It was The Great Depression and violins, flutes and pianos were left alone, untouched and gathering dust. Few people were hiring musicians.
Then, in 1931, a group of established musicians formed The Musicians Emergency Fund to provide musicians with a chance to pick up their instruments and perform before an audience.
“Professional musicians during The Great Depression had no other way to make a living except for performing music,” said Marie Ashdown, the executive director of The Musicians Emergency Fund.
When World War II broke out, the organization turned its efforts to performing concerts at military bases and providing free music lessons to servicemen.
Eighty-five years later, classical music is still in a state of emergency, Ashdown said. Jobs for classical musicians are scarce.
Most classical musicians start practicing between the ages of three and five. They continue playing their chosen instrument until they’re accepted into a conservatory. But, once they graduate, it’s often difficult to make a living, Ashdown said.
“They’ve got to find a job,” Ashdown said. “They study that instrument all their lives.”
So, each year, The Musicians Emergency Fund offers a select group of up-and-coming musicians the chance to perform at Lincoln Center — an occurrence that can alter a budding musician’s course.
“You can see what that means on their resume,” Ashdown, 89, said. “When they send that out, people pay attention.”
She said the organization believes that classical music brings people to a higher level of awareness. Ashdown calls the genre “the ultimate abstract,” in that it improves upon silence. The group works to make sure opportunities still exist for those who are passionate about Beethoven and Mozart, since that number is also shrinking.
“We are losing our audience,” Ashdown said. Most families don’t have time to sit down with their children and teach them to appreciate classical music, she said. “We’re trying to do everything to rectify that by introducing young people to classical music.”
The organization selects eight novice musicians to play in the spring and fall concert.
This year’s fall concert will take place on Saturday, Oct. 22 at Alice Tully Hall at 3 p.m. Cho-Liang Lin, a world-renown violinist, will perform along with the musicians. The concert is being dedicated to the memory of Alan Waxman, an MEF board member and legal counsel to the organization, who died in May.
Ashdown said that people have suggested she change the organization’s name, because of the alarm raised by the word “emergency.”
But, she won’t be changing it any time soon, she said.
“Emergency was not a pejorative word,” Ashdown said. “It meant helping in a fast way.”