A Musician’s Manifesto
How we do music, and how we can do it better.
An open letter to the Classical Music community.
As a professional singer, voice teacher and coach, ensemble leader, and teaching artist for over 25 years, I have heard many, many stories from people in music. Painful stories.
I, too, have my own stories.
Stories of musicians with artistic promise, huge talent, and keen desire which, over time and for one reason or another, downslide into a valley of turmoil, resentment, shame, and confusion from their experiences in the field.
I have heard first-hand stories from those on the receiving end of unprofessional behavior, including excessively harsh personal critiques, voice shaming, territorialism, insensitive rejections, objectification, derision, ghosting, broken promises, public humiliations, punitive screaming, and inappropriate sexual innuendo.
I have also heard stories of unethical treatment, including body shaming, body harming, ageism, psychological manipulation and gaslighting, verbal abuse, slander, and sexual predation.
In rehearsal, in auditions, in the classroom, in the studio, and in the sanctuary. And I surmise that all of these stories take place offstage for the sake of the art that is unfolding onstage?
These are stories that stunt prospects, avert dreams, and end careers. For a long time, I sat with these stories, wondering why this happens again and again, and at what personal and professional cost? Why yet another gifted, intelligent, and dedicated artist seems to “fall out of favor” with music, while the rest of us feel grateful it’s not happening to us?
Until I realized that all of these stories have one thing in common:
The culture of Classical Music is functionally disempowering artists.
Unless their eyes are wide open and/or their personal power is fully intact when they enter the field, which, for most of us it is decidedly not.
But there is another thing that troubles me about our current situation. That is, there appears to be no red flag in sight that calls out this industry in which these aforementioned stories have become, alas, quite normalized.
And why? For the sake of the Muse?
Here is the RED FLAG.
It is not acceptable to demote or offset someone else’s power in order to bolster your own, no matter who you are, where you work, or what you do. No matter your position of authority, age, race, gender, education, rank, buying-power, skill-level, expertise, or status.
But in order to affect sustainable change, we must address the cultural environment in which these kinds of power plays are aggravated, and perpetuated.
It is my intention, via this manifesto, to examine and illustrate the current pickle in which we find ourselves, and commission our industry at large—via creatively empowered individuals—to (hopefully) evolve into its next collective becoming, a long overdue undertaking.
First, we must understand the underlying currents of musical culture and its detrimental effects both personally and collectively.
Next, we must recognize the corrupt narrative which equates professional success with personal and artistic value.
Last, we must inspire a fresh vision by realizing the agency of self-expression for artists of all stripes, rather than a “lucky” few.
So where have we gone astray? Why are so many people suffering? What’s really going on here?
I. The Current of the Culture
A Tired Ritornello
These stories, and their psychological aftermath, fog our idealistic lens of those revered classical values of rigor, discipline, and the pursuit of excellence in Music, the institutional hallmarks of elevated artistry.
Despite my own stories, it seems I was determined, by some primal force of will, to persevere in pursuit of Music as my chosen vocation. Although it seems more likely, however, that Music chose me.
(Perhaps She has chosen you, too?)
Yet over the past year or so, Music and I have been like distant lovers. This has been painful, and caused a kind of unexpected grief. I began to question myself, my talent, my intelligence, my artistry, and my capacity to work. I felt isolated, and a failure.
And I kept bumping into that tedious narrative that I thought I had already addressed a million times over, but which kept droning on and on: I guess I am just not good enough.
It’s been a difficult, dark kind of passage. As a musician in a niche arena (medieval music), I am used to dwelling on the fringes of the mainstream. But now, more than ever, did I sense the distance. I wondered:
Will I ever know my true place as an artist?
I have spent a great deal of time in reflection and contemplation, as well as conversation with students, clients, and peers about their careers and experience in music (mostly in Classical music, but not entirely). As I listened, I wondered:
How did this happen?
Why are they struggling?
What is wrong with this situation?
Coming through the other side of this time, as difficult as it was, I am gratefully imbued with renewed purpose. I was previously ready to admit some kind of “defeat” of my music career, and get on with things. But eventually, I came to realize that this is not the end at all.
Indeed, this experience of stepping back and going inward allowed a crucial perspective shift: it offered a major course correction. I could finally understand what was happening in my life, why I was feeling so isolated and stuck in my work, and what needed to be released. And I caught a glimpse of some freshness surfacing, leading me onto a new pathway, one that I could not have foreseen at an earlier stage or time.
Yet I could not, in good conscience, wade back into the musical culture I knew before, pushing against the same familiar, disenfranchising power structures. I could no longer do the same things in the same way I had before. Things had truly changed.
I needed to move forward, but proceed in a new direction: balanced, clear, and whole. And I know I am only one of many who are also waiting for something to change. But when? And how?
First, let me spell out two primary issues fueling these dilemmas. They are:
The institution of Classical Music (such as I have experienced in professional vocal music, and witnessed in other areas) promotes a homogenized way of achieving success amidst a scarcity-minded cultural environment.
That is, the common narrative for most musicians is that in order to succeed and/or achieve financial viability, one is aggressively encouraged to refine technical skill in order to be in good competition for a limited number of professional opportunities.
Essentially, you need to be the “best” in order to get the “best” jobs, which are highly restricted.
So if you are unwilling to join (or have been unwillingly demoted from) the ranks of the “best,” you may be convinced of the downside of this narrative which states that you are not enabled to be a successful artist. Therefore, you must compromise yourself, and do something else.
I would argue that the thousands upon thousands of excellent and promising musicians pursuing a Classical Music career at this moment must all buy into the narrative that they are only capable of succeeding in the narrowest of terms: they all have to be the “best.” Additionally, they must learn to professionally operate according to market-driven standards of success: do whatever musical work you can in order to stay financially afloat so as to avoid doing something else.
I hope I am not the only one who understands that this is highly problematic.
We have become so culturally conditioned to accept this narrow institutional model of achievement that we cannot hold space—let alone envision—any alternative version of success in a musical vocation.
Even in this day and age of radical global connectedness, entrepreneurial innovation, and enervated social activism. Even when so many young people continue to pour into advanced music programs and conservatories, alive with possibility and heaped with creative potential for the harvesting.
What are we telling them?
What are we telling ourselves?
What kind of creative environment are we providing?
What kind of cultural battlefield are we sending them into?
What kind of armor and weapons are we providing?
What kind of quality of life are we asking them to settle for?
What are WE settling for?
The echoes of all the stories of my friends, students, and colleagues, as well as my own, are systematically suppressed and ignored in order for the system to function as it has been for (literally) hundreds of years. And I finally recognize that these are all ugly symptoms of this larger pattern of institutional oppression, stuck on repeat.
Listen: I don’t think we are broken, bad, or wrong for doing what we do, for obeying our teachers, for striving to be the best, or for adhering to an institutional template for success. But I do think we need to objectively perceive our current cultural environment, still clinging to a centuries-old model, and how this informs our musical experiences, artistic identities, and professional prospects in some rigidly self-limiting, creatively stagnant, and potentially harmful ways.
I question why we adhere to the lackluster, pre-ordained “creative” options dictated by our industry. Why we constrain our self-expression according to the prospects of impossibly limited opportunities. And why we assent to compete on the battlefield of worthiness, sacrificing our self-worth, personal power, and values for “Music?”
So what gives? How has our imagination so egregiously slumped? Why are we so stuck in the mud?
II. The Corrupt Narrative
The Battlefield of Worthiness
My stories may be personal, but they are not unique. As noted earlier, there is no shortage of traumatic experiences that have hindered many people in the pursuit of their musical careers and creative outlets. And in the current climate, we are all at risk of growing more disempowered and disillusioned.
In my view, I see that the field of Classical Music, or what I call the “Culture,” has become a veritable battlefield, one that conditions us to assume a “survival of the fittest” mentality.
If you are brave enough to enter the battlefield, often as a young student, your first question (whether consciously or not) is: How do I measure up? And the second: What do I need to do in order to survive?
At which point you make a choice: do I stay and fight, or do I leave?
If you stick it out, then it’s time to battle. Arm yourself with technique, status, and swagger. Shield yourself with a busy schedule, good press, and name dropping: the armor of professional clout. Then work up the hierarchy, be consistently available, never get sick, age, or wobble. Now stick this out for as long as you can last, and, well, hope for the best!
Listen, this may not resonate with you. This manifesto is not intended to tar the profession, point fingers, or throw the proverbial baby (Music) out with the bathwater (Culture). It is, however, an honest and intentional effort to lean into the problems of:
- Misplacing our priorities as artists.
- Swallowing the illusion that our professional success is equivalent to our personal worthiness.
- Striving against our personal values in order to play the field.
- Operating amidst a gross imbalance of power amongst artists.
- Generational patterns of harm when said power is misused or abused.
I am sharing my views for those who have suffered. This letter is offered with wholeheartedness and respect, because I know what it is like to be belittled by authority. I know what it is like to deleteriously compare yourself with your peers. I know what it is like to be disempowered by the Culture: a deeply-entrenched patriarchal establishment forged long, long before our time.
But we can do better. Indeed, I think we must wake up, flush out the snakes in the grass, begin the healing, and chart a new course outta this thing. Because there is potential in you and me.
There is potential in us.
Here is what I believe is the crux of the issue we face in Classical Music:
Our expansive creative potential has been stifled by adhering to an externally imposed template of success, all in pursuit of advancing our position on the “battlefield” of music.
In essence, the Culture teaches us to pursue only one thing: to be the “best.” This is inherently self-limiting. We are taught that musical excellence and idealized execution are the gold standards for success. But they are feeble surrogates for our true creative potential. Additionally, within the Culture, striving to be the “best” is an empty promise. You may make it, you may not. It depends.
We are not taught how to realize our livelihood by harvesting our multifaceted gifts and limitless resources of creative potential because we are too busy trying to be the “best” in order to stay on the battlefield, in order to stay alive.
We are taught that compromising our personal power to a higher authority—typically at the root of every trauma—is a formative aspect of the artistic process, akin to eating our professional vegetables.
And so, we pay the price. We squeeze ourselves into the rigid roles and ideals of the Culture and try to make it work. We work incredibly hard and demand ourselves to be the “best” at whatever we do, to rise up the ladder, to compete, and to win. And we learn that in order to stay in the game, we must learn to become “bulletproof,” perfect our poker face, swallow our pride, play it safe, blend in, and be dependable at all costs.
How thick is your skin?
How willing are you to stay and fight?
How determined are you to win?
This is what I mean by survival of the fittest. It took some time for me to recognize how wary I had become of being on this “battlefield.” And that I was not the only one who was getting bloodied. And that the Culture is positively numb to the casualties strewn about the combat zone.
I realize that despite our hard-won successes—and devastating losses—we cannot live and work creatively when we are trying to stay alive, layer on our armor, and fight for our place on the front.
And whether you stay and fight or are ejected from the battleground, we all seem to lose.
There must be another way, right?
III. A Fresh Vision
To Hell and Back
I persevered through some really difficult bits in my music career, and I pushed myself to make it work, until quite suddenly, it stopped working. This time in my life has been the most confusing and stressful that I’ve ever known, but it yielded some very important revelations.
I stopped praying to the gods of the Culture for my lucky break. I began to heal. I began to understand wholeness in a brand new light, irrespective of my identity as a musician. And I noticed something very interesting was taking place: when I stopped adhering to the Culture’s template for success, a hidden tap of torrential creative inflow had opened up within me.
So I am re-envisioning the way I make, teach, and share music as an empowered creative person. And I want others who have lost their way to reclaim their sublimated power, and find their true place as a musician in a completely novel way. That is, according to them and their values, rather than the dictates of the Culture.
What if, instead of constraining ourselves within the narrative of a rigid system that rewards only a few, we empowered individual creativity, equitable artistic citizenship, intellectual curiosity, interdependent goodwill within our community, and some common sense as a foundation for our personal and collective musical pursuits?
What if we leveled the battlefield so that anyone who enters the field can safely work, belong, and prosper?
Some may argue that innate musical talent, hard work, and the cultivation of personal excellence is paramount to becoming a successful professional musician. I would not argue. I would ask, however: what, exactly, are we pursuing?
Are we liberating our unique genius, cultivating wellness and wholeness, and innovating our artistry–and our industry–for the greater advancement of our society?
Or is personal success in music (typically defined by talent, status, and money) only about earning potential and maintaining good-standing within the Culture? To be worthy to fight? To be “good enough?”
I am opting out of a system that prompts me to fight. Does that mean that I am not “good enough” to cut it?
I don’t care anymore.
It means I am taking a stand for my personal truth and my values, as an artist and person of integrity. It means I do my own inner work and take care of my dirty laundry. It means I risk my neck to envision a viable, wholehearted, and active solution to transmute the issues we are facing in our musical culture. It means I will lean right into our problems, rather than complain about them, bemoan my fate as an “outsider,” or call it quits.
We can formulate a solution that liberates us from the insanity of the Culture’s model encouraging the “survival of the fittest” by exercising the infinitely resourceful powers of our creativity, and inspiring a radically hospitable vision for our personal and collective future. Everyone has a purpose. Everyone has a place.
But first, we need to get our hands dirty.
Courage To Step Off the Battlefield
We must recognize that the Culture is going to uphold its familiar professional paradigms, and suppress our creative resources, unless we awaken to the imbalanced nature of this ecosystem, and dare to transcend its narrow definition of what is possible for you and me.
We need to look up.
We need to heal.
We need to get scrappy.
We need to take a risk.
We need to expand.
And we need a damn vision.
We need to learn how to make music from the inside-out, rather than the outside-in. That is, to allow the fullest and perhaps unexpected expression of our fulfillment, desire, and deep gladness inform our creative outlets in the world (and not the other way around).
That’s the kind of vision I will buy into.
But you need to walk off the battlefield for a moment and gain a higher perspective. You need to leave the door ajar for a fresh breeze to waft in, and be available for what that might be. We need to ask better questions, then get quiet, and actually listen.
What does Music whisper in your ear?
What are the possibilities for you?
How do you want to feel when you work? Live? Make art?
What would you do if you were no longer confined to being the “best?”
Or NOT the “best?”
I recommend you take a stand for your stories, and for yourself. I encourage you to be steadfastly devoted to your own potential. I don’t mean in the way that we have all been taught, which is to compete and win at the same things as everyone else: this is the shadow of our musical culture.
Rather, observe and be curious about what is moving through you, and why.
I encourage you to forge a path forward that empowers your particular brand of genius, rather than shuts it down. I want you to be wise and well in your art-making, and to touch what might just be that essential element we all possess, but rarely mine: that truest vein of gold that is our personal truth. That which is of untold value, if only we dare to share it.
Why not trailblaze a future of sustainable creativity, artistic fulfillment, and personal prosperity not only for ourselves, but for our students, and for our students’ students? And especially for those who have been pushed to the sidelines, exhausted on the battlefield, or wiped out completely.
We all have an unfinished symphony lingering on our mind, and weighing on our heart. Do we deign to pick up our pencil and rewrite the score?
The Next Movement
Once we appreciate the larger trends dictated by the Culture, we can recognize its ill symptoms. Once we acknowledge our corrupt narrative of worthiness defined by professional achievement, we have the agency to redefine our success. And once we have the courage to claim our own vision, we will finally recognize that the Culture has no authority to dictate our status, rank, and price tag.
We will understand that we, alone, are the arbiters of our artistic fulfillment, borne of our individual creative genius radiating into the world, in greater service to the whole of society.
Music continues to whisper to me: Don’t give up. There is a wiser way. But you need to be truly brave to forge that path.
I know it. I am forging my way. And I will persevere in walking that path, gripping at my courage, and sweet-talking Plutone for as long as may be required for this new vision to take root.
Because we will continue to be caught in the pedantic grind of an outmoded musical culture groaning under its own weight unless we shift our perspective, raise our voice, and refute this insidious narrative of not-enoughness.
And with Wisdom, Love, and Humility at our backs, I believe we can make better music together.
I’m already walking. Come along, if you like.
Prologo: Claudio Monteverdi, L’Orfeo, First Edition, Venice: Ricciardo Amadino, 1609.
I. Mold for a Large Female Head, 4th century B.C., Unknown Artist (Greek (South Italian))
II. Muse with lyre, Fragment of a Gnathian Bell Krater, about 350 B.C., Konnakis Painter (Greek (Gnathia))
III. Inlay in the Form of an Eye, 1540–1070 B.C., Unknown artist/maker (Egyptian)