes and publishers often accept only a small percentage of the submissions for publication.  That means most of the composers’ work will not see the light of day publicly and yet they continue to toil away and submit and submit and submit…and they may never get published or even if they do, they may never recoup the expenses they poured into getting published over the years.  Is it worth it in the end?  Only the person who did all that work can answer that.

In my contemplation of dedication, I wondered if all our modern technology was not available which enables the yielding of great sums of money, would all the people who have achieved fame set out on a music career?  Of course, most music educators don’t pursue pop or classical music stardom and they toil away at their school jobs or giving music lessons or playing concerts not for the economic rewards but for their love of music and the gratification of the career—so that is surely dedication.

If you are an instrumentalist, vocalist, performer, conductor, songwriter or composer and you feel dedicated to your profession, what rewards or reinforcement nourishes it? I can’t answer that for everybody, but for some it might be the applause that makes it worth it, that gratifying hand-clapping expression of approval that reinforces all the time and effort put into a career.  When the pay is low and the preparation is time-consuming and hard but you work for that wonderful post-performance sound that gives you a euphoric feeling–maybe even the goosebumps! That to me is dedication.

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