The odds against becoming a musician in America

From a fabulous confession by architecture writer Kate Wagner:

 

I was discouraged from pursuing a number of different careers—botany, architecture, creative writing. But I was never, somehow, discouraged from pursuing a life in classical music. Growing up in a small Southern town, I was a shark in a little pond, better than my peers because I had a head start. Everyone thought I was talented, including myself, as I nabbed first chair after first chair. With every victory, the belief that the world was just and fair, and that the talented and hardworking would inherit it, became more and more cemented in my child-soul. When I was in high school, I decided I wanted to be a composer more than a violinist. I wrote my first pieces, little violin ditties, during my sophomore year. Pirated notation software expanded the ensembles to string and even chamber orchestra. I begged my parents to let me attend a pre-college summer program for composers at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

I should have thought twice about the career choice I had impulsively made at the age of seventeen when my parents explained they could only afford to send me to an in-state school instead of an out-of-state, high-end conservatory. My unshaken worldview relented, telling me that if I worked hard, I would succeed no matter which school I attended. I enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in the fall of 2012. Frankly, I’m glad I went there and graduated debt free instead of going to an expensive conservatory, where the crushing of my dreams would have been far more expensive….

One day, around the beginning of my junior year of college, it occurred to me that I wasn’t going to make it….

Read on here.

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  • Good piece. It’s hellishly difficult to get established in some places, and the USA seems to be one of them. I’m not sure it’s that tricky in Europe, if only for the shorter distances between recognised cultural hubs. Citing Nebal Maysaud maybe wasn’t such a great idea, though.

  • Excellent article. I feel very fortunate to have had a career in music, and I attribute most of my success to growing up in a family of musicians. On the other hand, Ms. Wagner is probably going to have more of a positive impact on the world by writing than I ever did as a lowly orchestral musician. She’s certainly not a failure in my book.

    • The problem is that we don’t know what level she was at. Some people feel entitled to ride an express elevator to fame without having the goods.

  • Mixed emotions about her confession. Let me give you all a little taste of how my life has been. I am not here for pity as I am already pretty numb. It is simply to document some of the experiences of a graduate from a world-leading conservatory.

    First of all, those of you from old money should have a painting of your great-great-great-grandfather in your living room, look at it, and say thank you every single day as they saved you from many a headache. And if you are from new money and your parents support you, hug them daily, even over Skype.

    Very few people would advocate “buying” a career, but having close to unlimited funds to fuel a career certainly does help. And it must be an absolute pleasure not to have to worry about how to make ends meet. I wouldn’t know. I have literally starved as a musician a few times. The interesting thing is that it isn’t that bad (to starve) after the first day as the body enters a state of heightened awareness. It might be hard for some of you who are living comfortably to understand just how hard things can get. It’s actually much easier for someone who didn’t graduate from high school to get a mainstream job than a graduate from a conservatory. For example, I passed all sorts of tests to become a stock broker years ago, but one of the managers called me into his office and said that he could not hire me because he knew I would leave them in a heartbeat for an orchestra job. I couldn’t say anything because he was correct. Another thing that is emotionally painful is being made fun of when you work normal jobs. If co-workers find out from the boss that you graduated from Curtis for example, they will say things like, “Well if you are a big musician then why are you working at Radio Shack?” Right after graduation I was lucky enough to get to the finals for a principal position in a regional orchestra, but after that I could no longer take auditions as the funds were simply not there…all my focus was on how to stay afloat. This has been going on for a few decades now.

    There are some parents out there who do have the money to support a child’s education or support the initial stages of a music career but simply refuse to do so. They literally throw you in the shark tank simply to free themselves of all responsibility. People like this should not have children. I used to get jealous of the Asian kids who had “tiger moms.” Several people in my family have not even been to a single concert of mine, even when I played at few times at Carnegie (I was invited to play). A few relatives celebrated when they heard about my hardships, not exactly the people you want to have in your inner circle when the odds are already stacked against you in classical music. Some would pound on the door to get me to stop practicing…imagine an Asian tiger mom doing that (scientific impossibility)! It’s also not fun lying on the floor in severe pain from a giant malignant tumor in your colon which bleeds continuously and blocks your…err….”functions,” forcing you use the WC 20 to 30 times a day for months as certain family members spit venom at your spouse for reaching out for help. I could only have surgery after getting health insurance, previously a luxury that I could not afford. No financial or emotional support was ever given by family members during my cancer experience which also involved six months of Drano-esque chemotherapy…not even a visit. For some people it is all about keeping their situations as comfortable as possible. Some enjoy weekly or monthly phone calls so they can play “pretend parent.” Please never take good parents for granted.

    Surprisingly, I am very happy now because I no longer have a self-defeating attitude when it comes to music despite all the hardships. There is one thing that no one can take away from you (unless they end your life). And that is the ability to keep reaching for higher standards of artistic excellence. In the end, all that matters to me is the sound, not the spotlight.

    • What a terrible story.

      But I know, one that reflects a large chunk of reality for musicians.

      Was it different in former times? Difficult to know, because we only have the evidence of the ‘survivors’.

      But one thing seems to be clear: the status of art, and of art music, albeit only circulating among the educated elites and bourgeoisie, was very high before the 20th century, as the evidence demonstrates beyond doubt. That must have offered lots of opportunities, in spite of the clumsiness of music life about which we can inform ourselves in, for instance, Berlioz’ memoirs.

  • Regarding Ms. Wagner’s comments on the difficulty of becoming a successful composer, the revelation (spoiler alert!) is that like novelist and movie director, there are far fewer opportunities to work than there are people who want the work. She concentrates on academic positions and grants and, accurately identifies that, as with novel writing and movie directing, professor jobs and grants go disproportionally to people who graduate from high-prestige institutions.

    But how much significant work has been produced by people whose main job is teaching in universities? Even if we consider only the last 100 years, when composition started to move into academia, I’d say not much. The moral is that getting people to hear, read, or watch original creative work is difficult. You’ve got to be incredibly stubborn, so stubborn, in fact, that you’re willing to forgo the safety net of an academic position.

    And, yea, life as a working musician is tough as well. Someone should have mentioned that when she was younger.

    • I can deal with tough or even very tough. But I can’t deal with situations where things are made impossible. For example, my teacher always said that there will always be room for the best. Yes, but that is only if they are given a chance to be heard. There are symphony players in the US that purposely block very talented players from subbing because they don’t want the other orchestra members to find out just how bad they are through comparison.

      There are so many mediocre players that are able to keep their jobs for years due to tenure and/or simply having the ability to serve as an OK puzzle piece. There are literally people playing in professional orchestras that would not be able to get into a good youth orchestra. Let this sink in: At an international competition, a few young teenage girls completely destroyed one of the principal players at the MET who didn’t even get to the later rounds. Their playing was so superior that it made him literally look like an amateur with an unfocused sound and low level musical ideas. Morally this person should simply quit and give a chance to these girls to audition, but we know that will never happen.

      • Your teacher was right; there will always be room for the best. But what was once best is now average. “Best” has always been a combination of extraordinary ability, determination, zeal, and some ability to socialize. People with these qualities still make it to the top of the pyramid, but the pyramid has an increasingly broad base.

  • Not to be too cruel, but if you aren’t successful at something you are passionate about, is there the slightest objective possibility that you simply aren’t good enough to make a living in your chosen profession as a performer?

  • Norman – why would you print this? It reads as fact whereas it is really sour grapes, opinion and misinformation masquerading as truth; and from a person who tried and did not succeed. Reminds me of the adage ‘In every audition there is one winner and 100 excuses’.

    Without my writing an essay, let’s singularly deal with the canard in large print from her article. “This is the way of the arts under capitalism, in a culture where the abandonment of government results in a void filled only by wealthy donors and bloodsucking companies.”

    The Chicago Symphony was founded by the very libertarian and wealthy businessman Charles Norman Fay and a large Board of Trustees who pledged $1000 each in 1890 towards the creation of this new orchestra. There was no initial ‘government’ support, and Fay postulated that ticket sales to the public would never be enough to cover the operational costs and salaries of an orchestra, and would always rely on large scale support from donors; i.e. the ‘American’ model.

    As far as her statement that educational systems are rigged towards students from families of means, I can only speak for myself. My parents were both schoolteachers, and were not in a position to fund my performance education. Through total commitment, and competing for scholarships I was able to attend both the Interlochen Arts Academy and the University of Michigan without cost. Many of my fellow students who went on to highly successful orchestral careers, as I did, came from similar backgrounds.

    • I have no idea why your comment has received 5 dislikes so far. Perhaps it disturbs some people’s delusions.

      Over the decades that I have spent in this wonderful mess, I have basically seen it all, everything from blatant corruption to absolute fairness, rich talented kids, rich untalented kids, poor talented kids, poor untalented kids, some that are talented but are lazy juvenile delinquents, etc. I can honestly say that I have never seen an extraordinary talent blocked out by every single soul in music that the individual had contact with. This simply does not happen.

      Everyone’s path is unique, but I also believe her confession was basically sour grapes. This is because the first effing thing a dedicated musician is going to do when they get hooked up with money is use it toward music, unless they are truly not passionate or confident about what they have to offer. As they say, you can fool some of the people some of the time but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

  • For every would-be classical musician who drops out and writes about it, there’s an opening for one who doesn’t drop out and has no time to write about it.

      • Some of us had less talent than others. We just didn’t give up. Most of my music conservatory classmates are out of the profession now (25 years on). For some of us, quitting was not an option we considered. And no I don’t live homeless under a bridge.

        • Many people never give up. They simply go for years, even decades, being ignored or purposely blocked out due to politics. There are cases where certain musicians are not permitted to be on a sub list for an orchestra out of fear that the other orchestra members will find out just how bad the person they are subbing for is.

          • “There are cases where certain musicians are not permitted to be on a sub list for an orchestra out of fear that the other orchestra members will find out just how bad the person they are subbing for is.”

            I’m a musician and also in orchestra management (30+ years) and this is definitely true (though in my experience, this happens with good players also). But it is also true about conductors. One Music Director I worked with was very insecure and wouldn’t allow the best conductors to be hired as guests.

            Regarding the article, I agree wholeheartedly with the points the author made about neo-liberalism and the gig economy. Late-stage Capitalism desperately wants to make poor serfs out of all of us.

  • She is a socialist partisan whose dedication to her music was trumped by other considerations– fine. I don’t see anything ‘fabulous’ about her diatribe (“a rambling bitter diatribe on the wrongs and sufferings of the labourers”: a cite to Charles Kingsley in the OED seems to the point).

  • Honestly, I’d be interested to meet this person. I really like the article and find plenty of truth in it, yet at the same time I can’t help myself feel that the person is also quite deluded and possibly butthurt about certain things. Not gonna stir a debate here but it would really be interesting to have a conversation with her and see where she’s coming from with some of these “facts”.

  • 1. Classical music has never, ever been a self-sustaining activity. It has always needed external patronage and support from governments and patrons. When <50% of costs are covered by paying customers, you have a structurally unsustainable business. It's amazing how long it has lasted. 2. Coupled with dwindling interest (2% of all music?) and increasing cost against a tsunami of hostile cultural forces/tastes, classical music is headed towards extinction if it's any normal business. But because of its overpowering grip on those who can perceive it, it will continue to survive as long as Western culture is alive, albeit as its smallest–elitist–niche. 3. The problems in the schools and job market are exacerbated a 100X under these in extremis conditions. The author is lulled by the images of class, refinement, glamour that the business projects, and is doubly disillusioned by the ugliness that is in any profession–corruption, class/racial advantage, nepotism, politicking, gossiping, sexual harassment etc. 4. What's the difference between a 14" pizza and a musician? The pizza can feed a family of 4.

    • Wise words from Caranome

      Of course part of the problem is that so much of the (too small) pie goes towards star soloists and conductors as orchestras desperately chase audience leaving less and less for the rank and file

      And yet…. standards of orchestral playing have never been higher!

  • …well, if anyone could do it, then it’d be as easy as opening a computer and starting a blog and MUCH less valued. Some things in life take time, sacrifice, unfortunately money, which hopefully when added together with care, lead to success and a certain amount of empathy to pass it along.

  • Absolute Hogwash. Here is the tldr version of her article: “I didn’t succeed, therefore the system is flawed. It couldn’t possibly be that I didn’t work hard enough, smart enough (not just putting in the hours of practice, but practicing the RIGHT things), and didn’t persevere through failures (success is never a straight line). No, it must be because the system wasn’t fair. I couldn’t make it, and some institutions are struggling, so the only answer is to tear the whole thing down. What should we replace it with? Who knows, I’m not into the whole ‘creating’ thing. Let’s just burn it to the ground because it couldn’t possibly be my own fault that I, or other people who failed, didn’t make it. It must have been some rich white men’s fault.”

    • Exactly. And I believe that many people got the same vibe from her confession. As if Gil Shaham wouldn’t have made it if he had been born in the Ozarks next to a moonshine still. Some artists are at the level where success can’t not happen, but many people don’t want to admit this. This is because it offends the myth of equality.

        • Yes, he would say that because he is a very humble person. But anyone with half a brain knows that he would be great regardless of his environment. The whole environmental thing is another myth perpetuated by the liberals. Trust science.

          • So, you’re implying that I don’t have half a brain, because I think studying with the best teachers and attending high level performances and being around other talented kids has some bearing on an artist’s success. Got it. But “the whole environmental thing” is actually not a myth. Go read some studies with your full-sized brain. Besides that, liberals aren’t the ones denying climate change, so I wouldn’t bring up the science thing if I were you.

          • There has been all sorts of research done which proves that there is basically zero correlation between environment and intelligence but a very strong correlation between race and intelligence. Such scientific findings are also conveniently swept under the rug. BTW, I have never denied climate change. Nice you people actually got something right. Cookie time.

          • Er…since the very concept of “an intelligence test” is somewhat controversial (e.g. what exactly is being measured), I really do not see how it can be proved that there a broad differences between races or countries.

    • I don’t think she wants to “burn it to the ground”, I think she is just noting the difficulties of making it in the classical music world and the hierarchies and cultural stink that results from that. There are reasonable limits to having to push through failure job/economically speaking, and the classical music world (in the US) has been exceeding those for about the last 20 or so years. Many people are going to Tanglewood while practicing 8 hours a day and even many of those people are still “not making it”. And she’s right to point out that how disgusting it is that many music schools charge $60000+ a year.

      That said,
      That SJW WHITE PRIVELAGE! section did annoy me too.

  • Wow. There’s much here that rings true and want/need to read the full article again. I few preliminary comments.

    I can relate to the aspect of the article that talks about the economics of the training of a classical musician. I waited on tables for a year in order to save enough to buy my first pro-level instrument. That was a couple of years after my undergrad studies. I went to school with kids who never knew the bulls**t of having to do awful work during the summer in order to get back into school in the fall.

    But…there’s another side. I also came to see that, in my experience, people don’t care where you came from or who you studied with; they just want to know if you can play. (I would never delude myself; connections matter, to a point.)

    That being said, this article is a must read by anyone contemplating a career in music, not just classical music.

    For the record, my complaint about what is going on in the field should be directed towards the dozens (hundreds?) of music departments that are cranking out performance and composition majors. We exist in a free-market system and people are free to choose what they will study in school. But I would not be surprised if 80% of those who graduate will never find full time work in the business. And the schools know it. Flooding the market with so many musicians is, in my mind, immoral, at the least.

    Great article. Thanks for bringing our attention to it.

    • I said this years ago: Music schools/departments are, in general, means to no end institutions (I teach students so that they can teach students so that they can teach students). They are simply businesses. For example, Juilliard has more money that it knows what to do with. This is why every so many years someone comes up with some multi million dollar plan to make structural renovations to the building. Leave the damn building alone and put your billion dollars in an endowment so that all students can attend for free just like at Curtis. At least if they fail to eventually get jobs they won’t have to look at mountains of student debt. And if it is hard enough for Juilliard and Curtis grads to make it, why would anyone in their right mind major in music at some university that no one has ever heard of? The lesser schools are evil because they keep the hope alive.

      • I went to a lesser school and still made it into two major orchestras. But, like I mentioned above, I come from a musical background. My parents were broke, but I was completely immersed in Classical music from the time I was a baby.

        • And there are people who were born into a classical music environment who went absolutely nowhere.

          It all boils down to the individual. The most talented individuals normally end up at the best schools…that’s just how it is. The main reason is that they want to be around other great musicians. Most are already set before they even get there. If Sarah Chang could play circles around just about everyone at Juilliard, including the faculty, then who there could really teach her anything? I am sure Ms. Delay gave her some very good tips, but it isn’t like she would crumble without them. For someone like that it is about enjoying the environment and being right in Manhattan where you feel like you are part of something big. And one special thing that many don’t consider is the fact that the Juilliard orchestra will have at least a couple major soloists playing in its violin section at any given time (or at least did during the Delay era). You are stunned by a Tchaikovsky winner’s performance on TV only to be playing together and hanging out six months later. Where else does that happen? A smart person can gain so much simply by sitting in the same room with these geniuses as they play. That is simply not going to happen at East River Community College no matter how good of a musician you happen to be.

          • Indeed. It happens in any of the top schools: Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music, Vienna University of Music and the Performing Arts, Paris Conservatoire, Hans Eisler Musikhochschule… it certainly won’t happen in a University in the middle of Nebraska.

  • I wish more people didn’t take one extreme or the other. There is a lot of truth to what she is saying, but it’s also true that she probably was not “good enough” (although you have to be in the “very-good” to “prodigy” category these days to make it).

    • The point is that we cannot allow sour grapes for one to turn into a defeatist attitude for someone who can compose or play at a very high level that will make it given enough time.

      And what is the definition of “make it” exactly? I would much rather be unknown but playing at a world-class level than be a run-of-the-mill orchestra musician that everyone hopes will retire.

  • Very impressed about some comments that can only look towards her merits instead of examining the systemic problem. It is a pretty shallow argument to say that it has always being like that (if you truly believe in this just get yourself a cozy grave) and reinforces her point that meritocracy is blind, specially if you look at other “prestigious” professions where even the most incompetent person with a diploma can make a living of it. The overrated “nobility” and “tradition” of classical music make some people think that it is ok to ‘suck it all’ in order to get your “deserved” position. You can be a full-time musician and have some empathy and self-awareness that besides working hard you also were in “the right place at the right time”.

  • A few thoughts:

    — not only is the field saturated with excellent players, but the level has gone up so much in the past 20-30 years that what used to be considered exceptional playing has now become almost commonplace. Many of the players winning an orchestral position today could have had solo careers a generation ago.
    — there are not enough jobs given the supply of players, so that many of them may unfortunately be left in the lurch. Music schools know this, but they are in the business of making money — not guaranteeing professional outcomes. In an ideal world, they would have a responsibility to make this reality quite clear to their students, but if they did so they may not be nearly as profitable.
    — it may be harder to make it if you come from a smaller place and study in a “lesser” school, but going to a great school in a top city is not necessarily a guarantee of success. If you have exceptional talent, unless you live in a cave, opportunities will probably present themselves. In this sense, there is still a meritocracy at work, but it applies mostly to those who are at the very top. And even then, there might still be cases which will still have a hard time, because music is a profoundly subjective business that is often unfair, not to mention often political as well.
    — A career in music is fraught with many uncertainties, many of which are economical in nature. The same amount of energy invested in training to become a musician could easily lead to a much more secure career in many other fields. Some of today’s young musicians have exceptional entrepreneurial skills and have successfully created their own opportunities outside of the traditional orchestra/teaching circuit. Nevertheless, music requires extreme resilience and determination — and as with anything else, a good amount of luck. It is not for the faint of heart, as harsh the reality may be.

  • This is 100% a accurate. I am a conductor. I attended a major conservatoire in Europe (one of those who are always ranked top 5 in the world), then in the USA (another well know conservatory), and then again in a top-5 conservatoire in Europe. In the course of my studies I ended up speaking 2 foreign languages fluently and having a good working knowledge of a third. While a student I worked with youth and semi-professional ensembles and orchestras. Now, after finishing my last program I find that
    1) without knowing the right person there is no way you can get an opportunity with a major ensemble
    2) I don’t fit in what orchestras are looking for, image-wise: white european male between 33 and 50 is too common
    3) all stable conducting jobs (like Kapellmeister in an opera house) require years of work experience with professional orchestras (how??)
    4) major conductors have often their assistants assigned by their agency for their guest opera gigs
    5) I am now too old for some competitions and masterclasses
    6) jobs and masterclasses require the perfect video trifecta: perfect conducting (of course), perfect audio (edited by a pro-Tonmeister), perfect HD images, good orchestra, perfect angle, tails for the conductor…
    7) in Europe when it is found that you make your living through teaching you are labelled for life and many won’t take you seriously as a performer.

    It is almost impossible to have a career. It doesn’t matter anymore how good or bad you are.

    Well, at least I went through all this with no debt…

    • Conducting is a different beast. Conducting is the only music profession where you can be very good and have absolutely no job, or be very bad and have an international career. Conducting is the best example of everything that is wrong with the music business.
      I am sorry to say that you are right: if you don’t have connections for assistantships; connections to get your first concert with a pro-orchestra (even a mid-level professional regional orchestra); if you don’t have the money to go to competitions and masterclasses; and – as you said – if you don’t project the image that is in fashion now (woman, young, and if possible atractive and non-white), there is nothing you can do.
      Good luck!

    • Anyone who graduates from a world-leading conservatory is for sure a very good performer or composer. These schools make their prospective students jump through so many loops to be accepted that those who are not already very good never get a chance to study there.

      Sixty years ago anyone who graduated from a famous conservatory could most likely have a solo performing career. 30 years ago, that same level would make a graduated student from the same school good enough to play in an orchestra. That same level now would make it almost impossible for the candidate to find a job in an orchestra.

      I feel your pain, but we are all in the same situation, buddy! At least you have no debt.

    • There is a world-wide conducting ‘mafia’ for young conductors. It includes three major artist agencies (THE three agencies), a conducting organization in Germany offering masterclasses to very young conductors, and conducting professors in various countries (one in the Vienna, one in Manchester, one in Zurich, one in Weimar…). If you can get the support of any of them (in the case of agencies a strong support from one of the artist managed by any of these agencies), your career will take off.

      • The question is: how do the others get there? what can I offer that no other conductor can offer? That’s what you should ask yourself. These are two very difficult questions. Acually, after studying in these major conservatories in Europe and the States you are one step ahead, because it is more likely that people will take you seriously. My advice? Conduct everything you can anywhere you can for whatever money they offer and develope a network. A strong network of professionals and friends… and, specially, be sure to find the support of your wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend, parents, and friends. It is a tough business, but rewards both personal and economic (yes, they really are if you do things right, and you are creative and entrepreneur) can be very high. Good luck!

  • There are far too many places for people to study music. If you don’t get accepted to one of the world’s top 10 schools (Juilliard, Curtis, Royal Academy of Music, Vienna University of Music and Performing Arts, Royal College of Music, Conservatoire de Paris…) it is almost not worth trying.

    In my country, Spain, there are 24 public music conservatoires, and about 12 private schools where one can graduate with a bachelor of music in performance. There are 27 full-time orchestras in Spain (orchestras with a concert season of more than 15 concerts whose members are fully salaried). There are about 250 public public schools for children (they train musicians until the level where they are ready to audition for university-level music training) and 100 authorised private schools. Teaching has becomethe only job possible for these young musicians. The origin of this situation has a lot todo with the decentralized system of Spain, but that is a different thing.

    If I could go back I would had studied to be an engineer.

    • I have performance degrees but decided early on that I wasn’t going to go that route.

      Because of my music degrees, I got a job as a technical writer in the software industry. In fact, three jobs were a direct result of my music degrees. It was a profession that I excelled at and enjoyed. And it paid a very nice salary and benefits.

      I still play and perform, but just for the love of it.

      • “I have performance degrees but decided early on that I wasn’t going to go that route.”

        No offense, but that’s like a dirt poor person saying that they have decided not to go eat caviar.

  • What struck me most in this diatribe was the absence of ANY passion or reverence for music. Throughout my life as professional musician and manager, the bliss of playing and listening to great music has been the driving force of my life, as it is for every successful classic music professional.

  • ….”After seeing Vanessa-Mae on the Disney Channel at the age of three, I begged my parents to let me play the violin.”
    …well, might this explain something….?

  • Sure, there’s an air of disappointment the article, but I don’t really read it as sour grapes. Certainly the influence of money above all else rings true. And those having a go at her for being bitter had better not be the same posters who complain about the shallowness of performance and interpretation of so many modern musicians, because in that case you’re probably in violent agreement with her without realising it.
    As a side-note, I’ve read her McMansion Hell blog for quite some time and always admired her passion. It’s so surprise that she started out playing such a passionate instrument.

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