An interview with Margarete von Vaight
Careers in the arts were always a risky proposition. Right now as companies push the pause button on their seasons there’s extra cause for concern. Can those organizations come back? And what happens to the artists?
And there’s the question of the young, considering their professional prospects, their training.
Margarete von Vaight is a singer, graduate student & friend whom I’ve been fortunate to hear singing in concert, and in private sessions where I accompanied her.
And sometimes we just chat over coffee talking about opera. Those conversations were the basis for this interview.
You were a student at the University of Toronto, studying both Music (Faculty of Music) and Business in Engineering (CMTE, ELITE, Faculty of Engineering). I understand you did a case study concerning music as it’s currently taught. How did it come about?
That is correct. Although before I delve into that, I’d like to begin by expressing my thanks for taking an interest in a project which allowed me to cross-reference my skill set and speak of it during these difficult times.
Be forewarned. This may be a very long read.
I think it’s important to provide some preamble.
Although not uncommon, I was very fortunate to simultaneously support my performance life with a “day job” in the field of finance, then project management in engineering. Hence my experience outside the artistic medium.
Musically, I finally reached a level that acknowledged my abilities internationally but that was cut short. After the impact of a major motor crash, I was forced to take an unexpected detour. It prompted me to re-strategize a path forward and get back on the mountain. Surgery and rehab meant a lot of downtimes ahead. I figured it was the ideal time to rehabilitate through my craft, update my skills at the Faculty of Music and Faculty of Engineering, and determine if there was anything I could contribute as a mature student.
And so: the case report emerged in my second year of enrollment. I’d been amongst bright-eyed and excited young musicians half my age. Simultaneously, I was auditioning in the field professionally with colleagues who were experiencing something completely different.
To be blunt, I felt it in my bones. Another 2008 was coming and I wanted to understand where we were as an industry. As non-profit organizations and educational institutions ARE businesses, I wanted to explore whether or not a gap existed between the hiring body and those entering the field. If a gap did exist, what was it, and how could we prepare those interested in pursuing a career?
Being a mature student, my needs were a little different. In one subject area where I had considerable experience, my Professor and I sat down and discussed ideas for an independent course curriculum. I proposed the above-mentioned case report. Being completely on board, she advised I needed final approval from the Dean of Music, Don McLean.
In actuality, I was in my second year and itching to leave. I felt I had accomplished what I wanted but I was frustrated. I thought there was too much analogous learning in musical subjects and several limitations placed on venturing into other faculties for music students. This is very common in post-secondary music institutions. It’s not a bad method, just one which did not align with my needs as a buyer of education at my stage of life.
Unbeknownst to him, my discussion with Don changed that. He understood my need to fly and acknowledged what I had to offer without judgment. Relaying his own experiences as a mature student whilst managing parenthood was a great relief. The logical side of me believed my internal complaints department was a form of entitlement. There was so much to be thankful for (like being on the planet). I had a pretty firm talk with myself and together with our wonderful Music Registrar, Nalayini Balasubramaniam. We made it work.
I decided to create an education passport for myself and banged on every door throughout academia, business, artistic organizations, performance personnel, and engineers (who specialized in metrics management creation) to obtain a thorough understanding of the economic/ operations landscape. If I was going to create metrics that did not exist, (Stats Canada, for example, clumps music with visual communication) for this interim report, I wanted to ensure I was looking at it from an unbiased perspective.
One year later I finished “Singing Sheep: The Gap Between Academia And The Professional Hiring Body.
Can you discuss the title?
Throughout the interviewing process, I heard (no pun intended) the term “sheep” from several subjects. To be clear, the purpose of a case report is to present data. Solutions were independent of the process and could not include the opinions of the author (myself). It was left up to the reader to conclude.
(also see the graphic at the bottom of the interview)
Once it was completed, it took a long while for a title to surface. Based on the findings, what was once an art form of creativity and independent thought has turned into a herd mentality.
As the classical music industry has had to adopt a big business approach, so too have its workforce (both newcomers & veterans) and sometimes, patrons. For artists, the pressure to maintain a celebrity-like image or constant online presence is similar to that of a large retailer issuing out the latest trends via a concentrated marketing department.
The term “Singing Sheep” was meant to be a sharp reminder that quality matters, on all fronts.
It’s the context: conforming to the way it’s always been done. Whether one is a student, a young artist, a new start-up, donor/ patron, questioning the status quo is a good thing. If we don’t, we stifle dissent and expressions of independent thought, while stagnating with a false consensus, false because disagreements are discouraged. Right now, we need creativity more than ever. The power of the human voice and spirit are precious commodities that technology cannot duplicate. As a singer and convergent thinker, I believe there is more than one way to Rome. If we keep on the same track, we risk mediocrity for the sake of keeping afloat. I am a firm believer if it works, it’s out of date.
Question: Whom did you survey (target group but also in what countries & how many of each)
- An anonymous national/ international survey questionnaire completed by a total of 500 musicians, teachers, choral conductors, and current students (with an opportunity to voice personal opinions after each question) was conducted.
- To maintain promised discretion, provided are 5/12 target groups. A total of 91 subjects participated. These are loosely categorized with a minimum number of six and a maximum of 33 in the following categories:
|Executive Administration||Academic||Financial||Stage||Professional Performance Personnel|
|Canada, USA, UK, Pacific, Europe||Canada, USA, UK, Europe||Canada, USA, UK, Europe||Canada, USA, UK, Europe||Canada, USA, UK, Europe|
Keep in mind that not everyone approached consented to be interviewed. A few docked my repeated inquiries all together (I am extremely persistent – as one has to be). Astonishingly, one individual advised me to “give up questioning and criticizing academia because it’s not in your best interests”. Well, No.
Thankfully, the other 90%, including those heading some of the music industry’s largest organizations, administrators. internationally acclaimed artists of distinction, students throughout North America, the US, and Europe, and those rarely credited who work behind the scenes extended their generosity of time, genuine concern, and advice for/to an industry they want to see flourish and continue.
Question: What did you ask them? And what did they tell you about the study of music, both the status quo and what’s desirable for the future?
All subjects were asked identical questions. An unbiased approach would allow for accurate metric creation. I’ve listed three of twelve questions. These prompted the most discussion:
- Has there been a change in the industry since 2008? (Education, Financial, Work Availability)?
- Are young musicians meeting the needs of hiring organizations?
- If the said subject was asked to design a music program curriculum providing a list of any four-course subjects, which would they be (not, limited to music)?
Without negating the importance of those who contributed to the case report, nearly 80% commented on the removal of art and music culture in the school system as being a major contributor to change. What was once a part of a public school education system has moved to those who can afford it privately. Music programs in primary school are a thing of the distant past. As a result performance has become a type of spectacle. The nature of the discipline associated with the art form has changed, and is now ‘entertainment’ rather than art.
The phrase, “this industry is not what it used to be” played on repeat.
Unanimously, the complexities of obtaining work since 2008, especially for Canadians, is extremely difficult. Supply vs. demand is at its highest. Subjects prompted the urge for academic review. An astonishing 91% advised musicians to obtain a secondary skill set either through an educational minor or non-related industry experience. Although this is not desirable in traditional music tutelage, the current model is long gone and self-sustainability pressing.
It is a taboo subject as the realities of the industry are not communicated until one ventures out into the world post-degree. However, educational institutions do not have a crystal ball. They can provide the basics for a career in music but the promise of a full-time career is impossible. The subjects interviewed stated artists of all levels, including Young Artist Program (YAP) participants, needed more than a music education to keep them employed.
Regardless if one was enrolled in a university or a young artist program. Skills for lifelong employment were essential. The subjects interviewed need more than a music education to keep them employed.
When asked if today’s young musicians were meeting the hiring bodies expectations no one could say no.
There is no shame in it either. It not only helps them transition to a senior administrative position (if they choose) or a career change down the road but self-esteem and non-music related competencies increase.
Most common answers in question three:
Business/ Financial literacy course
Question: As devastating & depressing as the pandemic has been, without being Pollyanna can you spin it for what’s positive about the current situation?
A two-part answer.
I grew up in downtown Toronto. Naturally, as the city grew so too did the choleric disposition of those trying to navigate through it. I know it to be true as I’ve been guilty of it. March was a tough month for many as it was early days and many in “hiding”. In early April, I witnessed something extraordinary. Children playing street hockey and toddlers on bikes zooming down the middle of major roads in TORONTO! It was surreal. Without ignoring the economic severity of our current situation, I felt proud to be Canadian. Kindness and communication amongst the masses have been at the forefront.
On the professional side, we must acknowledge those who are working, parenting, educating, and caregiving (or a combination) in these unprecedented times. Right now, compassion is everything. The simple phrase, “How are you?” to a stranger means so much more. For colleagues, friends, and family, can’t shake hands, embrace, or touch. Words and sentiment are so important.
I hope the pandemic will depart but generosity amongst friends, neighbours, and strangers is welcome to remain. Among the unexpected by-products of pandemic is the amount of time we suddenly have available. Something we often take for granted but one which illuminates the importance of existing and forging of new relationships … from a distance, for now.
In terms of moving forward, even the most sustainable businesses, have been and will be affected.
It’s very early days as we’ve not seen the full effects yet. Whether it be performance organizations or educational institutions, it is extremely difficult to reduce or shut down operations in an emergency and remain closed for an unknown duration. In this country, the severity of effect remains in the when and how much. Where is the positivity in this?
So I think we need the lay of the land first. Nearly 70% of the workforce are independent contractors. These contract conditions are often not by choice. I feel it needs to be said as there is a have vs. have-not divide emerging, the salaried vs. non-salaried. The decisions moving forward will require reconfiguration in how to retrofit what existed whilst continuing the momentum of a workforce who are emotionally and/or financially drained. This is not limited to one artistic genre.
In 2008, the answer may have been more donations, more funding. We can’t rely on that going forward because it does not build an industry. Ask anyone who has built a company from the ground up and falling on hard times. Clawing one’s way through the trenches requires all hands on deck. I’m not saying anything new. Nicholas Payne (ROH, ENO) has published extensively on this approach from the ‘70s onwards. Economic spirals require so much more than a bailout.
I believe we can take this time to look at lessons learned from 2008, to determine what is working, and remove what is not. It does not mean cutting jobs. Sometimes the perceived right cuts are the wrong cuts. This requires the integration of creativity and competent business skill working together to find solutions.
Often, the answer comes from within and patrons, many of whom possess expertise in the transformation of business processes, are a good start. Incorporate those who work at the front line. Brainstorming can lead to some interesting paths forward if approached through the mindset of “no money”. Welcome to creativity in entrepreneurship.
You mention 2008, how does it compare to what we’re experiencing right now and can we rebuild what we’ve lost?
In my opinion, 2008 didn’t leave us with unprecedented physical restrictions and a silent, potentially deadly threat. We can only pivot and re-pivot for the next few years. Again, it requires a completely different strategy.
In 2008, the financial crisis started as a Wall Street problem, gradually progressing into a Main Street problem, and finally ballooning into a global problem. Today, COVID-19 has reversed 2008’s problem. A ubiquitous, global, and downright massive threat.
The logistics alone are not for the faint of heart. Imagine trying to socially distance 2000+ audience members attending a Ring Cycle. Or an intermission which requires shared lavatory facilities. With a large percentage of the audience demographic over age 55, numerous travel, interactive, staging, design, and rehearsal restrictions of all involved, put everyone at risk until a vaccine or cure is available.
I do believe this country needs to bridge the gap between provinces a little more. We need to support and share resources now more than ever. A few of our provinces managed to weather brutal economic conditions in recent years. Those teams need to be commended and acknowledged for they can be of great assistance in surviving the toughest of storms.
Institutions on the other hand have a slight advantage. Resources are abundant in terms of new approaches to logistics. There isn’t a Grad student in engineering I don’t know who wouldn’t love the opportunity to assist in the endeavour. An “outside the box” strategy is their specialty.
Question: Even before the pandemic there were serious question marks about the way arts & culture are undertaken in North America (the teaching, the funding, the institutions). People may look back at 2019 as the good old days. Should we be aiming to restore things as they were, or are there flaws in the old model you would point to, that must change? What is your ambition / desire / passion as far as the future of performing arts ?
Sadly, Pollyanna does not appear in the following response.
Candidly speaking, there is no sugar coating our current position. I am commenting heavily on the economic platform as the artistic side cannot operate professionally without change.
Yes, there are flaws even in the best models. However, business entities, (again, educational institutions are a business), have a responsibility to their stakeholders (students/ parents) and donors to stay on top of changing times. An investment in education today should result in a thorough understanding of the skills needed for future employment. It is the responsibility of the stakeholder/student/parent to examine the hiring rate of their major post-graduation. Some students will not enter a post-secondary institution without taking on a major they are interested in. Whether said person partakes in a music career or not is secondary to their lifelong employment path.
As stated, those who contributed to the case report advised a diversified background allows for flexibility in future career planning. From a personal perspective, it’s an opportunity to interact and collaborate with other disciplines, where many ideas come to life in the hallways, and sometimes become a living entity. To be fair, some educational institutions across the country are already incorporating multi-disciplinary degrees in undergraduate studies. The curriculum is applied through two faculties, taught by appropriately qualified professionals in a specific discipline (entrepreneurship taught via commerce or business faculty).
But it starts in education. The future is about the sustainability and economic architecture of organizational structures that need to survive economic downturns. We need to create a healthy business platform first and integrate change with creativity, not the reverse. This approach moves faster than one might think if applied correctly and that application must be available to those in undergraduate programs. We need to be nurturing future leaders. It’s not reinventing the wheel.
Being old enough to be the aunt of many of my academic peers, they deserve more credit than they receive. With an abundance of technology at their fingertips and a desire to learn, they are hungry for opportunity. The reality is, a high number cannot immerse themselves like the artists of the past. High debt loads and exorbitant living costs negate this concept.
What is your ambition / desire / passion as far as the future of performing arts goes?
As I turn up the heat, I will state I’d like to see the practice (outside of YAP’s), of trading talent for experience without compensation extinguished. It’s archaic and exploitive on every level. It continues a longstanding tendency in this industry: that artists should be thankful for the exposure. Musicians invest heavily in training programs, auditions, coachings, etc. The disrespect is degrading and it needs to stop.
I am not highlighting anything which hasn’t been discussed in the past but again, it’s been a taboo subject due to fear. However, the issue is being discussed by those working in the profession currently. For the first time, we are hearing world-renowned artists speak up. They’re taking to social media, blogs, and podcasts, discussing the precarious realities of being economically short-changed.
The multiple issues concerning front-line artists have been at a tumultuous boiling point for months prior to COVID-19.
When times are bad, the pain is tenfold and people need to talk about it. Employment and bank accounts are falling precipitously. Good people are everything. A large portion of the workforce may be feeling anxiety, severe stress. The strains are real and their emotions, legitimate.
Don’t mistake my tone for anger. I am passionate about opera as a performer but just as equally, if not more so, about development, job creation, and innovation in an industry that needs serious overhauling, Sometimes the balance sheet needs a rest.
Question: What would you tell the class of 2024, aka the new students entering study this fall?
I think I’d like to send a message out to every single musician rather than one specific group.
Right now, the uncertainty of what’s next leaves many depleted of energy, feeling shut down, and deeply saddened. It’s ok.
Like you, I came to music for a reason. For myself, it was the friend who was always there. No matter how difficult the path has been, I have never failed. Some things did not work out but I always found another route which fed my spirit.
I want you all to know, there is always a place for you in music. It hasn’t always lifted my spirit in the darkest of times but it always waited.
Nothing will ever replace my appreciation for the inexplicable adoration I have for the joyous sounds and talented spirits I’ve been able to create with, many of whom have left their families to study or perform, continuously serving the beauty of imagination.
Please hold on for a little bit longer. We will overcome this and the music will embrace us again.
I stand with you as a proud musician.