Written by Karen Rile
Published: May 17, 2014 at 4:48 AM [UTC]
A few weeks ago I published a magazine profile on a gifted, prolific young composer, Joseph Hallman, whose grit, dedication, and talent have taken him far, despite a disadvantaged start in life:
...Hallman’s composing career is blossoming with accolades, commissions, and critical approbation. He’s been listed by WQXR as one of the 100 top composers under 40. Philadelphia Orchestra members are (still) playing his works, as are such internationally recognized concert artists as cellist and MacArthur fellow Alisa Weilstein, tubist Carol Jantsch, and members of the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland orchestras. Most recently, he received a 2014 Grammy nomination for two pieces recorded on Sprung Rhythm, the debut album by the Maryland-based Inscape Chamber Orchestra.... (from "The Outsider Who Wouldn't Take No for an Answer". Read the rest here.)
Nowhere is the power of privilege more starkly obvious than in the classical music world, particularly among string players. Because he was an outsider, and poor, Hallman had a late start in music. Lucky for him, he was a bassoonist, not a string player, and bassoon players typically begin older because of the physical demands of the instrument. What if he'd fallen in love with violin or cello, where players begin as young as three and rarely older than seven or eight? Would he have had a career at all, given his circumstances?
Privilege: it's what we all want, but hate to admit that we have. I'll say it here: my own kids were lucky to have decent teachers and instruments. They did nothing to deserve this fortune; it was an accident of birth. They had a parent who could forgo income to supervise their practicing and drive them around to lessons and rehearsals. They had access to to the higher echelons of the pre-college music world because their parents were able to figure out how to navigate the system, even though we are not musicians ourselves. That's cultural capital in action. Consciously and unconsciously we pass information and techniques for how to manage the world onto our children. Mozart became "Mozart" for many reasons, not the least because his father Leopold understood the system.
When my oldest daughter was a young teenager she came home one Saturday from youth orchestra rehearsal brimming the painful realization that the kids who who won spots in competitive strings programs had families who either could afford lessons and instruments or who had enough insider knowledge to figure out how to get them these things. An extreme example was the 11-year-old, not even a particularly serious player, whose parents had bought her a Stradivarius (as a tax shelter, an investment.) She studied with one of the top, and most expensive teachers in the city and was placed in the elite orchestra, last chair. How could a child from a disadvantaged background compete in this arena? "This system isn't fair," my daughter said. For her, it was a political awakening.
As they grew older, our girls began to wonder about kids who had never had these privileges. How many would-be Mozarts were forfeit to their generation for lack of cultural capital? The massive loss to humankind seemed devastating.
You could argue that there are many examples of successful classical musicians (and I can name several) who rose to prominence, or at least qualified success, despite a lack of privilege. But their narratives stick in our heads because they are extraordinary and they confirm our romantic from-the-bootstrap idealism.
The truth is, it's an uneven playing field, and it tilts, undeniably, away from the have-nots. And in this way the state of classical music is a metaphor for life. It's tempting to say that a musician like Joseph Hallman succeeds because his early deprivation made him spunky and tireless. Or to suggest that he has achieved so much at a young age because he was forced to struggle. The implication is that deprivation is an advantage itself and fosters ambition.
But isn't that a little condescending? Hallman succeeds and will continue to, because he was born with energy and a resilient spirit. That's his birthright, his unearned advantage. Just imagine what happens if we move him, or another gifted, disadvantaged musician, up the continuum of material privilege.
We commend those who rise from adversity to advantage but we must never (and you do not) condemn those who recognize and avail themselves of the blessings of their legacy.
We commend all who rise up from disadvantage to accomplishment but we must never condemn (as you do not) those who are blessed with the hard work, sacrifice and achievement of their parents.
How terribly sad (and infuriating) they are.
Thank you for the article, Karen, and recognising the system for what it is (doing so seems to be terribly hard for some people).
The word "privilege" itself comes from privi-legium, a law that favors a single individual—and thus is inherently unfair. Somehow I think what is being discussed here is something more complex than that.
Nevertheless, the article and the comments are interesting.
Without motivation no child will become a significant success AND carry that through a career. Likewise without some means - the question here is to what extent 'means' makes it possible to be a successful violinist. Means - and its extreme end, privilege, has its hazards at both ends. Too little and the basics may be beyond reach - that is an instrument and a teacher (or even an environment where either exist). With the minimum the child has obstacles at every turn - even transport to lessons and ensembles. However, too much has its own pitfalls: the child pursues an easy development continually reassured that they are successful and then only hits their limited ability reality much later in life or once things get tough they are ill equipped to deal with it. I suspect tantrums are not very effective with top teachers.
To my eye, true 'musical privilege' has much less to do with resources (beyond the essential minimum as above) but is to be immersed in it from an early age and to be challenged to achieve and also appreciated for one's efforts.
It's easy to say that one's person resources don't make much of a difference--when you come from privilege. And we can all come up with examples of people who did not make the most of their privilege. I have heard very privileged people claim that their well-cushioned situation was a "disadvantage" because it hampered their ambition. Let them look a truly disadvantaged person in the eye and say that with a straight face.
I'm writing another column about individuals who overcome economic and social injustice and do succeed in music. But we must resist the temptation to claim that systematic injustices don't matter.
Hmm...it's a pretty big assumption, and of course the basic assumption of conservatism: IF you are wealthy THEN you must have worked hard. It's sometimes true, but by no means always true. Privilege is gained in all manner of ways, including corruption, nepotism, inexplicable media exposure. It's difficult to justify, for example, the amount of work put in by an emergency room doctor in an inner city and (or a doctor working for Doctors without Borders) and a hedge fund manager:
One makes millions, and one doesn't. One has extreme privilege, the other doesn't.
The assumption made by the privileged, as shown in the first comment, shows us that they will, regardless of the source of the privilege, be quick to pat themselves on the back for their supposed work ethic, cleverness, and value to society.
I had a burning desire but average talent but rather than moan about what I didn't have I am grateful for what I did have: loving parents, siblings who didn't envy me, a teacher who didn't throw me out for not practicing, an adequate violin, a culture that considered classical music an aspirational value, a professional symphony orchestra, youth orchestras etc.
Some of my peers play in professional orchestra and studied at conservatories. I don't think any had any more advantages from privilege that I had.
We've got to address what causes and contributes to poverty. We could no doubt come up with a whole page of factors. I'll name just a few -- alcoholism, gambling, illegitimacy. I have no illusions that we can wipe out these ills overnight, but we can make headway.
188.8.131.52: "… the basic assumption of conservatism: IF you are wealthy THEN you must have worked hard. It's sometimes true, but by no means always true. Privilege is gained in all manner of ways, including corruption, nepotism, inexplicable media exposure."
I agree with most of this -- especially regarding "corruption, nepotism, inexplicable media exposure." But conservatism doesn't hold that if you're wealthy, you must have worked hard. I am staunchly conservative on economic, political, and social issues -- no apology. And here in the USA, at least, one can legitimately become wealthy by work, thrift, inheritance, gifts -- often a combination of these.
Still, America is NOT a class society -- no matter how much the class-envy crowd keeps screeching otherwise. Here the haves and have-nots are not like two different races. They are often the very same people -- at different stages of their lives.
I know. I started my own business 18 years ago and am going strong today. In the beginning, I knew what it was like to live VERY frugally. It was a matter of survival. And I've known what it's like to live free and clear. Yet, even in my leanest months, I never -- even once -- envied my better-off neighbors ONE PENNY of what was theirs.
So, on the question of moving someone "up the continuum of material privilege" -- I can't help recalling Benjamin Franklin's words: "Many a man would have been worse if his estate had been better." Whether this would have proved true for Hallman -- or Beethoven -- I don't know. But from my own experience, I'd say most of us, before learning how to handle success, would probably do well to learn first how to handle adversity.
The socially conservative values I uphold are Judeo-Christian values such as pre-marital chastity, marital fidelity, private-property rights, a secure national border, protecting the unborn life -- while allowing for exceptions to preserve the mother's life or health. That's just a start -- I'm sure you get an idea of where I'm coming from.
On the economic side: I am a champion of free-market capitalism; but I abhor crony-capitalism -- or, more accurately in some cases, crony-socialism. I favor the consumption tax and, as a first step toward it, a flat tax. Regarding the evils of corruption, cronyism, corporatism: Again, I'm realistic enough to know we can't purge these ills overnight. But there are things we can at least begin to do at the grass-roots level.
"Thank you so much for raising this issue. It is so often the elephant in the living room. And I hate that condescending attitude that deprivations provide spunk. Truly, only someone who is privileged would say that. When I worried out loud to the financial aid office about daughter's college loan, they actually told me that her $7000 loan/year would "give her skin in the game" because I guess saddling a 22 year old with nondischargeable debt is a favor they were bestowing on her. I had to bite my tongue not to say, "So wealthy kids don't have to have 'skin in the game'?" But I didn't. And I didn't because I was well aware they had the power and I was in a position of weakness. The power imbalance is something you aware of all the time when you are not privileged and it impacts everything. It shouldn't impact the arts because we like to believe the arts is all about talent, but of course it's not, like anything else."
I agree with 184.108.40.206 in that, it appears to me, the issue you have addressed here is mostly a privilege resulted primarily from one’s economic advantage, which is a much bigger issue than privilege itself.
Privilege is a fascinating notion. I remember as a first year law student here in Canada, the idea that we were privileged was pounded into our head by our Dean since the first week of our legal education. The student body was quiet diverse, ranging from children of judges to some poor single parents on and off social assistance. However, the minute we were admitted into a law school, we were all reminded how lucky and privileged we were, even though many of us would be carrying heavy student loans for decades after graduation, and nearly 40% graduates in my year didn’t get articling position, which means they probably wouldn’t be practicing as a lawyer because the longer you waited for an articling position after graduation, the less likely you’ll get one.
Economic concerns aside, however, almost all the law graduates I know do believe we are privileged because we were given the access to the type of education that is only available to very small fraction of the population. We were privileged because we held a key that would open us not only the door of the justice system but also a whole lot of other opportunities in future. With that privilege, we also knew that we had obligations beyond to ourselves and we must work hard to contribute to the society, to the less privileged majority. To me, this is what being privileged really means.
"We do not need … legislative action to insure we are living according the Christian Bible or any other religious book or testament."
True. At the same time, note how much of American law, from the founding of the republic, is based on the Ten Commandments -- notably 6, 7, 8, and 9, which forbid murder, adultery, theft, and perjury. I don't favor returning to Puritan ways of punishing adultery -- the very idea is abhorrent; but America has become far too permissive in dealing with this problem. If you subsidize -- or even condone -- wrong behavior, then you're going to get more of that behavior.
From the Facebook link comment: "… I hate that condescending attitude that deprivations provide spunk. Truly, only someone who is privileged would say that."
Not entirely true. Again, the haves and have-nots are often the very same people at different stages of their lives. I know. I've been in both groups. In the agony of deprivation, I didn't say that "deprivations provide spunk"; but later, when I'd emerged stronger from an ordeal, I did say so, though not in those exact words. From my experience, I know that deprivations don't provide spunk. They reveal it.
"… the idea that we [law students] were privileged was pounded into our head by our Dean since the first week of our legal education."
This use -- or, more accurately, misuse -- of the words "privilege" and "privileged" is common in academia and the mainstream media. Intentionally or not, it lays a guilt trip on the audience. "Privilege" is conferred or granted. "Advantage," the word I would have picked in this context, may or may not be.
Yesterday evening, I ran a Google search on "misuse of the word privilege." This is one of the first results I found. For me, this author nails the issue:
Don't know what parts of the blog and/or responses you consider propaganda, but no one said you had to read it.
"Social mobility is extremely low, especially in the US. Born poor, your chances are you will stay poor. You do not have the right kind of connections, old boys' network does not work in your favor."
As I said earlier, America is NOT a class society -- no matter how much the class-envy hucksters keep screeching otherwise. I know a good number of people who have moved up the ladder without the "old boys' network" and without having "the right kind of connections."
My Dad was 20 years old when his father died. Dad had to put himself through college and law school. It was a struggle, especially in the early years, but he survived the ordeal and ended up doing well. I credit him with much of what I've learned about facing and dealing with life's challenges.
Kids born out of wedlock to single moms have longer odds against them. Fortunately, even for them, the US doesn't have a caste system. I've known some of these people who managed to surmount unfortunate backgrounds and ended up doing very well.
"... deprivation ... just makes one tired."
That may be true for you -- I don't know you; but it wasn't true for me. Quite the contrary, in fact. It energized me and made me more resourceful. I know plenty of other people who could tell you the same. Best of all -- it strengthened my faith in God. I realize there are those who don't believe in God. But that's another discussion.
Otherwise I am doing fine and have a decent living, thanks, but have traveled and seen enough in my life not to claim that deprivation reveals any courage. Deprivation is just society's lost potential.
In this country, upward mobility isn't, at present, what it once was -- and definitely not what it ought to be -- thanks in no small measure to the statist, socialist, job-killing policies of the current administration in Washington. But upward mobility is far from "myth." It continues -- in spite of government overreach.
I'm curious: If "deprivation is just society's lost potential," how would you propose remedying the situation?
BTW, have you actually lived in the USA? I have -- all my life. Your IP address points to "Brno, Czech Republic."
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