Paula Akbar MUS ’75 hails from D Flat, Oregon. She hails from food stamps and a rural town where she stuck with the same violin teacher for 12 years because the alternative was to play the clarinet. Nowadays, she also hails from the National Symphony Orchestra, which has a violin section that’s 30 percent Yale grads and 100 percent “brilliant musicians,” and there were a lot of places she had to hail from in between.
Having parents who were on food stamps, a passion that meant expensive training and a meager assistantship at the Yale School of Music were all blessings in disguise. Akbar freelanced her way through graduate school, calling on contractors who, she learned later during her “starving year” between graduate school and her first symphony gig, would only hire Yale students.
Freelancing turned out to be an integral part of Akbar’s training as a musician, a part of training to be a musician that this fall’s $100 million donation to the School of Music — which will waive tuition — promises to permanently alter. Senior alumni fund donations are due next week and — like their counterpart in the field of journalism, the Yale Journalism Initiative, and, to a lesser extent, like each of the 62,512 donations made to the University last year — the School of Music donations have students, alums and faculty looking at how exactly donations made to the University change the Yale experience.
It was through the random freelancing Akbar did to make ends meet — through being called as a ringer for the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and sight-reading her way through dress rehearsals, through playing for the Yale Rep when that meant playing for Meryl Streep DRA ’75, Paul Newman DRA ’54 and Christopher Lloyd, and through gigs in assisted living homes, churches and concert venues so lavish that they made her marvel at the wealth of Connecticut’s well-off — that Akbar sealed the deal that had been drawn decades earlier in D Flat, Oregon.
She decided she wanted to be a musician, and she decided she felt more solidarity with her fellow students, despite their different backgrounds, than she could possibly feel with any other group of people.
“We all looked scruffy, and we were all scraping,” she said. “It was one of the best experiences of my entire life.”
Opening up opportunities
The record-breaking donation to the School of Music made by an anonymous philanthropist last October may permanently eliminate the need for such freelancing. The donation has shared headlines with another multimillion dollar initiative, the Yale Journalism Initiative, an outgrowth of a $1 million donation from professor, alum and CourtTV founder Steven Brill ’72 LAW ’75, which promises journalism seminars, internship funding and career counseling for designated Journalism Scholars and aims to relieve equivalent pressures among budding undergraduate journalists.
Eric German ’01 is a philosophy major from Yale and a reporter for Newsday. His start in journalism was in some ways separate from his experience at Yale: During a semester abroad in Paris, he showed up in Prague on a “half-assed promise” from a Czech editor of an English-language weekly.
“I happened to show up when everyone was on vacation and didn’t screw up my first story they gave me, so they kept giving me stories,” German said, commenting en route to covering a story during this Sunday’s blizzard. “That was when the bug really hit.”
On the other hand, German said, his liberal arts education was meaningful enough that he thinks the Journalism Initiative may be missing the point: that a liberal arts education, one that puts students in touch with culture and history and literature and teaches them to write clearly, will do more for aspiring journalists than journalism seminars ever could.
Margaret Jacobs ’80, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, said the seminars and structure of the Yale Journalism Initiative could at least be an inspiration to students. It was through a creative non-fiction course, a small writing seminar taught by a “phenomenal” professor, that Jacobs discovered how much she loved to write. After detours through law school, clerking and practicing as an attorney, she found herself drawn to “make the jump” back to journalism.
A trying profession
Acting School of Music Dean Thomas Duffy said he hopes the new donation will allow the School of Music to make a variety of infrastructural investments, such as technology to stream concerts, increase outreach to New Haven and expand the global partnerships that Yale already has with five international conservatories. But he hopes the endowment will not preclude the smaller alumni donations that he said were crucial to the School of Music’s reputation.
“I’ve gotten two reactions from alums: One, this is going to be a major, pioneering institution, and I want to get on board and support them, or, two, they don’t need my $100,” Duffy said. “Where those small donations have an impact — and this is not bogus at all — is in the area of support. … The symbolic size of that number sends a signal about their satisfaction level.”
Vice President for Development Inge Reichenbach, who is responsible for soliciting donations from alums, echoed Duffy’s sentiments.
“We hope that this gift may help us generate interest among other donors to step forward and do similar things for other students here on campus,” she said.
Elizabeth Adkins, the National Symphony Orchestra’s assistant concertmaster and a fellow first violin to Akbar, said the most dramatic impact of the donation will be the tuition waiver, which will allow students to focus on their work.
And, as Duffy pointed out, most of the School of Music students will continue to avail themselves of freelancing opportunities as resume-builders whenever possible.
Daniel Brimhall MUS ’04, an oboeist for the U.S. Army Field Band, said this means better students — and therefore better faculty — than Yale has ever attracted before, ranking it alongside the Curtis Institute, a tuition-free conservatory in Pennsylvania, in terms of prestige.
Across the board, alumni said they agree that music is the hardest field in which to earn a living, which makes paying off student loans a daunting task. Surviving and prospering mean a lot of things to music school students. Walter Ayres MUS ’71 wound up taking a day job writing legal briefs in between pursuing his musical aspirations. And Akbar said making it music often means “starving for a few years before getting your first gig.”
Brimhall said music may be the only field where more than 200 people will apply for a job that pays $22,000 a year. Adkins called it the “economic paradox” of being a musician: surviving in an industry where the startup costs are exorbitant — to be competitive as a string player, she said, an instrument must cost upwards of $250,000, which is “like having to use a Van Gogh in your business” — and the prospects for making a living limited at best.
Since musicians have tenure until they retire, getting a job is “like winning the lottery,” Adkins said. “Basically, you have to wait for someone to die so everyone reshuffles.”
Finding a path
But it’s not as though School of Music alums are limited in what they can do after they graduate, Duffy said. Though being a classical music performer may be difficult, alumni can go on to teach, compose or do something entirely unrelated to music.
“I’m always surprised by that small but consistent percentage of students who are here and that plan to go into something else when they get out,” Duffy said. “They say, ‘I’m playing in organizations and ensembles that are competitive, I’m studying with the premiere instructor on my instrument and I’m studying with major names in physics or philosophy in this highly oxygenated intellectual environment.'”
As German said, there are fields which those who really love will find their way back into, no matter what detours they take along the way. German “spent a really depressing year writing really bad fiction” and taught ninth-grade English for another few years before realizing that he needed to get back into reporting. But eventually, he earned a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and nabbed a two-year gig with Newsday.
Though their field is so rarified that even the celebrities they mention are not exactly household names, none of the dozen School of Music graduates interviewed for this story, regardless of their current position along their career path, said they felt as though music had been anything but inevitable for them, either.
“Who knows? Maybe it’s just something in the genes,” Larry Watson MUS ’82, a violinist, said. “It didn’t feel like a choice. All I can say is that I didn’t even imagine doing anything else.”