The complex ins and outs of a life in music: The Story of ‘Tuba Bob.’

A recent post on a classical music forum on social media asked the following: ‘Why are so many artists today concerned with equity of outcome as opposed to equity of opportunity?’ One of the responses seemed to imply that if you just work hard enough, you’ll be successful–and anyone who isn’t successful is either lazy, whiny, or just doesn’t have what it takes. For those of us who are professional musicians–and those who had the opportunity and turned from the path because of, well, you know–this is probably the most insulting thing we can hear. Whether the comment was callous, malicious, or just ignorant, I am not certain, but in response I offer this humble parable in hopes of illuminating why the response was so unacceptable–and erroneous. This is the (fictional, but plausible) story of Bob the Tuba Player:

Bob is the principal tuba player at Mid-Size City Symphony (MSCS.) He’s 48 years old, married, has 2 kids in high school, and owns a home. He’s a respected member of the Mid-Size City musical community, as well as the tuba world in particular and the professional music community in general. Bob went to Top Music School, where he did his grad work after going to Excellent State Music Program for undergrad. Before undergrad, he played in Top 5 Youth Orchestra, studied with Professional Symphony Tuba Player, and did a few high level summer music festivals. Top 5 Youth was 2 hours from where he lived, so he had to make a 4 hour commute every Saturday for rehearsal. His teacher lived an hour away, so that was 2 hours every week. Bob’s parents were very proud and supportive of Bob, but they were solidly middle class, not wealthy–so Bob’s accomplishments came because of small and slightly larger sacrifices they made, and Bob had to take student loans for his undergrad, though he was lucky enough to have a fellowship for his grad work. After he got his masters, Bob did a few fellowship positions and took a number of auditions. For 6 years Bob networked, taught, performed in small orchestras, and generally hustled like crazy. He took 8 professional auditions, and lost them all (along with the money he spent preparing for the auditions and traveling to them.) Finally, he won the job at MSCS at the age of 30–6 years after grad school–and, after winning tenure 3 years later, finally felt somewhat stable.
MSCS has had some financial issues lately, and over the last 5 years the orchestra reduced their roster from 90 full time musicians to 70. Last year they tried to make more cuts and reduce the size to 65, but a strong campaign mounted by the musicians association, union, and certain donors successfully held that off. Bob was happy. Not only did he get to keep his job, but he got to keep his lifestyle, which he really enjoys.
In addition to his position at MSCS, he teaches at Really Good University. He has a small studio there, with 5 undergraduate tuba majors and 3 grad students, but over the last 10 years he has grown the low brass program into something special. A number of his students have gone on to win positions with major orchestras, and now some of the top brass students in the country make getting to study with Bob their top priority. Low brass jobs open up relatively infrequently, and Bob always knows when someone is getting ready to retire or leave their position, so he is able to help his students professionally, often tailoring their training to prepare them for specific jobs he knows will be available in the next few years.
One such student is Lisa. Lisa grew up in a small town, and her family doesn’t care for music at all. She never really fit in at school, and had a really tough time socially even after joining the band. She was the only girl in the brass section in both middle school and high school, and had to fight for respect and opportunity every step of the way. She managed to win it in every instance, because her talent was always too bright and obvious to ignore, but it has left her perpetually exhausted.
When Bob heard her audition, he was instantly mesmerized and offered her not only a spot, but the spot in his studio: graduate assistant. Lisa was initially a bit wary of all the positive attention–she had heard stories, and seen first-hand, some of the questionable behavior of some teachers toward certain students–but Bob had a sterling reputation and set her at ease. In their first session Bob talked with her about this issue and the greater issue of sexism in music, and promised to do what he could to help her. Bob knew she wasn’t just good–she was as good as Bob himself, with the chance to surpass him in a few years, and Bob was wise enough to see the opportunity to mentor Lisa and avoid feeling jealous.
A few months went by, and things were going well for Bob and for Lisa, who somehow managed to exceed the already lofty expectations Bob had for her.

One day Bob heard that Bigger City Symphony (BCS) would have a major retirement at season’s end: that of their tuba player, whom Bob had subbed for one season a few years earlier while the BCS tuba player was on sabbatical. Bob knew that this was a perfect job for Lisa, and that her sound, phrasing, and musicianship would be perfect for BCS. Moreover, this was the first full-time principal tuba job in the country that had come open in 4 years, and he knew that it would probably be at least 3 or 4 more before another one opened up, so he went above and beyond in laying the groundwork to make Lisa their top candidate.
Then came the bad news: after a market correction and the election of a new MSCS president, it was announced that MSCS would cut down their season. The alarm grew louder and louder and louder as it became evident that what seemed to be small problems were bigger than anyone had realized, and finally came the stunning news: at the end of the season, MSCS would disband.
Bob and his colleagues were aghast. 70 musicians were now to be out of work. The starting salary at MSCS was $65,000.00 per year, plus benefits, and many musicians had been there for quite a while and were making well over $100,000.00. Frantic phone calls and emails were sent by the members of MCS to arts administrators at other orchestras across the country, and a few musicians were offered positions elsewhere—most of them temporary.

Bob knew that, on average, there are only 250-300 jobs available in American orchestras in any given year–and now nearly 70 musicians were going to be auditioning for them. The members of the string section had a fair number of jobs to which they could apply, and a reasonable number of substitute gigs to tide them over; but the timpanist and harpist would have to wait at least a year, as there weren’t any principal jobs to apply for, and many of the winds and brass had only a few potential positions each.
Bob was secure with his University job, and so wasn’t as panicked as some of his colleagues, and he also had a few sub gigs that would help tide him over. But he worried, and wondered what was next–he loved playing in the symphony, loved the repertoire and had built a wonderful and special rapport with the members of the MSCS brass section.
Then it happened. BCS called him one day, ostensibly to speak about Lisa and her upcoming audition. But then he got the offer: ‘Bob, we heard about MSCS. We’re so very sorry. Would you like the BCS job? It’s yours if you want it. We all know you, the section loves you, and the orchestra would be thrilled to have you. Think it over, but really–we want you!’ Bob is torn. He needs the job, and he truly loves BCS. It would be a pay raise, and though he’d have to move his family he knows it would work for them. But he’s promised to do everything possible to help Lisa win this job. He’s seen the work she’s put in. She’s more than qualified for the position–heck, she’s made some adjustments and, at this point, is a better player than Bob. Sure, she’s young and there will be other chances down the road…probably. But Bob knows just how tough that road will be. He also knows that the next 2 jobs likely to be made available, one in 3 years’ time and another in 4 or 5, are both with teachers who once taught Lisa and were angry with her–one because she was better than the teacher, and the other because she rejected his romantic advances. True, Lisa had been nothing but professional, had never complained or said anything public about their behavior, had tried her best to be a good colleague when she met them at festivals, workshops, and conferences–but they still held their grudges, and Lisa knew that it was a small enough world that it could be a problem. And Bob wondered: could I really compete with–and take a job away from–my student? It wasn’t merely altruistic: Bob had put an enormous amount of work into making sure Lisa was in the best position to get this job. Was he really prepared to waste that effort?

So now I say to the social media forum poster: please don’t tell us that it is just a matter of working harder, or networking more, or that we can’t handle it and shouldn’t be trying. When someone has poured their heart and soul and hours and hours a day for years and years and years into their craft and profession, nobody has the right to tell them that they’re not cut out for it. Nobody has the right to say that trying to raise money for a project or building something or wanting their work to bear some fruit is ‘asking for a handout.’ Shame on you. Not everyone will win a job with Big City Symphony, or become a World Famous Soloist, or become Hallowed-and-Wise Conservatory Professor. But your remarks embody the problem–disguising them as ‘solutions’ is absolutely horrible.