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The Episcopal Church of St. John Baptist    200 Main St., Thomaston, Maine  04861    (207) 354-8734       Sunday Services are at 8 am and 10 am

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A Musician’s Lot Is Not A Happy One

                  By Dr. Anthony Antolini

 If you went to the Watts Hall performance of Pirates of Penzance you may recognize the title of this article as a take-off of the number “A policeman’s lot is not a happy one.” Gilbert & Sullivan make that routine funny but what I write about is no joke – it’s the mental and physical health of professional musicians nowadays and it’s a cause for concern.

People often assume that the life of a professional musician must be nothing but fun. I have been asked what it’s like to have a job where I play music or conduct it and have so much free time to do what I like. The implication is that musicians don’t have real jobs; they just mess around and get paid for it. I’ve been questioned why I request a fee for weddings and memorial services. Musicians really do work for a living. It’s just that a lot of their work goes on where few notice it!

In April I was asked to participate in a research study conducted by the Music Industry Research Association (MIRA) entitled “Survey of Musicians.” MIRA is a nonprofit organization that supports and promotes social science research on critical issues affecting the music industry. Musicians surveyed included instrumental performers, professional singers, conductors, composers, musicians working at religious institutions and teachers.

The study was conducted in cooperation with the Princeton University Research Center. 1,227 musicians participated in the study. My column this month summarizes the findings, highlighting the challenges that musicians face. If you’d like to read more of the report please let me know and I’ll forward the complete summary to you.  Here are some of the most important findings. Quotation marks are not used.  [My own commentary appears in brackets].

•The average American musician earns income from 3.5 different music-related jobs per year. The median musician in the US earns between $20,000 and $25,000 a year.  61% of musicians said their music-related income is not sufficient to meet their living expenses. Respondents highlighted “artistic expression” as their favorite aspect of being a musician.

•Women make up about one third of musicians, and report experiencing high rates of discrimination and sexual harassment. 72% of female musicians report that they have been discriminated against because of their sex, and 67% report that they have been victim of sexual harassment. 63% of non-white musicians said they faced racial discrimination.

•Many musicians struggle with mental health problems. Half of musicians in the study reported feeling down, depressed or hopeless at least several days in the last two weeks, compared with less than a quarter of the adult population as a whole.

•The incidence of substance abuse is substantially higher among musicians than the general public. Musicians are about twice as likely to drink alcohol frequently (four or more times per week) than the population as a whole: 31% versus 16%. Drug and opioid addiction statistics show even higher percentages.

One of the interesting metrics used in the study was time spent on various activities. Performing took up an average of 14 hours a week for the majority of musicians.  Performance-related travel took an average of 5.7 hours. [For musicians in Maine this number would be considerably higher.  It is not uncommon for orchestral musicians and accompanists in Maine to travel several hours getting to and from rehearsals and performances or to teaching jobs.] The most hidden aspect of time in a musician’s day involves practicing – an activity that goes on in solitude and often consumes several hours a day but goes noticed by the public.
Another aspect of the study that might surprise non-musicians is that 61% of the respondents said that their music-related income was not sufficient to meet their living expenses. When asked about their total income, including non-music related income, 36% of musicians said their total income was insufficient to meet living expenses. 50% of non-whites and 32% of whites said their total income was insufficient. The musicians in the study perform in a wide range of genres. The average musician performed in five different genres. [By “genre” we’re talking about the type of musical activity. For example, I am an organist at St. John’s, a choral director at Bowdoin and Down East Singers, a pre-program lecturer for Bay Chamber Concerts and Portland Ovations, a music theory teacher for New England Suzuki Institute and a music editor for two different publishing houses.] The ten most common genres were: Classical (37%); Jazz (35%); Pop (35%); Folk (31%); Blues (31%); Country (38%); Christian (27%); Adult Contemporary (24%); Independent (23%); and Mainstream Rock (23 %).

The survey also asked musicians to indicate what they liked most about being a musician and what they liked least.  Positive responses highlighted the opportunity for artistic expression, performing, and collaborating with others. Several wrote that they liked aspirational and spiritual aspects of being a musician, such as “changing the world for the better through music,” and “connecting with others on a spiritual level through artistic expression.”

On the negative side, financial insecurity and time spent marketing themselves stood out as the least preferred aspects of being a musician. A generally similar pattern was found for men and women, and for whites and non-whites. A 58-year-old musician described the financial challenges as follows: “At the local level, the pay for a night club gig in 1978 was an average $100. Forty years later it is the same or less, while the cost of everything else continues to rise.”

We all know that many prominent musicians have struggled with depression, anxiety or other mental health problems.  A 2016 survey of 2,200 professional musicians in the UK found that 71% had suffered from anxiety and panic attacks, 69% had suffered from depression, and 18% had experienced other forms of mental illness.  The MIRA study found similar statistics in the US.  50% reported feeling down, depressed or hopeless at least several days in the last two weeks, compared with 25% of the general population as a whole.

A separate question asked about performance anxiety. 25% of respondents marked “Yes, and it is an ongoing issue.” 42% marked, “Yes, but it does not affect me now.” One musician described the reason for his performance anxiety this way: “Like anyone, artists and musicians want to be liked and accepted. But unique to creative people, rejection is not just about the work…it’s about you personally…because it’s your unique expression, unlike anyone else’s.”

Performing music is physically demanding. Fully half of musicians indicated that they presently have an injury, the most common involving back or neck (25%); repetitive strain (23%) and hearing (22%). One musician stated: “Vision and spine issues are making lugging gear and driving to gigs exceedingly difficult. I can’t stop, because I depend on the income.” One bright spot for musicians in recent years is that the percentage of musicians with health insurance coverage appears to have increased since the Affordable Care Act went into effect.

It’s tempting to conclude that the MIRA study is about musicians in general and not musicians who work in church music. But a startling front-page article appeared last October in the Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians (AAM) by Owen Burdick, the former music director of Trinity Church, Wall Street, New York City. Mr. Burdick wrote the article at the suggestion of AAM’s Executive Board, who felt that it would be an important wake-up call to the members of the organization. Mr. Burdick is to be commended for his candor and courage in describing an all-too-common problem among church musicians.  “…It’s no secret that I’m without a doubt the AAM poster child for cigarettes, drugs, and booze…over the past ten years since Trinity Church Wall Street and I parted company.”

Burdick details the problem of addiction among church musicians and points out that working with an addiction in a religious community often involves a less forgiving “audience” than the musician who works in a secular setting like a nightclub. This makes getting help even more difficult. For Burdick, going to Twelve-Step meetings wasn’t enough because he found that those who attended the meetings often substituted substance abuse of alcohol with excessive coffee and cigarettes.  For him, meditation provided a more satisfactory path to recovery.  “…Meditation is the only way I know to methodically study – and change – your own thought processes, and therefore your habitual responses to cues…Some call this “just sitting” a form of contemplative prayer…As long as there is no conceptual thought going on, the goal is the same. The methods and meditation practices of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, typified by John Chrysostom and Amma Syncletica, would have seemed familiar in basic substance to any historical Zen Master…Just notice your thoughts. Notice them, without judging them, expanding them, or following them down further avenues.”

“In a talk given by Pema Chödrön…in 2009…[she] said that when all the deepest emotions – grief, lust, fury, fear, all of them – well up in us, they typically last around ninety seconds before tapering off, if…we don’t continue to throw gas on the emotional fire and simply observe. If a loved one has died, and you just observe the pain in your gut, as you would hold a precious gem in your hand, looking at all the facets, just observing, not adding to but just being with the fullness of the pain, it will subside…If you spend fifteen to twenty minutes every day relaxing your mind and ‘just being’ – like a cat looking out a window, observing without judgment, utterly relaxed, yet absolutely alert – you can begin to develop the skills simply to observe the pain or craving, without giving into, or acting on, the impulse.”

Burdick’s favorite book on the subject of how to meditate is The Relaxed Mind, A Seven Step Method for Deepening Meditation Practice by Dza Kilung. Burdick has become a missionary in offering to help church musicians anywhere who are suffering from some form of addiction.  The fact that he has resurrected himself is ample proof that addicts can overcome their dependency and lead meaningful and creative lives.

Why would your music director devote an entire column to the problems musicians face? It is not a cry for help! Rather, it is a concern that in our society there’s an assumption that musicians (and perhaps artists in general) get to play around and have fun while the rest of society works for a living. I hope that you, dear reader, don’t hold these notions! Being a musician is tough, regardless of what level one operates in the profession.

I hold several jobs. Serving as music director at St. John’s is my favorite of them all. Here are a few reasons why:

You make me feel valued. I so much appreciate your comments or questions about the Hymnology column or my pieces published in Antiphon or your suggestions for hymns to sing.

You listen quietly and attentively to the preludes and postludes that I prepare for Sunday services. When guest organists play at St. John’s they often comment to me what a joy it was to play the postlude without loud conversation in the aisle.

Fr. Peter and Deacon Robert are supportive and congenial colleagues. A great deal of space is devoted in the AAM Journal and The American Organist to “musician/clergy professional concerns.” I read these articles and realize how fortunate I am that my ministry in the St. John’s worship community is not in conflict or competition with the clergy but an integral part of it.

The Bedient organ is a joy to play. It is unquestionably the finest pipe organ in Knox County and the most exciting one to play. Ask any organist who’s played it! My practice time is some of my favorite time each week.

When you sing during services I can feel the Holy Spirit in our midst. Perhaps you can too!


O blessed Lord, you ministered to all who came to you: Look with compassion upon all who through addiction have lost their health and freedom.  Restore to them the assurance of your unfailing mercy; remove from them the fears that beset them; strengthen them in the work of their recovery; and to those who care for them, give patient understanding and persevering love. Amen. BCP p. 831, Prayer 56.


O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be ever present with your servants who seek through art and music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. BCP p. 819, Prayer #17