Printer-friendly version

On Privilege

Karen Rile

Written by
Published: May 17, 2014 at 4:48 AM [UTC]

Joseph Hallman
Composer Joseph Hallman. Photo credit: Stephen Grebinski

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.)

His accomplishments are undeniably impressive for any young composer, but one must stop and ponder how much further along his career would be today, at 34, if he'd been born into more advantaged circumstances. What if his mother had been able to afford private composition lessons and summer programs? What if Hallman had parents who could have helped him pay for grad school and supported his nascent career so he did not have to work two non-music-related jobs just to make ends meet?

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.


Posted on May 17, 2014 at 7:19 PM
Nice article. Coming from a privileged background is not necessarily an advantage to a musician, though a nurturing family, talent, and dedication is invaluable. The best teachers won't take you if you haven't the ability, and a Strad will only sound good if stroked by talented hands. Carter Brey didn't start playing the cello until he was 16 and won an audition with the Cleveland Orchestra on a $750 factory made cello. Auditions for orchestras are blind and if you don't have the chops it doesn't matter how much money was thrown at you growing up.l
Posted on May 17, 2014 at 8:01 PM
Your daughters had the privilege granted by the hard work of parents and grandparents. Privilege is the product of loving families who tackle and overcome adversity. Privilege is only realized by those who grasp the potential of their background and take full advantage of it..

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.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on May 17, 2014 at 8:07 PM
Privilege is the legacy of hard working families who love their children. The truly privileged bless the world by passing on their legacy as clearly you and your husband have done.

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.

From David Rowland
Posted on May 17, 2014 at 8:41 PM
You would find Malcolm Gladwell's book, "Outliers," a fascinating read. Gladwell delves into the background of some successful people to find out what really contributed to their success.
Posted on May 17, 2014 at 10:03 PM
Really interesting points. I think that the worst problems occur for impoverished families, as most middle class families can usually afford lessons, even if not with famous teachers. Another disadvantage occurs for children in rural areas who have less access to opportunities in major cities. I agree with the for individual's comments that talent and ability are still critical. Children with extreme advantages will eventually reach a level playing field with those who had fewer opportunities.
From Graham Jenkins
Posted on May 17, 2014 at 11:46 PM
I think the first two comments say a lot about the kind of entitled, remote from reality, human beings who constitute the classical music world.

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).

Posted on May 18, 2014 at 1:05 AM
I am experiencing this right now with my 16 year old daughter who plays the violin. With 5 siblings and me having to stay home to care for her adopted and special needs siblings, she has to make up for lack of financial support with extra hard work and resiliency. Also, we live in the country and not the big city like the other kids at the conservatory and in the orchestra and have no musicians in the family nor are we connected in any way to the tight-knit classical music scene in the city. She wants to make violin her career (and somehow will) but often wonders what it would have been like had she received all the privileges other kids do.
Posted on May 18, 2014 at 9:50 AM
One could argue that the greatest "privilege" of all is being endowed with musical abilities and true talent.

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.

From jack rogers
Posted on May 18, 2014 at 1:09 PM
For those who don't know about it watch this trailer and do a little research about El Sistema. It is more about exposure and nurturing which really doesn't cost money.

From elise stanley
Posted on May 18, 2014 at 1:31 PM
I think the issue is wrapped up in two aspects: motivation and means - and this is true for whatever vocation a child may have, whether acting, art, sports, science or, as discussed here, playing the violin.

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.

From Karen Rile
Posted on May 18, 2014 at 2:23 PM
El Sistema is wonderful, and so are programs like Stanford Thompson's "Play on Philly!" I believe they are very important. But they do not replace the inequalities brought on by economic injustice.

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.

Posted on May 18, 2014 at 4:26 PM
"Privilege is the product of loving families who tackle and overcome adversity. Privilege is only realized by those who grasp the potential of their background and take full advantage of 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.

Posted on May 18, 2014 at 5:13 PM
Karen, what I think you are arguing for here is greater overall economic equality so more people have superfluous resources which they can dedicate to the activity of their choice, be it violin lessons for their children, figure skating lessons for themselves, a snowmobile for the family, or whatever. In a world moving toward ever bigger divides between the haves and have-nots this is a complex economic and political problem.
Posted on May 18, 2014 at 5:21 PM
I still contend the systematic injustice is almost solely based on things like cultural bias, ignorance, lack of exposure, and an environment that does not nurture or encourage young people to explore their musical side. Granted people with economic privilege might be more aware of the benefits of a music education and expose and encourage their kids to partake. Thereby a greater percentage of economically privileged children will succeed compared to poor children that have little chance of being exposed to classical music. I just don't think it generally matters if kids of equal ability and motivation come from a working class family or are from a wealthy family. Having monetary privilege is of no advantage when it comes to be accepted into a conservatory, or winning an audition. As a matter of fact some monetarily privileged kids might be disadvantaged because their acceptance to a top conservatory could be based largely on their ability to pay the tuition. Anyone with real ability will get scholarships. Kids that pay in full are the ones that subsidize scholarships for the most talented. When the kids that pay in full graduate they are less likely to have the chops to be able to support themselves as musicians.
From sharelle taylor
Posted on May 18, 2014 at 9:59 PM
As to that last post - you're ignoring the fact that GETTING to conservatory level is the part that privilege likely takes control.
Part of the role of privilege is also to allow a family to even imagine what more is possible. As a personal example, in my family no one had ever gone to university, I was the first to even consider the possibility. But even going to high school was dependent on me getting a bursary - despite my family's absolute support for education. Coming from parents with that sort of experience, there was no imagining what a more demanding and enriching high school program could have allowed so there was no drive to attain more than being the bigger fish that was our little pond.
From a music point of view, I have mentioned before about a friend with such talent and capacity, but because of family circumstance and imagining just didn't have the 'priveleged' exposure to early music training that would have allowed a more fulfilling and acknowledged musical career.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on May 18, 2014 at 10:22 PM
I grew up in a privileged environment. My parents had 7 kids. When I started (late) at 10 we lived in a two bedroom house. I had no opportunity to start earlier. There were no teachers. In HS I was the only one who got $8/hr lessons. My teacher was a part time school teacher and part time orchestra player with eight kids and a part time teacher. He had studied in Chicago at the end of the depression and paid $25 hour to study with Leon Sammetini. My teacher charged a premium in our town but who could hold that against him?

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.

From Jim Hastings
Posted on May 19, 2014 at 3:49 AM
Very thought-provoking article. Random thoughts after reading it and the linked piece and all preceding replies:

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. "… 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.

Posted on May 19, 2014 at 12:59 PM
I can understand economic conservatism. After all the basic principles of economics and monetary policy seems understood. Within our world free from corruption it is probably best to have boundaries and conservative values in regard to money. I never understood social conservatism. Society has always been fluid and adjusts for changes mostly due to discoveries in technology which makes the world smaller, more diverse, more interdependent, and more bountiful. To have rules and laws which would conserve the social values of the past would be illogical, unnatural, and cruel. These laws could only be implemented by force, and for what regressive purpose? In a relatively short time span we have done away with feudalism, slavery, and have equal rights for women and minorities, freedom of thought and religion, and laws to protect people from overt discrimination. Relating to music what was once a closed and privileged vocation is now more open and accessible to everyone. Things may not seem perfect to everyone but we have come a long long way.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on May 19, 2014 at 7:09 PM
I was reflecting on my privilege and this certainly helped me recognize it even more profoundly:

From Jim Hastings
Posted on May 19, 2014 at 11:30 PM
@ You raised some good points. To clarify: I don't by any means uphold or condone things like feudalism, slavery, unequal rights for women and minorities, or ideological or religious persecution -- nor do I advocate a return to any of them. Some people say that the Judeo-Christian Bible sanctions or condones these evils, but that's not true. Within its pages, there are examples of each of these social ills. And some warped minds have tried to twist these narratives to support their own twisted agendas -- e.g., slavery and oppression of women. But by the time one is through reading all 66 books, it ought to be clear that the God of the Bible doesn't give his blessing to these practices. He abhors them.

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.

Posted on May 20, 2014 at 2:44 AM
I am happy we live in a country where we have the freedom to live and worship as we please as long as by doing so we don't break any of our criminal or civil laws. There is absolutely nothing wrong and everything right with a Christian choosing to live a life style guided by Judeo-christian values as proscribed in the Bible. The only problem I have is when people try to legislate and force the rest of society to conform to their religious beliefs. Christians should lead by example. Jews should lead by example. Muslims should lead by example. Hindus should lead by example. Atheists should lead by example. It is all right to influence ones neighbors by example but I don't think it is all right to try to force ones religious views on others through political pressure. We do not need sharia law or legislative action to insure we are living according the Christian Bible or any other religious book or testament. Our constitution insures tolerance for all so that our diversity can be loved and appreciated by all.
From Karen Rile
Posted on May 20, 2014 at 4:49 PM
Back to the topic of this essay. Here's a thoughtful comment made by someone on a Facebook link:

"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."

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on May 20, 2014 at 5:29 PM
Thank you Karen for another wonderful blog!

I agree with 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.

From Jim Hastings
Posted on May 21, 2014 at 4:00 PM
From the preceding three posts:

"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:

Posted on May 22, 2014 at 6:19 AM
Jesus, those of us who were not born with the silver spoon in their mouth and luckily have a decent living, not only do we have to make quite a lot of sacrifices if our children want to play the violin but on top of that have to read such stupid propaganda.
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. Nope, deprivation does not bring any advantage, it just makes one tired.
From Jim Hastings
Posted on May 23, 2014 at 2:04 PM
@ "... not only do we have to make quite a lot of sacrifices if our children want to play the violin but on top of that have to read such stupid propaganda."

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.

Posted on May 23, 2014 at 6:41 PM
Congratulations on your resourcefulness, I consider your comments of other posts to the article poor propaganda, Karen's article is fine as usual. The numbers are unfortunately against your claims, social mobility in the US is at its lowest, upward mobility - once the hallmark of American dream - is myth these days.

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.

From Jim Hastings
Posted on May 24, 2014 at 2:23 AM
@ I find it interesting that the views and opinions you don't like are "propaganda" or "claims." The tough challenges I mentioned earlier are episodes I have actually lived through; so what I've shared doesn't fit the generally accepted definitions of those loaded terms.

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."

This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music: Check out our selection of Celtic music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases Summer Music Programs Directory
Find a Summer Music Program Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

The Wallis Presents

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine