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MUSICIAN DISTANCING: Kennedy Center fires Musicians after Receiving $25 Million in Stimulus Funds

After being awarded $25 Million in relief funds, The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. will stop paying members of the National Symphony Orchestra in April 3, 2020. Ironically, this funding was provided for the following purpose: “To cover operating expenses including … employee compensation and benefits and fees for artists or performers” (H.R. 748, 2020, p. 722).

In this post, I’d like to answer two questions. First, what on earth is happening at the Kennedy Center with its musicians? Second, how does social distancing impact professional musicians?

What on earth is happening at the Kennedy Center?

In Kennedy Center’s mission statement, it claims that one of its aims is “supporting artists…and serving the nation as a leader in arts education.” Considering this, the first thing they do when things get tight, is fire musicians, even though they received money for that purpose. To me, that seems to conflict with their purpose.

To get members of the National Symphony paid for six weeks, it would only cost a little over $2 million. In fact, the Kennedy Center has a $100 million endowment and $575 million in assets. Does that mean that the Kennedy Center’s mission should be changed? Perhaps it should be more focused on maintaining its legacy or structure, but it certainty does not align with the ideal of supporting artists.

Perhaps more concerning is that the Kennedy Center serves a beacon and “leader in arts education.” This is true. In fact, I have been there and attended some of their world-class music education workshops. But, considering this action seems to be disingenuous with its purpose and does not position them as a leader in arts education.

How does social distancing impact professional musicians?

Considering the musicians in the National Symphony, they are enduring something that every professional musician is currently experiencing. Simply put, there is no live audience to play to. Professional musicians usually survive on live performances and music lessons. So, no audience means no work.

Unlike members of the National Symphony or other major musical institutions that have a steady gig, my concern went to the musicians that hustle and move from gig to gig every day. When I was playing full time in Orange County, a typically week included playing a few restaurant gigs, drumming in a musical pit, recording a few drum tracks in a studio, giving private, teaching ensembles, and playing for Disney. Of course, this changed depending on time of year. Honestly, I’m not sure how I would have survived is everyplace I played (worked) was shut down.

What I am getting at is that musicians typically survive on live experiences and no gigs means no work. Yes, there are online opportunities available, but like other gigs it is competitive and requires time to get a following. Musicians are essentially a small business. Simply put, they are entrepreneurs that have many contracts (gigs) that make up their income.

Final Thought

My final considerations are this, if tax payer funding was given to an institution like the Kennedy Center for the purpose of employee compensation, it is underhanded for them to use those funds for other purposes. Thinking about my follow entrepreneurial musicians, I hope the places people gather open again soon, as this is this is how we survive and thrive. Yes, there are online opportunities that should be embraced, but there is something magical and genuine about live performance.

Stay safe and keep making music.


John Owens, Ph.D. is the author of Music at Home: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Musically Insightful kids, which can be purchased on Amazon at


H.R. 748 (2020). CARES Act: Retrieved from


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