Monday, August 03, 2009

The Roots of the Pay Problem

It is not a secret that the Catholic Church in the United States, and probably many other places in the world, is not a professional dream for musicians from the point of view of salary and benefits. It is difficult to gather national comparative data, but every anecdote I've heard confirms that the pay is a one half to one quarter of what the Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists, and others pay.

I've known many devoted Catholic musicians who simply could no longer bear the financial sacrifice associated with serving a parish or cathedral. When you $30,000 salary is beaten by salaries twice and three times as much by the competition, and you are trying to raise a family and save for the future, there is only so long that one can hold out.

A 2005 study by David DeLambo of the Diocese of Cleveland says that the musicians are the highest-paid people on the parish payroll but their salary only barely matches the national average for all types of employment, even though a serious Church musician is a highly trained professional with a highly specialized and irreplaceable job. The average pay is $42,778, which is roughly the same as a worker in the ground-ramp crew or a unionized elementary school teacher.

Now, I'm not an economic determinist and it would be foolish to believe that the answer to all problems in the world of Catholic music comes down to the need for more money. Some of the worst problems in Catholic music today are pushed and supported by the people making the largest salaries, while some of the best musicians in the Church today work for little to no pay. If you could push a button today and double everyone's salary, the result might be even worse in the short run: the existing problems would be reinforced rather than corrected. A push to double salaries to where they need to be must be accompanied by a focus on new personnel and/or a massive push for retraining.

Nor is it enough to recruit highly accomplished musicians into our parishes or cathedrals. Liturgical work requires a specialized skill set. He must read neumes and be able to play organ and direct a choir -- three traits that are not necessarily taught even at the PhD level in music schools. but even if those skills are mastered, it is not enough. The musician must know the liturgy intimately to the point that it is second nature.

An example might be intoning the Gloria. For the priest to begin the piece, he needs a specific set of intervals in his head, say, a minor third followed by a whole step in Gloria XV. Not everyone can instantly call down these intervals in the correct range from the altar, so the musician needs to be there to play or hum the pitches quickly, and this action must follow the Kyrie. There is only a split second do this correctly. If done incorrectly, the entire Gloria would be wrong and confused and could become the most sadly memorable part of the Mass.

This is only one of probably more than a hundred tiny actions that make for a smooth liturgical experience from the point of view of the music. Most everyone takes it all for granted, as they should, but to get to the point of being able to provide, trouble shoot, and make snap decisions about all the moving parts of the liturgy, requires years of experience.

There is a vast range of music that must be known and understood just to even get through a single liturgical year. The Lenten repertoire is not the same as the Easter repertoire or the Advent repertoire. There are parish traditions to understand. There are always politics involved, so the person must also be wise and prudent. And as any choral conductor knows, a large part of the job really amounts to human relations, trying to keep volunteers on track and enthused and dedicated. The musician must also know software, printing technology, and have a range of skills in notation and imaging programs.

That is only the beginning. The time commitment is enormous. The parish musician works every weekend and several nights per week. There is a serious matter of the pastoral dimension. It is not enough that the person merely master the technical details. The musician must also understand the point of the enterprise, that of assisting in the great liturgical project of leaving time and entering into an eternal realm of miracles. The playing and singing and directing, and the choice of all musical priorities, will be heavily influenced by this intellectual and spiritual orientation.

Why, then, given all of this, is the musician so poorly paid? Consider that wages in general are influenced by two considerations. There is a supply and demand for services that in a market economy are largely dictated by a consumer-driven marketplace. The wage reflects the long-run contribution of the laborer to the productivity of the firm, which is assessed by the balance sheet.

But there is no such easy profit-and-loss test in the parish, the job of which is centered on two goods for which there is no market test: beauty and truth. Another factor in determining wages in the macroeconomic structure consider the next-best employment opportunity. The current employer will pay enough to retain the worker to prevent him or her from going elsewhere, but there is not much "elsewhere" in the Catholic world.

This is not a new problem. And actually there is a deep cultural root here. In the 19th century, a movement developed that imagined itself to be reconstituting an early medieval view of the musician as a part of the clerical class, complete with ordinations and tonsures. By its nature, this would not be a professional position but rather a vocation of the purest sort. This view--a nice monastic ideal but unworkable in parish life--reflected a distortion of the role of music but the ethos of the unpaid servant continued on, with grave results for the most practical issue of all.

As a result, the Catholic Church has never quite come to terms with the professionalization of music. This fact come home to bite us after the Council when a massive upheaval drove great musicians out (and it was tragic because they had made many sacrifices for the faith) and brought in a generation of half-baked amateurs who knew very little about the demands of the liturgy. As a result, today are parishes are populated by musicians who can't tell a proper from the ordinary and look at a page of chant like it is from another planet.

Again, paying higher salaries will not fix existing problems, but until salaries rise in a manner that is commensurate with skill level and contribution, there will be a limit on how much progress we can make.

Fortunately for our times, digital media invites us to reassess priorities, and give new priority to paying musicians rather than paying for music itself. There are other ways to find the funds. Look at the parish staff budget and consider whether the endless stream of "ministers" are really necessary. The payment to musicians should be part of the costs of doing business, same as roof repair or the mortgage, and not some extraneous luxury. People need to have it explained why music is important and why the parish must be a microcosm of the liturgical ideal, a place and experience in which we gain a glimpse of heaven and sing with all saints and martyrs and angels. It is also possible to fund raise for a music budget in particular and watch to make sure that the money goes to salaries not fripperies. If we had spent even a small fraction on musicians of what has been spent to built publishing empires, we would have much better music programs today.