You Don’t Get What You Don’t Pay For

The other day I came across a series of articles, seemingly unrelated – except they weren’t.  The first was about why Vietnam is now producing perhaps the majority of great young chess players in the world.  The second was a news report on the Gina Bachauer International Artists Piano Competition in Salt Lake City, and the third was a table of the average salaries of U.S. university professors by area of specialty.

The Vietnamese are producing chess champions and prodigies, it seems, because [gasp!] they pay them.  Gifted young players are paid from $300 to $500 a month to learn and play chess, and the best get all expenses paid to play in tournaments world-wide.  These are substantial incentives in a country where the average monthly family earnings are around $100.  Of course, American teenagers spend more than that monthly on what the Vietnamese would likely consider luxuries, and in the United States young chess players must count on the support of family or charitable organizations… and despite being one of the largest and most prosperous nations in the world, we have comparatively very few international class chess masters.

The finals of the Gina Bachauer Piano Competition were held in Salt Lake City last week, and of the eight finalists, one was Russian, one was Ukrainian, and the other six were Asian. This pattern has been ongoing for close to a decade, if not longer.  We haven’t produced a true giant in piano performance in decades, but then, the top prize is a mere $30,000, hardly worth it for Americans, apparently, not when it takes 15 plus years of study and hours upon hours of daily practice – all for a career in which the top-flight pianists generally make less money than whoever is 150th on the PGA money list.

All this might just tie in to the salaries of university professors.  The three areas in which university professors’ salaries are the lowest are, respectfully, from the bottom: theology/religion; performing and visual arts; and English.

I’m cynical, I know, but I don’t think that this is coincidental.  In the United States, mainstream religions [who generally require some intensive theological training] are losing members left and right.  The highest-paid performing and visual artists are those who can provide the most spectacular show, not the most technically sound performance, and most “professional” pop singers could not even match the training or technical ability of the average graduate student in voice, but technical ability doesn’t matter, just popularity, as witness American Idol.  As for English, when 60% of all college graduates aren’t fully technically competent in their own language, this does suggest a lack of interest.

The other factor in common in these areas is that the average semi-educated American believes that he or she knows as much as anyone about religion, singing, dancing, acting, and English as anyone.  And that’s reflected in both what professors are paid and in what experts in those fields are paid. The problem is that popular perceptions aren’t always right, regardless of all the mantras about the “wisdom of the crowd.”  The highest paid professors – and professionals – in the United States today are in the field of business and finance.  That’s right – those quant geniuses who brought you all the greatest financial melt-down since the Great Depression, not to mention the “Flash Crash” of a month or so ago when technical glitches resulted in the largest fastest one-day decline in the market ever.  Oh… and just as a matter of national pride, if you will, why do professors of foreign languages get paid 8-10% more than professors of English? Especially when the mastery of English is at a decades-low point?

More to the point, it’s not just about singers, writers, English professors, but about all of society.  We may complain about the financiers and their excesses, but we still allow those excesses.  We may talk about the importance of teachers, police, firefighters, and others who hold society together, but we don’t truly support them where it counts.

As a society, we may not always get what we pay for, but you can bet we won’t get what we don’t pay for.

5 thoughts on “You Don’t Get What You Don’t Pay For”

  1. hockey fan says:

    I’ve been in the top 100 rated list in the United States for playing chess for my age group, and you’re right, I never received any help or money from the government. What I did get was to be in a chess club when I was in elementary school that was run by the father of one of my friends, who gave away his free time to help us learn and become better at chess, as well as give us a large pool of players to compete against. He took me with other kids to my first chess tournament and after elementary school it was up to me to study and read about it if I wanted to continue to get better. I was also lucky in that my parents were well enough off at the time that they could afford chess books to give me to read, but not so well off that I could get lessons from some type of coach.

    If not for my family and the charity of my friends father I doubt I would be nearly as talented at chess as I am now.

  2. As usual, thought-provoking; which means that I will disagree on the one topic I do know about: classical piano.

    As it happens, I went to summer music camp with Emanuel Ax, and kept in touch afterwards. He is actually doing quite well — I would be surprised if he is not doing better than Number 150 on the PGA list, considering his posh apartment on Riverside Drive in NYC.

    If Emanuel’s experiences with piano competitions are any guide, the preponderance of Asians in the competition are likely the result of two factors: one, Asians, like Eastern European Jews before them, view professional classical musicianship as having international social cachet; two, the Bachauer competition will not likely lead to the highest professional career in the US. The Bachauer does not have the reputation of the Tschaikovsky in Moscow or even the Rubinstein in Israel, in either the US or Europe. Emanuel went the rounds of the major competitions back in the 1970s, and the Bachauer was nowhere on his list.

    Another problem is that the market will simply not support all the topflight pianists that schools in the US and elsewhere are turning out. This is not a matter of decadence or bad businesses or governments; it simply reflects the fact that this is a mature market, and more people are entering it than ever before, encouraged by classical instrument teaching (especially piano) that is now prevalent not only across the US, but also in Europe and increasingly in Asia. The lack of money is not deterring excellence, any more than it is in acting, where (as my sister testifies) most actors cannot make a living, and have not been able to do so since time immemorial. The real deterrence is simply a fixed limit on the number of good pianists supported by the classical music industry.

    The rest of this is imho. For piano as for violin (my instrument), the fundamental failure of classical music is to fail to engage people at concerts to put themselves in the place of the performer. Despite the lessons, few spectators at concerts are able to compare performers, much less imagine how they might vary the performance — something certainly not true of rock, jazz, or sports. The only medium of engagement is “technical prowess” — a very bad gauge, since it rewards speed and the ability to perform the musical equivalent of tongue-twisters over the ability to establish an individual “singing voice” (did you know that pianists like Glenn Gould and Emanuel like to sing as they play, in order to encourage that individual voice?). This distance between performer and audience results in an audience, if it attends at all, that by and large feels incompetent to judge performances and thinks that attendance is a social duty, and the result of that is inability to expand the paying audience. The fault for this lies squarely with the classical music arbiters who (as in the case of Emanuel’s competitions) value technical prowess over musicality.

    You may remember a movie called The Competition, which presents a surprisingly accurate account of the subtexts of a classical piano competition (they actually underplayed the importance of whether the judges liked the competitor’s teacher). Note, however, that what wins the prize is not Mozart — it is the monotonous, technically fiendish Prokofiev.

  3. Nathaniel G says:

    I agree with Wayne- thought provoking, but I’ll raise one counterpoint. Your claim in regards to English teachers is that they are so lowly paid because we do not value them, but I’d counter it’s because according to the market we don’t have to. The vast majority of English undergrads cannot/do not find jobs related to their field of study, which means there is an oversupply of people looking to go into a PhD program. This results in, unlike business PhDs where they have such an undersupply that they pay the students 20-25k a year, English PhDs require the students to pay them. Even so, they still at the other end have more graduate students looking for professorships than there are spaces available, which means that universities can slash the pay of those professors.

    The end result, of course is the same- English professorships aren’t well paid, so we don’t have as many great professors as we need. The root problem, though, is too many English undergraduates with no plans as to what to do after college and too much willingness to take out more student loans while they figure it out. It hasn’t been that long since college for me, and I still remember all those people who, in April/May of their graduating year, started “thinking about looking for a job”. I don’t know about theology, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the same phenomenon with visual/performing arts students.

  4. I’m always glad to see a mention of the Bachauer Competition! There were, however, a few mistakes in this blog post. This year there were six finalists: two Ukrainian, one Russian, two Chinese, and one Japanese.

    And while there were no American finalists this year, the gold medallist of the last competition in 2006, Stephen Beus, is a native of Utah and Washington. He has a wonderful career performing around the world, and recently played at Wigmore Hall.

    Also, Nicolas Argelich, Gold Medallist from 1994 is having an extraordinary career as of late, performing almost nightly in Europe and the United State’s most prestigious venues.

    And, of course, Van Cliburn, arguably the greatest and most famous pianist of the 20th century, is also an American.

    Regarding Wayne’s comments, the Bachauer Competition began in 1976, so I’m not surprised he didn’t participate in it in the 70’s. Since then, it has become one of the most prestigious competitions in the world. If you were to ask most international pianists, they would put the Bachauer Competition in the top 10 in the world, and the top 3 in the United States. Look at the resumes of these winners if you don’t believe me: Vassily Primakov, Nicolas Argelich, Cedric Pescia, Stephen Beus, Sara Davis Beuchner, Nareh Arghamanyan, Kevin Kenner, and Armen Babakhanian.

  5. This post — and the responses to it — are indeed thought-provoking.

    If I had to hazard a guess, I’d guess that the #1 reason why classically-performed music — of any kind — can’t draw crowds the way Lady GaGa or Pink draw crowds, is that the classical ‘sound’ is largely historical, in the same way that Big Band music is now largely historical.

    Popular artists and singers in 2010 are still mining the seemingly-endless musical vein that was discovered when Rock’n’Roll emerged from the Blues tradition after WWII. Since then, Rock-offshoot music has dominated and/or infused its way into almost all popular music, birthing many subgenres along the way. True classical singing and performing — beautiful as it may be to the educated ear — is now only only enjoyed via the distant-echo of symphonic motion picture soundtracks — and in the halls of our conservatories and few remaining public school music programs.

    Which is not to say that trained performers cannot succeed or become popular and/or well-paid and/or well-known. They just won’t do it performing ‘precision repetition,’ of the sort Wayne describes. They will do it by taking their talent + training and adapting those to the original popular styles, often as part of a group or band, though not always. Annie Lennox might be a good example of someone who has been commercially successful, using her classical training towards popular ends. If she’d gone the conservatory route, few would know who she is and she’d probably not have attained even 1/100th of the fame or fortune she has now.

    As for impoverished professorial salaries, I blame administrative overhead before I blame voters. My father was recently telling my wife and I how his older brother was able to put himself through engineering school at the University of Utah — to the tune of $50 US per quarter. Not counting books, which were only about $25 for a full classload. Stunning is not the word.

    Obviously inflation had a lot to do with the astronomical rise in tuition and textbook cost, between my dead uncle’s time and mine, but inflation alone cannot explain it. Administrative positions — those not directly related to research or teaching — have multiplied tremendously, as have the per-capita salaries being offered, especially to top-tier administrators. And we’ve not even mentioned benefit entitlements yet, which have also been enlarged tremendously.

    Basically, the ‘bad’ cost is in the bureaucracy. Or at least that’s my estimation, having been exposed to the inner workings of small-college schools when I had a stipended position at a little college in Washington State. The number of positions ‘required’ to keep that little school running, beyond the instructors, was boggling. And I strongly suspected — still suspect — that this was yet another demonstration of Pournelle’s Iron Law of bureaucracy. Ergo, the administration was there, more for its own sake, than for the sake of the teachers or the students.

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