Choir conductors' pay not enough to attract younger generation

Spectators watch the 2014 Song Festival in Tallinn. Source: (Tanel Valdna/ERR)

While the younger generations are still interested in Song Festivals and are actively participating in the choirs that perform there, the situation of the conductors has worsened. Low salaries and a lack of recognition of their work has made their position less and less attractive.

The 27th Estonian Song Festival, to be held on July 5-7, 2019, will mark the 150th anniversary of this tradition. In a century and a half, the Song Festival has become one of the most important events associated with the Estonian people's struggle for independence. It is attended by hundreds of thousands of singers and spectators, and the preparations for it include years of work of the choirs that eventually perform and lead the participants in song.

This is why the matter of conductors' salaries is of significant importance. The average age of Estonia's choir conductors is on the rise, their positions' salaries are not competitive and no longer attracting a younger generation.

The festivals are arranged by the Estonian Song and Dance Celebration Foundation (ESDCF). They work very closely with the Estonian Choral Association and the Estonian Folk Dance and Folk Music Association.

Just seven full-time employees work to set up an event of gargantuan size. In 2014, 1,046 choirs, orchestras, and dance groups with a total of 33,025 performers participated in the festival. The children's choir alone was made up of 161 amateur and school choirs and 5,390 singers.

A lot of work goes into the preparation of the festival, as choirs are carefully selected, and need to rehearse the songs that will then be performed in a setting that includes hundreds of them at once.

As Sten Weidebaum of the ESDCF puts it, there is too little appreciation and also regulation of the work of the people involved in the preparation of the festival. Beyond the foundation's employees, hundreds of people around the country spend years preparing for the festival.

And while the Song Festival continues to be popular with the younger generations, last seen at the 12th Estonian Youth Song and Dance Celebration in June and July this year, the positions of all those working to prepare the choirs aren't—because while the investment in terms of time is substantial, the compensation is only small.

That the Song Festival Grounds were empty for the time in between festivals didn't mean that people weren't working hard to prepare the next event, Weidebaum told ERR. "I think that the basic issue with the process of the Song and Dance Festival is that the work of all these people would need to be properly appreciated and perhaps also regulated. But whether or not this can be done by means of a law? I'm not too sure,” Weidebaum said.

According to advisor to the Ministry of Culture, Eino Pedanik, the compensation of the choir conductors is in the responsibility of the local councils in Estonia's municipalities and city districts. There is an additional state support mechanism in place as well.

"The average collective support is €300, which is a small sum, but the number of collectives is around 1,800, so if all of it is added together, the sum is pretty big, and that's the support in addition to what the local councils provide,” Pedanik said.

In the municipality of Tartu there are two women's choirs, one mixed choir, one wind orchestra, and numerous school choirs. The salaries their conductors are getting differ greatly, according to ERR's Aktuaalne kaamera newscast on Oct. 30 this year.

According to mayor Aivar Soop, a music teacher who conducts a choir on the side is paid some €100 a month by the local council, which he thinks isn't enough. Kuressaare mayor Madis Kallas agrees and also says that the conductors' salaries should be raised.

"It's about the choices we make. I think that today we're at a point where we need to think about the people involved,” Kallas said, adding that investments in other things like buildings and infrastructure might have to be postponed in order to keep up the work of the choirs.

Both the mayors as well as the Ministry of Culture are hoping that the newly merged municipalities may find it easier to allocate more means to the work of the choirs and orchestras in their areas.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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