Sometimes while studying the history of violin performance in the early twentieth century, it is tempting to focus our attention on more “glamorous” soloist figures rather than more common “run-of-the-mill” teachers or chamber musicians. But of course, then as now, only a tiny percentage of professional musicians were actually traveling virtuosos. Sadly, women who wanted to pursue a career in music, who couldn’t or didn’t want to become soloists, found few doors open to them. Just like women in many other fields, women violinists had to deal with widespread and irrational prejudice; it was taken for granted that they would be less effective orchestral players than men, and until the advent of blind auditions in the mid-twentieth century, it was rare that they were given the chance to prove otherwise. Consequently their professional options were rather limited compared to their male colleagues’. This 1913 article, from The World’s Best Music: The Musician’s Guide, sheds some light on the subject of what professional options musical women actually had.
Note: The currency exchanges are only meant to be approximate. They’re taken from MeasuringWorth.com.
Violin Playing for Women
By Alice Putnam
Musicians frequently receive letters from girl violinists, asking whether it would be advisable for them to go to college and prepare for school teaching, or to take up music as a profession. It is obviously impossible to answer such a question without knowing the individual girl, but in order to help girls to decide this question for themselves it is proposed to discuss the life of a professional violinist, and see of what its advantages and disadvantages consist.
There are four ways of earning a living with the violin – teaching, solo playing, trio or quartet work, and playing in an orchestra.
A girl’s success as a violin teacher depends entirely on her ability to make friends and to play the violin well, for unfortunately there is as yet no demand on the part of parents for pedagogical training for music teachers. A girl’s pupils will be mainly children, as grown persons usually prefer to study with men who have achieved international fame.
In large cities a girl generally goes to her pupils instead of having her pupils come to her. Many teachers prefer to do this, as studio rents, especially to musicians, are high. Also, one may charge for a lesson when one goes to the house, whether the lesson is given or not, whereas parents rarely take it pleasantly if one charges for the lesson after receiving word to the effect that “daughter has a cold and cannot go out to-day.” Private pupils are an uncertain quantity and studio rents come due inexorably once a month. Nevertheless, a good many young women prefer to pay from $30 to $60 [in modern currency, approximately $680 to $1360] a month for a studio rather than to spend the time and strength going to pupils’ houses.
From talking with many young women who are teaching, I gather that but few earn more than $3 [in modern currency, approximately $70] an hour, and very few indeed have their time all filled. And yet quite a fair living can be made by private teaching, and it has the advantage of bringing one into close and friendly relations with the pupil and often with the pupil’s family. Being one’s own master means hard work in building up the business, but it brings greater rewards in the end and is unquestionably far more interesting from day to day than bending to the wishes of the principal of any school.
It is more difficult to keep up a high standard of work with private teaching than in the classroom. There is not the same stimulus of rivalry and enthusiasm, nor is there a standard whereby one can measure the progress of a pupil. And it general happens that by the time a conscientious teacher begins to reap the rewards of her labor with a certain pupil and brings him to a point where his work begins to be really artistic, that pupil is whisked off to study with some famous European violinist, as though being famous as a player guaranteed his being a good teacher for that particular pupil.
Positions as violin teacher in boarding schools are not lucrative, the salary averaging from $400 to $600 [in modern currency, approximately $9,900 to $13,600] a year and board, and there are often the most ridiculous demands made of the teacher. She must not only teach the violin but she must be able to do forty other things as well, such as assisting in the piano department, teaching the banjo, guitar, theory of music, or assisting with the English work, or even riding horseback, as one school demanded. The violin teacher must also be ready at all times to chaperon or entertain the pupils. As if any one who could do all these things could amount to anything as a violinist!
In the state universities the salaries are a little larger, but few universities will employ a woman as violin teacher, as the young men students naturally prefer to study with a man. The violin teacher is usually expected to conduct the college orchestra also, and but few women have had an opportunity to learn conducting, or make good conductors even when they know how. However, if such a position can be secured, the woman who is fond of study and the university atmosphere will find herself in as nearly an ideal position as can be imagined.
The earnings of a music teacher are often largely increased by solo playing, which brings us to the next topic of discussion.
The opportunities for solo playing are various. There are the solos in private houses which are to be had even by young players – if they dress well and are pretty. A girl must play very well indeed to obtain engagements if she is plain and awkward.
Sometimes there are solo engagements to be had in connection with men’s choral society concerts, as a woman instrumentalist is supposed to add a pleasing variety to the program. There are also the large clubs, like the Union League Club of Chicago, and the woman’s clubs of all large cities, which give entertainments several times a year. The Masonic entertainments often pay well, while church entertainments rarely pay at all, but many a girl has received $5 for a solo at the Sunday services.
Another way of earning a living as a soloist is to travel with a concert company, but this is indeed hard work. The indifferent hotels of small towns, poor food, tedious train trips, and often undesirable company, make the life very unpleasant. One is often asked to play the same program over and over, as there is no opportunity for rehearsals. The only advantage to be gained in this work is in becoming accustomed to playing under all sorts of conditions and before all sorts of people. One must needs be gifted with a strong sense of humor to find fun in it after the first few days.
In order to secure engagements with a great orchestra a violinist must be already known as an artistic, sure player. No conductor will risk trying out a stranger before his public, for even the experienced are sometimes attacked by stage fright. So many players would give a good deal of money for an opportunity to appear with an orchestra, that occasions for the average young woman to earn money in this way are very rare indeed unless she has great talent. In this case the work will seek her instead of her seeking the work. In fact, to the girl with talent and perseverance all things are possible, but it takes a great deal of both before one arrives at playing with the grand orchestra.
Another and perhaps the most delightful way of earning a living with the violin is in the playing of chamber music. In this field one finds not only the most beautiful music to play, but also the most intelligent of audiences.
Engagements, like solo engagements, are to be found in clubs and private homes among friends. Also many young women find engagements for their trios or quartets in summer hotels, where they play one or two programmes a day and are free the rest of the time to amuse themselves with summer sports. Such engagements are often pleasant, especially if the other members of the trio are congenial. The amount paid for work of this kind varies, with the size of the hotel, but usually runs from $10 to $15 [in modern currency, approximately $230 to $340] a week and expenses, for each player.
Women’s orchestras are as variable and uncertain as the stock market. Women do not yet seem to be capable of regular, sustained organization, and good conductors will rarely bother long with them. This work, even under favorable conditions, does not pay very well for women. Many rehearsals are needed and the pay, if any, for rehearsals is not nearly so good as that for teaching during the same length of time.
When all is said and done, a woman’s success in earning a living with the violin, like any other business, depends largely on her power to make the right kind of friends and to inspire them with confidence in her. Women who are willing to put their profession first in their thoughts and lives, and make everything else, even home, secondary, usually succeed. But as a rule a girl only takes up a profession as a temporary thing, to fill up time until she marries. There are hundreds and hundreds of girls who, though they learn to play quite well, are never heard from professionally. But if a woman is willing to be thorough, to work hard, and if she is gifted with a good ear, a good memory, a naturally flexible hand, and an artistic temperament, she will find no more pleasant or profitable way to earn a living than with the violin.