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A Word About Salaries

There is not the slightest question that the tendency in the salaries of church musicians (in and about New York City at least) has, for fully a decade, been steadily downward. There are various reasons, but two stand out most prominently. The first is, the great increase in the number of semiprofessional musicians,—that is, musicians who receive pay for their services, but do not depend upon music for their livelihood. The number is being recruited from both ends,—from among the ranks of the professionals as well as of amateurs.

Too often the professional musician finds the returns from his years of training and his earnest efforts to earn a living but meager, with the result that he must perforce do something else to secure the ordinary comforts of life.  Never since music has become an independent source of support has the revenue to be derived from it been comparable to this from the vast majority of other callings, though, in our day at least, the expense necessary to secure adequate training is probably greater than in any other profession. The income is too often uncertain as well as meager, so that the self-respecting musician who wants to pay his bills promptly has a hard time of it, with the result, as before stated, that yearly a greater number of musicians pass into the semi- professional ranks, retaining usually, however, as much of their musical work as possible.

With the amateur the case is somewhat different, but the result is the same. The business or professional man, at least when he is young, thinks it no great hardship to give up Saturday afternoon or evening and Sunday morning and evening for the sake of the salary involved. Even though it be but a fraction of the amount necessary for his support, the extra money means much to him, though, if necessary to “land the job” he won’t mind having $50 or $100 lopped off from the price that a professional musician would command for the same work. The process by which salaries are gradually reduced is perfectly obvious and natural, particularly when it is only pocket-money that is involved, not bread and butter. At the present rate, it will not be many years before professional church-musicians—I mean those whose entire time is devoted to their  profession—will be as scarce as the proverbial hen’s teeth. Already this condition has been nearly reached in the case of the singers; organists are not far behind.

The second cause for the reduction of salaries lies in the great influx of musicians to the large cities, particularly New York, resulting in a strenuous competition for any available places, when, with the lowest bidder it is too often a question of half a loaf or no bread. Because some years ago men like Samuel P. Warren commanded large salaries and the fact was heralded abroad, there has been such a swarm of musicians both from the country districts and smaller cities and from Europe that now we have reached the interesting state of affairs where, excepting in a few noteworthy cases, better salaries are paid for the same work in the smaller towns surrounding New York than in the metropolis itself.

This is not to be wondered at when we take into consideration the intensity of the competition, which is well illustrated in the following typical case, which occurred about two years ago in a wealthy Brooklyn church.

The retiring organist had been hired without due consideration at a salary of $1400 a year, and an important part of his work was to be the organization of a volunteer choir, in addition to his quartet. Now he is a first-class organist, of many years’ experience in prominent churches, but with no great respect or liking for volunteer choirs. Naturally his choir was not a success, so his salary was reduced to $1200 for the second year, and at the end of that time he was discharged. Then the thrifty music committee advertised anonymously in a newspaper for applicants, who should state their own terms. Note their cunning. An examination of the “bids” and a preliminary interview with the more promising candidates resulted in the salary being fixed at $900 and a young man being provisionally engaged. But before the contracts had been signed, along came an organist whose name is famous throughout the length and breadth of the land, and who happened to be “out of a job and offered his services for $650, when not five years before he had been getting probably $1800 or $2000. Of course, he got the position.

In the light of such performances, is it any wonder that salaries are going down? The $650 organist would have had no difficulty in securing the position at $1000 or $1200 at the least, because of his reputation, but he was so anxious to get this particular place that he destroyed its salary value for years to come. For it is not likely that with his own rating of his services at $650 he will be able to secure much of an advance upon that figure at any future date, as he is a man old enough to have attained his full maturity. Of course, any humbler aspirants for the place after he leaves it will be at once overshadowed by his greater fame. So there you are!

Now the question is: what is to be done? Of course, in such a case as the one cited, where a man is content to take the bread out of his own mouth, as it were, there is nothing to be done. If a man will work for a half or a third of what he can command in the open market, there is no law to stop him. The only thing to do, as in all other reforms, is to begin with the young. Such an organization as the Guild of Organists is a long step in the right direction, giving as it does, an incentive for young organists to labor for a recognition which means something definite,—creates a definite standard.

But the most important work, in fact the only really effective work,—for me must live, and if salaries are low the services rendered must sooner or later depreciate proportionately,—must be done outside the ranks of the musical profession entirely. Our only salvation is to carry on a consistent and unceasing campaign of education directed toward clergymen and music committees. Every church musician should constitute himself a committee of one to impress upon all who come in contact with him, both by precept and example, the dignity of our profession and its right to a more general and a more fitting recognition. Talking will do but little, but character and efficiency will do much.

And then, too, with such an attitude toward their art, musicians will hesitate about cheapening it and themselves by cutting rates and scrambling for places like the veriest peddler or bargain-hunter. For, truly, the ultimate good of our art (and the cause of the full dinner-pail, if the mind cannot comprehend the greater good) are of more importance than the transitory advantage to be derived from winning out in the struggle for any particular position be it ever so exalted.—J. Lawrence Erb.


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