VietNamNet’s reporters had a conversation with violinist Xuan Huy, who was considered a musical prodigy of Vietnam. He played in the Century Orchestra in Russia, which was sponsored by Princess Diana. After she died, he returned to Vietnam, joined the national symphony orchestra and then left it to work as a freelance artist.

Do you know about the income gap between a classical artist and a pop singer?

In Vietnam, instrumentalist call ourselves "musical workers." And it's true. It has been there for 10 years. Because their salary is equivalent to that of a street cleaning worker. They earn monthly salary of VND3 million ($150), plus VND3 million from performances in a month, including VND50,000 ($2.5) for a practice day and VND200,000 ($10) for a show.

People see instrumentalists as “supplementary parts” because they accompanists for singers. In essence, they have to learn 5 to 10 times harder than singers. At weddings, instrumentalists are paid VND800,000 ($40) for one hour, even if he/she is a master degree holder who was trained since the age of eight. Meanwhile, the lowest price for a young singer who were trained vocally for 1-2 years is VND4 million ($200)/song.

Let’s make calculations. A singer sings one song in three minutes so each show he/her can earn at least VND15 million ($700). For example, singer Trong Tan is paid VND20 million ($1,000) for one song. For a show of 30 minutes, he can easily earn at least VND40 million ($2,000).

The remuneration for Hong Nhung is higher, VND40 million ($2,000) for a song and at least VND60 million ($3,000) for two songs. The total time is just less than 10 minutes, no need of rehearsal. Dam Vinh Hung earns $7,000/ two songs.

The remuneration for instrumentalists in 30 minutes to one hour is almost VND1 million while it is VND30-VND150 million ($1,500-$7,000) for only 5-10 minutes of singers.

Do well-known classical artists earn higher income?

Quite a bit more, but their income cannot compare with even unknown singers. For example, senior musicians like Mrs. Tran Thi Mo and Mr. Ngo Hoang Quan are paid up to VND4-5 million ($200-250)/show. They are Meritorious Artists but the public do not know who they are while singers are promoted very quickly.

In the 1990s, you played music in Russia. Were your income and working conditions there better?

Obviously working in foreign countries is quite different. In the 1990s, Russia shifted to capitalism, meaning that the recognition is based on wages. If you are talented, they recruit you otherwise you will be sacked. About 20 years ago, Russian orchestras could pay an instrumentalist from $800 to $1,000 per month. The competition was very harsh and it forced musicians to try their best.

When I was in a very good working reel like that, I returned to Vietnam where everything was totally different. I had many years working abroad but when I returned home, I was paid less than $200 per month. How do you live? Only farmers can live with that wage because they do not have to spend money.

What is your perspective on the involvement of the State? Do you like more state’s sponsor or more freedom for artists and orchestras?

Nothing is actually sponsoring. Now artists should be seen at least as state officers. But a graduate of music is paid VND2 million, VND3 million per month. Meanwhile companies pay their receptionists nearly VND10 million a month.

It is always complained of lacking budget while many corporations incur losses of several hundreds or thousands of billion dong a year. In other countries they make cash balance much better. They pay based on talent and ability. The excellent people will get promotion and the weak ones will be replaced.

Unlike in Vietnam, if someone is admitted to an orchestra, he will stay there for a lifetime?

Yes. Since there is no rejection so people cannot develop. This is called "regular personnel." In other countries, they do not have the so-called “regular personnel” but only "gray matter". Many people stay in state-owned orchestras though they are paid only VND3 million per month. They stay there and still do extra jobs.

I quit and will never come back to the orchestra. Artists are now forced to sit there; otherwise they will be expelled from the payroll. The word "regular personnel" works extremely strong with a man even if it is only worth VND3 million a month. Because there is no layoff, the quality is not good.

Can you tell me more about the so-called "cannot get out from the permanent personnel?"

When I "retired" (leaving a state-owned orchestra) at the age of 20, I did not have cronies anymore. I felt my world was lost and I had gone into a different world, with those who do not learn music.

In the music world, people tend to gather together; otherwise they will feel like they are retired or redundant. Maybe because of that, they do not want to leave their orchestras. They would rather be there to earn a little money in order to have a place to lament, to chat and to kill time. They dare not to overcome it to exist independently. It's their community. They live for the community, no need to know that it's not good or bad.

The wage is too low but if they try, they are only paid that amount. Thus, professional quality goes down.

There was a period of time I played for an orchestra in Hanoi. I asked them: "how much the first violin position is paid?" They replied: "If there are foreign instrumentalists in the rehearsal, you will be paid VND50,000 ($2.5) and only VND20,000 ($1) without foreign players". "What is the difference in remuneration for musicians sitting in the front row and in the last row?" - "Nothing."

Then I sat in the last row. Sometime later I asked again: "How much is the violin 2 player paid?" - "Still, there's nothing different." Then I go to the last row of the second violin. Naturally the orchestra lost a good instrumentalist because that person no longer wanted to contribute to the orchestra. Then I quit to do other jobs, meaning that the orchestra is brain drain.

Thus, as I understand, you suggested a competitive mechanism in the orchestra?

Yes. And the salary must be paid highly for those who are deserved to it. There is a story like this. An artist told me "You pay me just VND10 so I play at that level. If you pay me 5 to 10 times higher, I will play very well." I replied: "Yes. I will pay you 10 times higher, but you must play 10 times better for me, if not, I will fire you." The artist agreed but he could not play better.

"You see? That’s the problem. I know that you could play 10 times better in the past. But now you are thwarted and you think that you are still good as you were in the past,” I told the artist.

We're in the mud, but we thought we are great men of our small town. They were not like that but the surrounding environment has changed them that way.

By Ho Huong Giang - VietNamNet Bridge - April 21, 2013