How Perfectionism Keeps Musicians Underpaid
Updated: Nov 10
Throughout nearly two decades of playing and teaching music professionally, in multiple countries, both in conservatory and out, I have a lot of opinions about the classical music industry.
The way we are trained conditions us to accept bad treatment, even abuse, from people above us in the hierarchy.
One of the more insidious traits ingrained in us is perfectionism.
I know that sounds ridiculous. Surely there are worse things than being a perfectionist?! And what’s wrong with wanting to sound great, and achieve our dreams?
At the root of perfectionism is the belief that we cannot share our point of view with the world until it is unshakeable. Until no one could find fault with it. (Now I sound like I’m writing an nyt opinion, yikes!)
This creates a few thought patterns that I see in my peers, my students, and myself, every day.
One: that perfection is actually a quantifiable standard, and that it can be achieved. (Not true.)
Two: we have to earn the right to be heard by being perfect, and we don’t deserve to be heard otherwise. (Hello impostor syndrome!)
Three: We either work ourselves to the bone in the pursuit of perfection, pushing through injuries and burnout, or we hit a wall and feel so defeated at the idea that others could reach perfection and we never will. (Hello existential crisis.)
I’ve seen countless students traumatized by their own perfectionism. Mostly because as a whole, our culture treats perfectionism as a positive thing. An innocuous thing. As good motivation. But it quickly turns in to a paralyzing force, destroying our confidence and keeping us from our creativity. We chase a standard that is unachievable, for anyone.
Because what does perfection actually mean? What are we really striving for?
The word perfect comes from Latin, via the verb perficere— to finish, to bring to completion. (Yes, I am a nerd. I’m a two-time Jeopardy! champion, after all. I bet you wondered when I’d drop that in there!) The implication is that there IS a point at which something will be finished, and complete. But the problem is that we never go further with the idea of perfect— who decides when something is complete? By whose standards? Our teacher’s? The conductor’s? Our own? (The latter is a bit less prevalent, but it at least could give a clearer idea of what we are looking for, if we are defining our own standards.) We are making art, and this process is so subjective that hardly anyone would actually agree what perfect really is.
This attitude keeps us constantly working to improve ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with that on the surface, but perfectionism infuses our work with a particular type of anxiety that sabotages our confidence as we practice. Even if we are improving according to plan, our perception of ourselves shifts as our confidence falls, and we end up with a Sisyphean task that we will never finish. Because when we constantly repeat to ourselves that it’s not good enough, what we hear is that WE aren’t good enough, and we start to believe it.
Since we may also believe that we aren’t worthy of being heard unless we are perfect (we’d probably call it “good enough,” but that isn’t what we mean), we will push ourselves beyond our limits in the time leading up to a performance. Since we never end up feeling “good enough” to deserve the attention of the audience, feelings of shame and unworthiness trigger performance anxiety, and our experience of performing is not what we planned on. Thus reinforcing our opinion that we aren’t good enough.
This is where this ties in to pay.
When we don’t believe we are good enough, we will accept low pay, because we don’t believe that we deserve more.
A 2020 study from Stanford found a correlation between the gender pay gap and the research subjects’ levels of confidence and self-efficacy. Of course, there are many factors at work here, and the gender pay gap cannot only be explained as a question of an individual’s confidence, because of the gendered way that we treat confidence— anyway, a topic for another time. What I see in this is the idea that there is a relationship between a person’s self-confidence and their compensation, and I think that we can apply this to all young musicians, regardless of gender. As a group, we do not have the confidence to advocate for ourselves. We accept an organization’s apology that they “wish they could offer more, but…” the funding isn’t there. It isn’t unheard of to be offered a gig with no mention of the pay, which then requires the awkward follow-up email or call asking about the details. And of course, organizations themselves are often limited by this too! Asking about money in the arts has been a taboo since at least the industrial age— if someone cared about the Art, the money wouldn’t really matter to them, after all.
Throughout the years of our training, even very early on, it’s easy to see that the most talented students get the most opportunities. If we make first chair, we play the solos. We do concerto competitions and honor ensembles and we apply to conservatories and take auditions. The students who are the most promising get the most attention and the most resources, and it feels GREAT to be recognized that way. We believe that if you show merit, you get rewarded for it, and that there is a linear path for us to follow. But when we leave that nest, that attention and those resources are much more limited. It’s easy to believe that we aren’t good enough at playing, and need to work harder— but we don’t realize that success in the industry has so many more variables than what we had experienced before. Before, we did well, someone noticed, and we were rewarded with other opportunities. That happens sometimes in the freelance world, but more often than not there is no linear trajectory. One day you’re playing a film call, the next day you’re playing a trio recital in front of the fish counter at Waitrose, then you play an orchestra gig for a great rate, and the next gig offers you half that rate. When work dries up, the first instinct is that something is wrong with us, not that maybe there’s a recession.
Maybe if we were perfect, we think, we would get asked to do better paying gigs, but we aren’t getting better gigs, so we must not deserve it.
Add this to the messaging we hear constantly about how there are dozens of equally (or more!) talented players out there, ready to take the gig, we accept the shit sandwich that we are offered.
We don’t believe our contribution is as valuable of that of other, perfecter people. When our confidence is consistently undermined, we lack the mental energy to push back.
I don’t want this to turn in to a neoliberal argument where the individual is blamed for choices that they make within a structural problem. It’s not our fault that we never believe we are good enough— it’s reinforced around us everywhere we look. I had a teacher whose highest compliment in lessons was “I have nothing to say.” !!!! I’m sure many of us, during our training, only expected to find out what is wrong with us. It’s a very efficient way of getting through a lesson, but as teachers we forget how important it is to help our students grow their confidence, and how harmful it can be to think of positive feedback as frivolous. We forget that we are people, with messy emotional needs, learning how to make our way in an industry that consistently implies that we don’t deserve better.