The Shame Of Poverty And Investing In The Future

Philadelphia skyline

Philadelphia skyline, by Flodigrip on Flickr.

I grew up in a very poor, single-parent household, but I was a music geek even then. I had selected the trumpet in a school band program in sixth grade, and later swapped it for the flute. I went through the instrument lockers in the band room, trying out most of them. I got hooked on a weird one: the bassoon.

Despite her best efforts, my mother could not afford lessons or instruments for me. She didn’t understand music or the “music world,” but she supported me wholeheartedly. Somehow she was able to scrape together just enough to get by, and fortunately the boarding school I attended for several years provided my necessities (clothes, food, etc.). To be clear, this school was not Hogwarts or Exeter, but a school in North Philadelphia for orphans, including “functional orphans” like myself. I worked hard and sought opportunities that allowed me to study music. I received some scholarships and instrument loans and even, in some cases, gifts of financial support or even instruments.

In the Philadelphia neighborhood of my childhood, I took risks every time I walked to my local “El” station, which was home to drug addicts, drug dealers, and prostitutes. I was afraid of being jumped by any of the numerous gangs in the neighborhood. I was an outsider both in that world and in the world of the youth orchestra I belonged to. Most of the other kids came from homes with two working parents, many quite financially comfortable. Perhaps understandably, I felt bitterness toward those who had been born into what I thought were rich families. I never took that bitterness out on the musicians, but I was deeply frustrated that I could not access the tools their parents’ money had allowed them—instruments in good repair, sheet music, youth orchestra membership fees, travel fees for music groups, summer festivals, and lesson fees. I carried that anger for many years.

For a very long time, I felt shame: Ashamed of being poor. Ashamed of being ashamed of being poor. Ashamed of not being able to take a “traditional” route through the music world—one that required money. I couldn’t participate in many established and prestigious programs because of lack of financial resources.

My mother died when I was 20, and I was still carrying this shame. I never let people know how poor I actually was. I had managed to get scholarship money for some elements of a conservatory education, but I was constantly struggling. Before her death, my mother’s financial support of my education was minimal. Though she lived on a tiny disability check, she set aside roughly $100 a month for me. One beautiful memory I have of this time is a gift from the receptionist/switchboard operator at my school (Brenda Watson at the Cleveland Institute of Music), who brought in a bag of groceries for me after she learned of my mother’s passing. Of course, Brenda was not the only person who helped me. I was lucky enough to be included pretty frequently in my best friend’s family events.

Today, I still feel like an outsider in many ways. One thing has changed, however: I have let the shame go. My poverty then, or now, is not something I ever need—or needed—to feel ashamed of. This shame made my life much more difficult, perhaps sometimes more difficult than the poverty itself.

It is my hope, first of all, that no one—especially young musicians—should ever face the shame and the self-questioning that poverty could force on them. Young, poor musicians: take heart! Music, and more importantly access to music and music education, is vital to all communities, not just the wealthy. Second, it is my intention that each of us should understand the difficulties faced by impoverished music students. I urge all who are capable to invest in the future via young musicians. There is no reason to expound here on the virtues of music and music education. (That would be preaching to the choir, I know!) But without the support of the many folks who gave me a helping hand, either via donations to local music programs or directly to me for music fees, I would likely not be in the position I am in today. We must come to understand as a field the responsibility each of us bears to determine the best way to support young musicians of diverse socio-economic classes—it need not even be monetary!— and to then make it happen. And thanks to each and every one of you beautiful people who have supported and continue to support young musicians.

***

Joseph Hallman

Joseph Hallman

Joseph Hallman is a prolific young composer based in Philadelphia who has worked with some of today’s most talented musicians and artists. He has composed multiple concerti, chamber, and solo works for the internationally acclaimed cellist Alisa Weilerstein, winner of a 2011 MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and has collaborated with numerous other artists. His composition Three Poems of Jessica Hornik for voice and chamber ensemble appears on the Inscape Chamber Orchestra’s 2014 Grammy-nominated album Sprung Rhythm. Hallman is the Composer-in-Residence of the Pikes Falls Chamber Music Festival and has served in similar roles at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia, The Traverse Arts Project, Strings Music Festival, as well as other universities and colleges both domestically and internationally.

14 thoughts on “The Shame Of Poverty And Investing In The Future

  1. Tracey Marino

    Beautifully written, Joe. I knew you were lonely and angry at GC, but you were so passionate about music; I knew you would have to be in the world of music for the rest of your life. Wishing you success and happiness.
    Love,
    Miss Tracey

    Reply
  2. Sarah Kirkland Snider

    Joe! What a moving story. I had no idea you had been through so much. It is a testament not just to your strength and perseverance but to your sensitivity and integrity as a musician, as well as an inspiring statement of concern for others who might be up against similar obstacles. I’m so glad you brought this story to light, not just so others who might be struggling will feel less alone, but as a reminder of the degree to which music can save a person, and how vital it is that we strive to make music available to all young people–especially those who need it the most.

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  3. william osborne

    Our system of funding the arts is essentially plutocratic, which might add to the conflicts artists from poor families can sometimes feel. In spite of reforms, similar plutocratic ideals still inform our system of elite education which strongly affects the new music community. A commentary by Paul Krugman that is currently in the New York Times might add some context to our conceptions of how wealth is distributed, how it affects people’s self image, and how that affects our society:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/27/opinion/krugman-paranoia-of-the-plutocrats.html?action=click&contentCollection=Music&module=MostEmailed&version=Full&region=Marginalia&src=me&pgtype=article

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  4. william osborne

    This topic of poverty and Philadelphia touches on so many themes that aren’t being addressed, but that in many respects say a great deal about American culture. Philadelphia has some of the largest, most violent, and most degrading ghettos in the world – a fact that is astounding since the city’s suburban areas known as the Mainline contain one of the greatest concentrations of wealth on the planet. The injustices of a racially informed class system become brutally apparent.

    A Mayor’s report published in 2001 noted that Philadelphia had 14,000 abandoned buildings in a dangerous state of collapse, 31,000 trash-strewn vacant lots, 60,000 abandoned autos, and had lost 75,000 citizens in recent years. Regions such as the south Bronx, Watts, East St. Louis and Detroit, just to name a few, show that Philadelphia is hardly an exception. The populations living in our dehumanizing ghettos are measured in the tens of millions.

    Here is a very good four minute video of an area of North Philadelphia in 1998 that shows very clearly the social conditions that exist in many parts of America’s ghettos. I hope readers will take a moment to watch it:

    The divisions between those who do and do not participate in the high arts is, of course, related to the same social forces that have caused the country to neglect its urban environments. Facts stand out, like Philadelphia having the 9th largest metro GDP in the world while ranking 175th for opera performances per year.

    Classical music is one of the most urban of art forms. Its status will always be measured by the health and vibrancy of our cities. The problems facing the arts in American can only be fully resolved when we recognize that the well-being of our cultural and urban environments are deeply interdependent.

    This is why the work of people like Aaron P. Dworkin, Founder and President of the Sphinx Organization, a national arts group that focuses on youth and minority involvement in classical music, is so important. At the same time it should be realized that these efforts will continue to meet almost insurmountable challenges unless we improve the urban environments that continue to debase our children.

    As is so often the case with American ghettos, efforts at redevelopment have been largely ineffective. The sight of large, elaborate, abandoned churches and hospitals fallen into irreparable decay, the massive tracts of once wonderful houses fallen to ruins, and the streets filled with lives wrecked by poverty and kind of unspoken, de facto racism boggle our minds. Open air drug markets are not uncommon. Whites represent only 10% of the population of the North Philadelphia ghetto, they come from as far away as New Jersey and the Mainline to buy drugs in these locations.

    SEPTA, the metro Philadelphia’s public transportation agency shut down the trolley lines in the North Philly ghetto in 1992. The Amtrak station in the area was closed. Long ago the BSL subway line garnered a reputation for violent crime and rape. This is the atmosphere in which we offer these children a violin.

    These problems became especially vivid to me as a young man when I worked as a substitute teacher in Philadelphia’s ghetto schools. My first day at work was for a teacher in the hospital because his students had beaten him so badly. Two fully armed policemen had a regular beat in the school’s hallways. There was a staff of several strongmen in a sort of muscle shirt uniforms known as “Teaching Assistants” whose job was to protect the teachers. There was a hotline telephone in every classroom. If the teacher just picked it up, even without saying anything, the Teaching Assistants and the police would come running.

    A memory that haunts me to this day is of a girl in an 8th grade music appreciation class who was a pregnant heroin addict.

    My wife, Abbie Conant, received her Bachelor’s degree at Temple University which is in the North Philadelphia ghetto. It’s a good university, with a very fine music department, but the school has suffered along with the community that surrounds it. Abbie was sexually assaulted on the campus after arriving on campus early one Sunday morning for a orchestra rehearsal for a concert that day. The perpetrator strangled her to the point she blacked out. The were huge bruises on throat long afterwards. She was saved from worse when two students happened by. A few day later the same person attacked another woman student on campus with an ice pick. The police then put out a pretty police woman as a decoy. He attacked her and was arrested and sentenced to prison.

    We can experience poverty as whites, but of course it is very different than the poverty experienced in our racially informed ghettos. In spite of occasional improvements in our racial ghettos, poor whites still have so many more avenues to hope and social ascendancy. We might feel shame at our own poverty, but the even greater shame is how much more deeply poverty affects those who aren’t white. So I wonder why American artists, and especially in classical music, so often turn their backs to these appalling social issues.

    And of course, I feel the irony that the above blog entry is a week old now, so its unlikely anyone will even read this. And even if they did, and in a mentality I simply can’t understand, some might even feel defensiveness and resentment.

    Reply
  5. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    You reveal it well. Thank you. I, too, grew up poor with both parents, but was not as lucky as you in a different way–my parents opposed (and mocked) my compositional pursuits at every turn. I became an ‘emancipated minor’ so they did not have to contribute to my college education. They expressed their disapproval throughout my life as a composer. Your mother gave you the gift of her support, so no poverty can claim you.

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  6. Joseph Hallman

    So awesome to hear so many views. Thank you all for sharing your sentiments.

    @William, for sure, race is an important factor one I faced daily. I grew up in Philly in the 80s and 90s. This was rough times all around. My neighborhood, Kensington, was mostly non-white. My schooling and twelve years of my development at Girard College, in North Philadelphia, was a hugely influential experience. I grew up there as a minority, being only one of very few white students (and though I didn’t “know” it- a gay one at that!). I saw, and still see, the effects of institutionalized racism and homophobia daily. It is important to challenge to be aware and to challenge these inequities for sure My purpose in sharing my experience, was to bring an acknowledgement of poverty, regardless of race.

    Reply
    1. william osborne

      Very true. Your struggle is admirable and something I can appreciate having experienced similar poverty. I’ve been entirely on my own since I was 17. For me, the largest concern is why ghettos such as North Philly even exist. It’s something I’ll never accept.

      Reply
  7. Skye

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I grew up “white trash” and poor, but managed to get to college; even managed to be the first woman in my entire family to graduate from college (it took a couple of tries- my Dad passed away when I was 19). I am proud of you for making it, and I am sincere when I say that. I now help to organize the Sacramento, CA chapter of Classical Revolution. Through this organization I have met many fantastic local classical musicians (along with my cello teacher). I completely agree that America should be much more concerned about students of the arts- their education, as well as their environment. My direct experience though is with the musicians who are no longer students- the ones who hold down three (or more) separate teaching jobs at multiple schools (and within their own homes) just to make ends meet because the city symphonies are closing, the local orchestras are going under, and the grant money is very scarce. Health care equal to what a corporation might offer? Preposterous. Retirement benefits? Non-existent. Paying off student loans? For the rest of their lives. This is a common situation for many artists, not just musicians – and many of them (myself included) have given up trying to make art their career and have sacrificed their souls for a cubicle. How can we fix this? What more can I do to help turn this tide? If you know of any networks or salons that are trying to help please share them. Thank you, and thanks again for sharing.

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  8. Joseph Hallman

    I can’t answer those questions. But I do know that we are all in it together. We must work to build the future outside of these structures and institutions. It’s our responsibility and our only choice truly. We must be evangelists and bring music to everyone and anyone. We must teach the people in our lives the value of music and the value of musicians.

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  9. Joan Saverino

    Joe, Beautifully written piece. You had shared some of your past with me and I am so happy to see you have published this piece so others may read it and be inspired. I am so proud to know you and to know how amazingly talented and committed you are in so many realms. Forza!

    Reply

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