If you play flute, 32 is too old

If you play flute, 32 is too old


norman lebrecht

February 04, 2019

Andrea ‘Fluterscooter’ Fisher was getting excited about this summer’s new category at the Tchaikovsky Competition – until she saw the age limit:

In light of the famed Tchaikovsky Competition opening to woodwinds for the first time since its beginning in 1958, the flute community was abuzz with excitement.  A friend suggested I enter, and the first woodwind prize of $30,000 caught my eye, not for myself (as I’m well “expired”) but for other deserving flutists.  Of course, I knew there was a catch as I read through the competition rules: “The age limit of participants as of the date of the Competition opening for instrumentalists is not younger than 16 and not older than 32 years of age inclusive.”  Facebook’s latest vanity meme wants to know “How Well You Have Aged in 10 Years,” and in an age where we refuse to be defined by age, we sure like to be reminded that we haven’t aged one bit.  However, the jury members of flute competitions do not care if we look 25; you can’t put filters on your birth certificate, and in the case of the Tchaikovsky competition, if you’re over 32, you’re TOO OLD.  Compared to the other big International Competitions, the Tchaikovsky has a generous maximum age requirement. For the Nielsen and Prague Spring Competitions: cutoff is 30.  The NFA Young Artist competition is also 30.  The Kobe Competition, 32.

So, what is the message that is telling us?  How is that affecting our mental health as musicians, for those who are older and for those who are in their 20’s or younger?  I remember my 19th birthday.  It was the first birthday I did not wish to celebrate, as I felt I was starting my race against the fast ticking clock of the classical music industry. It wasn’t until after I turned 30 that I started embracing my age, since I was already expired and nothing I could do about it (except printing a fake birth certificate, which I considered..)…

Read on here.

Ageism in classical music? We need to talk.


  • Myrtar says:

    “It wasn’t until after I turned 30 that I started embracing my age, since I was already expired and nothing I could do about it (except printing a fake birth certificate, which I considered..)”
    It sounds like Andrea is the one struggling with her age, therapy is recommended.

    • Bill says:

      As an older musician who went back to a major conservatory at an older age, I can tell you that the problem is not with Andrea’s issues with her age, its with a system that is entirely focused/obsessed on youth with no consideration for the possibility that a different path to musical mastery is possible. With a system stacked against you, who could blame her for not wanting to reveal her real age? I know I don’t make it a point to let fellow musicians how old I am, and fortunately, I still look a good bit younger than I actually am. I hear comments about other musician’s age all the time, not whether they do the job well or not.

      Classical/Art music is obsessed with youth, to the point that anyone who dares to enter the field in any way other than the prescribed time limits imposed by the culture are simply written off as having no chance whatsoever. Of course, it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy when you set up a system, that by its design, excludes those who did not take a “traditional” path, whatever that means anymore. Maybe it was important in 1885 when most people were lucky to live to 60, but a musician can be productive well into their 70’s and beyond now.

      I entered a major conservatory at the age of 34 as a freshman undergraduate, successfully graduated; judged by a juries of world class musicians who play in major orchestras and as soloists who felt that I was worthy of both admittance and conferring of a diploma by the institution, but yet I was not considered worthy of entering competitions that my musical and class peers were happily invited to, nor to summer festivals that excluded me solely due to my age, while admitting students in the same class that I was in, simply because they had the good fortune to be born after me and that they and their family made fortuitous decisions when they were young. I have held professional playing and teaching positions, but I and others acknowledge that my progress as a professional musician was and continues to be hampered by my age to a large extent.

      I am forever grateful to that conservatory and my applied teacher at that institution for giving me the chance most others wouldn’t have, (I should say that it did take some lobbying from my applied teacher to get in; the issue was not with my playing, but my age as he told me later) but they were the exception rather than the rule.

      • Bee says:

        I can assure you that you are correct Bill, bang on. It’s even worse for composers as age discrimination for opportunities like this is rampant. There is an obsession with “young composers” rather than the much more inclusive “emerging” composers which allows for different life paths.

    • As I said, I’ve been embracing my age for awhile now, but from 19-30 was rough for me. You might have missed the point of the article, as age discrimination is a public issue and not a personal one.

  • ConduCabr says:

    Age discrimination in music is a serious matter. In the area where I am active, conducting, it is a sad reality.

    1- Some JOBS are advertised with an age limit. It is normal for orchestras, mainly in Europe, to set an age limit to apply for assistant conductor positions (recently there were two with major orchestras in France). And these positions are advertised as JOBS, and this is (I am pretty sure) age-based discrimination and it is illegal in the EU.
    2- Conducting competitions have an age limit of 30-35 years of age. Many conducting students go into this area after studying an instrument or working as performers, and that means that some of those who go back to school for conducting in their late twenties will not finish their training until their early 30s (especially if they study in places like Austria, where conducting programs are very long). These are essential platforms for exposure of conductors and their doors are closed to those who are in their 30s.
    3- Conducting masterclasses do not invite students over 35. Some of them don’t even invite people over 30. I am talking about major conducting masterclasses with well-known conductors and fine orchestras (Muti masterclass, Zinman masterclass with the Tonnhalle etc.), that offer a lot of exposure. If these masterclasses are receiving public money any support from the government should be withdrawn, because age-discrimination should not be supported with everyone’s money.

    There is NOTHING that says that a conductor starting a career after 35 is too old. Au contraire! There was a time when a conductor was a senior musician (both musically and in age) whose music and life experience was valued and respected. Now it is fashionable to have music directors in their mid-twenties. Why? Because it is cool; they move like crazy on the podium and those patrons who don’t know anything about music confuse podium dancing with passionate conducting; because their youth looks better on the photo; and because they are easier to “sell” by music agencies…

    In my case, after being successful in my 20s in my first music area, I decided to go back to school to REALLY learn to conduct. I have tremendous distrust for those who just one day grab a baton and immediately call themselves conductor (those who studied for years are idiots if just buying a baton make you a conductor!). I finished my training almost in my mid-30s in a major conservatoire, after having studied in 3 of the world’s best music schools. Now I seems everything I learnt, and the music experience I have, is worth nothing: I cannot apply for some conducting positions; I cannot apply for most competitions and major masterclasses; and an agent told me that, because of my age, I was not going to be easy to promote (whatever that means!).

    Competitions, instead of having an age limit, should be open to those who have finished their training and do not have yet a professional career. The classical music world has moved too much to the visual/image… it is time we teach people to care more about the music and less about the musicians.

    We live in a crazy world…

    • minacciosa says:

      ConduCabr, your story is exactly my own. After years of being successful as an instrumentalist, I went back to school for conducting and composition. I graduated thinking that the tremendous experience acquired on the other side of the podium would be seen as a desirable asset to orchestras and their administrations. The reality is quite the opposite. It means nothing if you are above an arbitrarily and informally imposed age limit. Everything you’ve been told, I’ve heard as well. It is all completely and utterly arbitrary; it is craven and cynical as well. The music business is much poorer for incorporating such exclusionary policies.

      Crazy, indeed, and self-defeating as well.

    • Bill says:

      What is crazy is seeing from the vote tallies, assuming they are not all trolls, is that just as many visitors to this site apparently disagree with your experience as they agree with you. A sad commentary indeed.

  • Sally says:

    I’m 62 and I am playing better than ever.

  • NN says:

    Probably we better should discuss about competition and qualification which is and always was very hard. My observation about piano students is that they are studying until the end of their career options. Private lessons as kids followed at some point in the teenage phase by studies at some conservatory. Between 18 and 20 they study again at another music academy (preferably in Austria, France, Germany or the UK) finishing with a master degree. And after that they are doing postgraduate studies at the same academy or another one plus master classes. This goes until they are about 27 years old. That’s fine if you want to become a piano teacher, but it’s definitely too late to start a decent concert career on a higher level. The really big ones almost always had their international breakthrough in their early twenties. So young musicians also should be self critical, I’m afraid.

  • MusicBear88 says:

    Ageism is very definitely a thing in music for both sexes, though it may be more pronounced for women. I applied to an English year-long program for choral conducting which had stated that priority would be given to people who had strong keyboard skills or considerable singing experience; I have spent most of my professional life doing both. I was then interviewed by two professors, one who was currently leading the program and one who was taking it over the next year. The current leader seemed to like me a lot, but the second one could only seem to ask questions like “will you really be comfortable in a cohort where most of the students are a decade younger than you?” My answer was yes, especially since the work was primarily working with undergraduate choirs who would be younger anyway, but I wasn’t at all surprised when I wasn’t offered a spot. I was 36 and by the end of the interview I felt like I was about 86.

    • Luigi Nonono says:

      I have to admit that the growing physical and mental limitations of age, can mitigate against the demands of touring. However, that is when one should be at their best and most artistic, which is what audiences should hear. So I guess we can gather that competitions solely exist to feed the music “industry,” which only cares about bodies on stage and collecting fees.

  • Karl says:

    Age discrimination happens in all fields, doesn’t it? recently a Dutch man tried to legally change his age to avoid discrimination, but the courts denied it.

    “Emile Ratelband, still aged 69, wanted to change his birth date by 20 years to avoid what he called discrimination.”

    • Bill says:

      Yes, age discrimination does occur in all fields, but in music, it is institutionalized in ways few others are, with no good reason other than an arbitrary age limit determined by the culture. I don’t think law schools or medical schools have age limits, although it might be impractical to start attending medical school in your 50’s, I have known people enter medical school in their 30’s and go on to have successful careers. I can understand why being an airline pilot might have a mandatory retirement age, but at least in the US, surgeons are not required at any particular age. Certainly non-surgical Doctors practice well into their 80’s in some cases.

      • karl says:

        This wasn’t about a school though. (Do any music schools have age limits?) It is about a music competition. I thought the idea behind music competitions was to allow younger artists to get a start to their careers.

        • Bill says:

          Exactly the point. If I am attending comservatory at, lets say, 32, I’m a sophomore or a 1st year graduate student and I’m trying to get a career started in music, why do competitions discriminate against me? Who are they to say I have no chance at a career while someone a couple of years younger, at the very same school and grade level do? If I was able to get into a conservatory at 32, then certainly someone who knows the difference thinks I have a chance to make it.

  • NYMike says:

    Having heard AF in recital while she was still a Juilliard student and been astounded by her abilities, I often wondered what had happened to her. When I asked her teacher Carol Wincenc, she responded that AF had gone off to do her “own thing” rather than looking for an orchestra job – which I’m sure she could have easily won.

  • MacroV says:

    Age limits are quite common in music competitions, presumably because a key purpose is to indentify younger up-and-comers. And probably because most people who already have established careers – whether as soloists, orchestral players, or professors – wouldn’t deign to enter. 32 is as high an age limit as I’ve heard of.

    That said, maybe some organization would do well to create a competition without age limits; maybe we’d get 40-ish concertmasters, principal clarinets, etc.. Put some real month on the line: maybe we could have Riccardo Morales, Boris Alikverdyan (sp?) and Andreas Ottensammer go at it.

  • Anon says:

    Believe me, ageism is alive and kicking in British orchestras after the age of 50. Despite performing at the highest level and ability. We are totally shunned as being “uncool”. Attitude of some younger players are deplorable. I blame their professors. End of rant.

  • a fellow flutist says:

    From a practical standpoint, I completely understand why major competitions have an age limit. It wouldn’t be fair to have seasoned professionals with a lifetime of experience up against someone just entering the professional field in their early teens or 20s. However, I do agree that the classical music industry is obsessed with youth, especially when it comes to women. Youth is equated to beauty, and unfortunately this is an attitude that the majority of the world has adapted. As someone nearing her late 20s, I too feel the pressure that Ms. Fisher describes. I do not have a full-fledged career and am struggling to juggle practicing and preparing for auditions with gigs and working a 9-5 to merely support myself. I feel the pressure of not having “made it” after attending top music schools and studying with the world’s best teachers, while my peers have already landed jobs in major orchestras. Plain and simple, it sucks. But I am trying to change my attitude and realize that everyone has their own path. I just hope that I am not seen as too “old” by the time I (hopefully) win a job.

  • Trudy Kane says:

    So, Andrea, why not have Flute View sponsor a competition?

  • Singer says:

    While most of the comments have sense, that it would not be fair for a seasoned professional to compete against a recent graduate, there is never a caveat for managed artists. When an artist who’s worked as a soloist for many years and is managed by one of the top agencies in the world can enter the Cardiff singer against people fresh out of their degree this is also wrong. Perhaps less emphasis should be on age and more about how long since graduation or if you are an unmanaged artist. Many larger voiced singers are excluded from competitions because of these ridiculous age limits. We are told to wait until our late 30s for our voice to reach maturity but by then we’re too old for any exposure. Enter too young against a soubrette who’s polished at 23 and you don’t stand a chance, don’t enter till you’re ready and you’ve missed the boat. Then you hear statements from the judges like “ we just aren’t producing those really big voices any more”. Those voices do exist they just have nowhere to be nurtured and then no platform to introduce themselves.

  • I am the author of this article, and I’m happy to see such a lively discussion on here. It is something I wanted to address for awhile to the flute community, but it also resonates to the classical music community at large. Hopefully we can continue this important discussion beyond this article, and can all help make a change.

    • New Again Flutist says:

      I appreciated your article. I quit playing after I finished my masters and stopped for a number of years. Now, as I slide nearer 40 I have begun playing again am playing better than I ever have. I don’t necessarily care to do competitions again, though when this one was announced I definitely looked first at the rules to see if it was even an option. As I’ve come back to playing I definitely feel like age is an issue in being taken seriously as I restart. If Flute View does start a competition for old folks I would definitely be interested!

  • Luigi Nonono says:

    Virtually all competitions have absurdly low, abstract upper age limits. They should be illegal. Or, they should all have artist categories for those above the age limit. Concert Artists Guild should be lauded and supported for allowing exceptions. They need a lot more money.

  • Ceci says:

    I have plans to get a MM in flute performance, but because I have medical issues I need to recover for a couple of years. By that time I’ll be 38. I’m still doing it, even though the odds are stacked against me.

    Not only should people over 30 have the ability to perform in competitions, but the stereotype that adults can’t learn as quickly as the youth needs to cease. I’ve learned the most quickly and efficiently in my thirties as both a flutist and a mezzo-soprano, because now I have the proper training. The word “potential” gets thrown all over the place, as it’s only meant for the youth, and not the professional adult.

    I saw an adult competition listed on the NJ Flute Society webpage and became excited, until I saw that you couldn’t have plans to major in music. Why can’t an adult music major compete? C’mon now.

    And your comment about how ageism affects the mental health of performers reminds me of a commonly marginalized group—people with mental illness. They are told they can never succeed in a competitive field like music, particularly flute performance. I think a good way to fight this stigma is to create non-profit organizations to provide free music lessons to the mentally ill (as long as you can still find a way to pay the teachers.) In my area there is a school that provides free art classes to the mentally ill. Sorry for going a little off topic, I’m also a mental health professional!