Being a Musician and Teacher in Silicon Valley – Unintended Discrimination



An interesting thing happened to my family recently. Both my husband and myself make our living from only music. We have been married about seven years, have three kids and own a house. Besides from teaching, my husband is a church musician – pianist, organist, guitarist, vocalist, and even tech guy. He recently got called to a new congregation. We introduced ourselves, like any other time, as musicians and music educators. However, instead of the normal patronizing response of, “Oh how nice,” we found this community of Silicon Valley tech, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists actually intrigued. It was like they had never met a successful musician, let alone one established with a family.

In the Bay Area where I grew up, and from what I surmise about most of the US, a teacher is not considered a prestigious job. A college professor, maybe. Moreover, musicians tends to have the stigma of being a free spirit with no legitimate job (even if you are with an orchestra).

This is why the common response to, “I’m a music educator,” “I’m a harpist,” “I’m a teacher,” is met with disinterest, patronization or the idea that my husband must support the family with a real job, so I can be a harpist. Even when being a harpist catches attention, it is often categorized as that of being a Disney Princess or Fairy Godmother. Our career choices are not labeled as important, realistic, or successful.

One glaring example is when we were house hunting. We went to an open house with a group of people all looking at the same time, and were casually asked the question – “So, what do you do?” (I.e can you qualify, are you worth my time, are you important?)
We said, “We are music educators”…. They gave us a curt smile and neglected us the rest of the tour.

Another example we encounter, time and time again is when we have “The Talk” with our talented freshman or sophomore music students and their families about careers in music. However, no matter how great their talent is, how high their level, their commitment to music, the underlying response is – it’s not a real job, it’s a fall-back job…. Once again a musician/teacher is not of value, not sustainable, not prestigious.

With this pattern of unintended discrimination, we were shocked when our careers not only were automatically validated but also seen with respect, honor and rareness.
An article from Huffington Post reminds us that in some countries, such as China or South Korea, see teachers as equal to doctors, lawyers and engineers.

“…Teachers should be held in the same regard as widely respected professionals like doctors -– a feat only China accomplished, according to the survey.”
“If we want future generations to have the right values and the best life chances … we need to recruit the best and brightest teachers into the profession, and look at the ways in which we can retain them,”- Sunny Varkey

This simple acknowledgment that our career choices are legitimate, valuable, important and necessary, is a breath of fresh air.

Let’s take a moment to remember, that teachers are entrusted to create success for the next generation. Musicians are entrusted to remind people of their humanity, to keep history alive and be a mirror to society. How amazing is that?


About Author

1 Comment

  1. Stina Hellberg Agback on

    Very well written!
    I find myself introducing myself to non-musicians as a music teacher (quite unspecific too) rather than a musician, or teacher of the harp. To avoid embarrassing questions such as “but what do you do for a living…”

    In Sweden we have had a debate going for several years, that the respect for teachers has declined. I think it is a huge problem! I have about 25 harp students, and some parents are calling me 9.30 PM to tell me that I cannot be so hard on their child the next day, because they haven’t had time to practice. Or telling me that the homework I give their child is too hard. It is a situation that simply shouldn’t occur. I don’t know what to do though, apart from trying to keep my own respect for myself and not reply to those calls, emails or whatever but only reply on my own terms.

    All the best, Stina

Leave A Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.