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The Overcrowded Musical Profession - Roie Adams Grumbine.


I grieve to hear any one who calls himself a musician express the sentiment contained in the following clipping, and I grieve still more to find it quoted in The Etude:

“There does not seem to be any remedy for the deplorable overcrowding of the music profession unless a check can be placed upon the number of those going in for music at the very outset. That is to say, if teachers and heads of musical institutions could only be prevailed upon honestly to tell an intending student that he had no natural attitude for music, the output of ‘half-baked’ musicians would be very considerably reduced, and the profession, as a direct result, would suffer less from overpressure within its ranks.”—“Keynote.”

What is the complaint? That there is an “overcrowding of the musical profession”—the “Keynote” calls it the “music profession.” What does this mean? If it means anything it can only mean that the class who follow music for a livelihood has grown too large to be supported by the patrons of music. On any other theory there can be no ground for the complaint.

It can not be contended that too many persons are studying music for the comfort of society or the happiness of mankind, and it would hardly be claimed that there is a limit to the world’s enjoyment of the art; that music is like a feast spread for a particular chosen company—a certain, limited quantity that will not reach around if too many are admitted to the festal board. If that be the trouble, then with equally good reason is it to be urged that our schools should be closed against “overcrowding,” lest the general supply of education give out; and the same logic would suggest the precaution of “honestly” deterring sinners from repentance, to avoid the discomfort of “overpressure” within the ranks of the heavenly hosts. If a place in the celestial choir had a commercial value in the market-places of the earth, that is precisely the argument we should expect to hear advanced by the thrifty minded persons who are always in a state of mind at the dire prospect of being “overcrowded,” which means crowded out. The very statement shows its absurdity, and forces those who utter the complaint to the confession that it is only in its pecuniary aspect that it can have any application. In other words, it is music as a business that is dull; and in the absence of an influential lobby in Congress they propose to reduce the pressure of competition some other way. Why not organize a trust? Assuming that there is only a given quantity of gold that is paid out for music in a given time and place (not to mention the coppers tossed to the organ-grinders), there are too many musicians—third-rate teachers and mediocre “artists”—who are scrambling for it. Where there are three or four long-haired fiddlers for a place in the orchestra, there should be but one; and it is proposed to cut down the supply to the demand, not exactly by a crusade against foreign immigration, although that has its patriotic advocates, but by exhorting teachers “honestly” to discourage and dissuade all students with no “talent” from the further study of music.

If any word ought to be eliminated from the English language it is that much-abused word talent. It is very tiresome. Sarah, who works hard, applies herself, has ambition, good home training, a common sense teacher, and plays well, is so “talented.” Sallie, who is lazy, careless, moonstruck, and spoiled, and plays like an elephant, she has no “talent,” poor thing. It is not my purpose to raise this question here. I admit that all do not have the same amount of brains, just as some have bigger noses than others; and I agree that a person with no hands has no “natural aptitude” for playing the piano, and should, perhaps, be “honestly” dissuaded from attempting to become a virtuoso; but even that misfortune need not disqualify him from knowing something about music. I will admit further, just for the sake of peace and quiet, that there may be a score or two of musical geniuses in the world, ready made in heaven perhaps, that is to say “born,” while all the rest just “growed,” like Topsy; but I have taught music over twenty years, how much over I do n’t need to tell, and in that experience I have never yet seen these two things—a ghost and musical “talent” that could not be explained on natural, rational grounds. But what I do protest against with all my might is the propagation by musicians of this inane fallacy that unless a pupil have decided “talent,” “natural aptitude,” or what not, it is the teacher’s duty, even by the aid of a police officer if necessary, to suppress that “intending student” (sic).

I do not believe that in art, whatever may be true in the purely utilitarian pursuits, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Whatever ministers to the sum total of human happiness is a good thing, and I wouldn’t dissuade the ignorant darky lad from playing the bones if it made him happy—and he was out of my hearing!

Have we dropped by one sudden plunge into the malarial mire of commercialism? Has music study degenerated so quickly into a bread-and-butter science? Nothing in it but dollars and cents which we must prevent the quacks from snatching away from us? Why, that is the way the lawyers and doctors and preachers are doing, building barbed-wire fences around their preserves, to protect their dignified and magnanimous “professions” from overcrowding; making elaborate and absurd systems of professional ethics to keep the ins in, and the outs out, under the shallow pretext that it is all for the good of humanity. Have we fallen to the “professional” level? Do we learn music as a trade? Is it all a mere scramble for a livelihood?

Professions generally, and decent society at large, draw a proper line of moral conduct. Right. Let the “profession” of music insist on a proper observance of that. A common standard of qualification, beneath which exclusion from the privilege. That is good likewise where the conditions do not vary or where the standard varies with the conditions. A physician needs the same degree of skill and knowledge to mend a clodhopper as to heal a professor of revealed religion. And yet there are widely divergent degrees of ability even in the learned professions where the greatest precautions are exercised. But the qualifications of a musician are wholly relative to his environment. A teacher may do excellent work in one place who would be utterly worthless in another. We do n’t insist that a man must be qualified for a chair in Harvard to teach a district school; or because he is n’t fit to conduct an orchestra that he should n’t pound the big drum in a country band. In spite of all precautions every profession is full of quacks. They have flourished since the world began and will probably continue to flourish to a greater or less extent until the millennium. That is a matter that in the long run usually regulates itself. But the one potent remedy against quackery and humbug is higher intelligence and virtue. Therefore, the remedy is not less but more musical study. But whatever measures are urged for putting up the bars to a professional pasture, this is the first time that I ever heard the advocacy of an embargo on study as a remedy. Such “remedy” were infinitely worse than the disease.

The complaint is the “overcrowding” of the musical profession. To every profession there must be a laity, and if the profession is not a humbug, the larger and more intelligent the laity the better. Why not instead of limiting the profession by discouraging music study, increase and improve the laity by encouraging it all in our power? It is no obstacle to an eminent physician to have an intelligent patient who understands the case and appreciates the work done for him. The more cultured and numerous our musical laity, the better for the musical profession. How will an ignorant and barbarian laity support the profession? Where will the pupils come from, where the patrons of the concert and the opera? Even on the low “professional” consideration to “check” music study among the common herd and encourage it only among the select, heavenly-endowed creatures with “talent” is to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. If it killed the other goose it would n’t so much matter.

Forbid any thirsty child from drinking at the fountain of musical inspiration because it has no “talent”? Deprive a boy or girl from a musical education because they give no promise of becoming a Sherwood or a Nordica? Rob the family circle of all musical enjoyment because its members can’t appreciate Wagner? Discourage all musical culture except such as is predestined to distinction? Withhold its elevating and refining influence from all who can not take a front seat among the elect of the “profession”?

On such a theory what is your boasted art of music good for?

Everywhere and at all times, in season and out of season, it is the true musician’s duty and the honest teacher’s duty to scatter the beauties of his art and the pearls of his wisdom and the spirit of his enthusiasm far and wide, among poor and rich, humble and aristocratic, dull and talented, even as it is the duty of the devoted shepherd of souls to scatter broadcast the blessings of religion.

To talk of overcrowding the musical profession is as sensible, as liberal and high-minded as to express solicitude about overcrowding heaven.


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