Music is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an easy business. As a cellist on an airplane (nobody fails to notice that one), I’m roped into a lot of conversations with curious strangers. and the first reaction most people have to the idea of life as a musician is generally one of excitement. Compared to the typical office job, most musicians, no matter how tired, overworked, and frustrated, will always remember that it’s a privilege and a joy to play music for a living. The image of life as a musician as presented by the misty lens of the media and the arts is one of bohemian romance: freewheeling, intense, and glamorous. The reality, as most of us will agree, is usually something rather different.
There are moments of adventure and romance, but there are quite a few more moments of gritty hard work, doubt, and fear. The profession is by nature one that offers very little security of the personal, emotional, or financial kind, and, in a world that is becoming increasingly insecure, the few safety nets that musicians have grown to count on are dwindling. Never a profession to offer a bounty of steady employment, music is now joining much of the rest of the job market as many of the paternalistic organizations that have acted as bastions of the field are weakening. Symphonies–the most dependable form of steady employment for the orchestral instrumentalist–are struggling, as are universities, music schools, and higher education in music as a whole. The same goes for opera companies and musical theater groups. As a young musician starting to forge a career, it’s a daunting picture to behold.
No echelon of the art seems to be immune to the changing environment, and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia is no exception to that. Long held in esteem as the nation’s premier conservatory, the Curtis Institute has never lacked for representatives in principal positions in orchestras, solo careers, and major chamber music ensembles. Despite the often astral quality of their students and graduates, the powers that be at Curtis are finding that the future is an uncertain place for the young musician. Careers like those of the greats of previous generations are harder and harder to come by, as competition increases due to not only the sheer volume of participants in classical music but due to the extreme level of achievement that is now more or less commonplace. At Curtis, as everywhere else, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the young musician of the twenty-first century, no matter how talented, will be much more responsible for creating his or her trajectory than generations before. Curtis president and eminent violist Roberto Diaz has seen evidence of this great shift within his school, acting as a microcosm of the classical music community as a whole. Of it he says, “More and more you see artists not necessarily waiting for a Deutsche Grammophone contract to come their way. They self-produce recordings, they market them themselves. Some of them start their own recording companies, they do their own PR just through how they manage themselves over the Internet. And I think you see more and more that musicians – the really successful ones – tend to have careers that are not just one-dimensional.”
Taking a career into one’s own hands is a daunting prospect no matter how you slice it. Music schools are incubators for talent and playing ability and generally do quite an excellent job of preparing students for what happens on stage. As many recent graduates of conservatories and music schools the world over are learning, though, 90% or so of what happens after leaving school has very little to do with the heat of the moment on stage. It has more to do with business, administration, creativity, self-promotion, vision, and strategy. Only after quite of bit of that does stage time come, and, more often than not, it is self-created and self-motivated stage time.
Diaz, who has garnered great praise for his work at Curtis, is seeking to address this gap between the practice-room-filled ivory tower of the music school and the somewhat unhelpful real world. A pilot program planned for next year will explore the idea of leadership in music: what it means to be a musical citizen and to give back to the community. The school is already coaching students in how to court funders and speak to audiences. This training in the “administrative” side of the music business is often overlooked or under-emphasized in traditional music school curriculum, much to the detriment of musicians forging their own path. As the institutions that looked after our older peers are slowly becoming less dependable, the need to create a unique path in the music world is growing stronger. But in a wildly competitive and, to be very frank, often strongly judgmental community, finding a niche that is outside of the traditional is often looked on with scorn or assigned a stigma. Those individuals who choose to pursue a non-traditional path are often subjected to a line of thought that labels them with a “not-good-enough-for-primetime” verdict, and, as such, the idea of remaining outside the now-dying institutions of legitimacy is a scary one to musicians. As a performer myself, I was hesitant to even undertake a public blog-writing project like this one, because to some people, participation in any activities at all outside of simply performing undermines legitimacy as a musician, performer, and talent.
This is again a problem that manifests itself at the very highest levels. Curtis graduate Margo Tatgenhorst Drakos, a cellist who is now an entrepreneur, spoke of the problem of finding a niche: “Whether it was my perception or reality, you felt like you were letting people down by not going in a direction that wasn’t traditional….Curtis is going to have these people out there who are incredibly talented, but they are going to have to make the organizations they want to be a part of. They’re going to have to create their own jobs.” The same is true of graduates of any institution, and it’s time for all music schools to recognize that the environment into which they are sending their alumni is a changed one. Classes in music business and management, in self-promotion and music technology, in grant-writing and community engagement are all sorely, sorely needed in today’s conservatories.
Also sorely needed is a paradigm shift in the musical community.The days of plentiful orchestral opportunities for all have ended, and the days of the protective record label or musical company are rather long-gone. Instead, we have entered an age in which musical careers are highly personal in their nature and direction, and it’s time for the idea that a self-made career is less valid than a traditional one to be expunged from the collective opinion. In the words of Roberto Diaz, “Do you have to end up in a major symphony orchestra to be able to say ‘I am successful?’ Is the only way to be successful as a singer to end up at the Met? We’re starting to really look at that.” How then, in a new environment without the traditional markers of success, can one measure achievement? The answer should be clear to musicians when they remember what is at the heart of the community. The measure of success is in the music and in our devotion to it–it is in how we choose to live our lives as musicians. By putting the art, the sentiment, the communication, and the message of music at the forefront of our lives and by eschewing the crass external measures of musical value, we take a great step in the right direction. Mstislav Rostropovich used a phrase that perfectly embodies the successful musician: we should all endeavor to be “soldiers of music,” marching into the world with our training and our hearts and bringing our message to those who need it–however we can.