What Classical Musicians’ Lack, Part 1

What Classical Music Lacks

It’s been nearly five months since the Minnesota Orchestra’s lockout began, despite one very special evening in which music director Osmo Vänskä returned to conduct the group. And the orchestra is far from alone, as symphonies across the country in Chicago, Indianapolis, Louisville, Honolulu, Atlanta, and many others have all endured strikes, lockouts, and bankruptcies over the past couple years. Faced with the dual threats of declining audiences and a still-weak economy, classical music has been engaged in an existential crisis and a stare-down with what some believe could be its own finale. Some blame a fear of a change and sluggish ability to adapt, while others have specifically targeted the management of performing groups.

While the root cause(s) remains up for debate, there are some things that are hard facts: including that, in the spring of 2011, the Philadelphia Orchestra became the nation’s first major orchestra to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy. While it survived (unlike some of its peers), it was left with 10 fewer musicians and a 15% pay cut for remaining musicians after more than a year talks and restructuring. It’s no secret that jobs across most industries are scarce, and yet classical musicians (along with artists in general) seem to have taken a proportionally larger brunt of other economic “down-pact.” Last year, the over 10,000 graduates of music schools and conservatories, entered a job market with less than a tenth full-time positions available.

Recently, I came across an interesting thread in a group on LinkedIn that asked questions centered around the lack of employment for conservatory and music school graduates. The participants were attempting to explore the “missing elements” of music education which would hopefully be the key to create a career or a business “when no one wants to hire you.”

Business / Marketing skills

One of the recurring participants responded by saying that “there is a missing element even if people DO want to hire musicians:” that element being practical business / marketing skills.

The argument of necessity for musicians developing such skills is nothing new: we’ve covered similar and related topics many times on String Visions in the past (for example in our interview with Caroline Chéhadé of Duo Philia). Often, musicians are flying by the seat of their pants as they enter the workforce post-graduation. They have little knowledge of issues ranging from taxes and business models to travel policies, budgeting, and how to market themselves. It is, in fact, an issue that plagues artists of many forms beyond musicians (e.g. photographers, graphic designers, painters, etc.) Even something as simply as how to write a resume can sometimes get lost amid the countless hours of practicing, studying theory, performing, and various other musical activities.

The response to this participant was this:

What I perceive as a rigid connection between classical training and a quasi-mandate to seek a career in classical music performance contributes, I believe, to the unemployment of so many students who have been given a form of career tunnel vision.

In other words, the argument here is that music education institutions often promote a career path that is “purely classical,” which limits the imagination of career possibilities. While this point is arguable, a strong case can be made that this “quasi-mandate” plays a somewhat opposing role towards emphasizing the necessity of learning how the world operates. More time is spent on the craft than on learning how to utilize that craft in the real world.

This is a precarious and sensitive subject because the extreme of this is focusing too much on the “business” end to the detriment of musical knowledge and ability, without which no musician can be successful as a performer. But it is precisely that last part which should be focused on: no musicians can be successful as a performer. This statement assumes that all musicians want to be performers, and while many may have a desire, realistically there is a cap on how many people can go out and be full-time performers and earn a solid living wage.

In this, the idea that perspective perpetuated by most music schools limits practical real-world learning has validity.

Community Involvement in Classical Music

The same participant that raised the issue of business and marketing skills also commented that:

I personally and very strongly believe this [referring to the lack of such real-world skills] plays a large role of the lack of public concern, understanding, and funding of the classical arts in our communities as a whole.

While there is often spotlights on the government and large-scale philanthropic efforts, in many areas local banks and corporations have often upheld a good portion of community arts of all forms. These funding efforts generally complement dedicated comprehensive efforts on the part of non-profits working specifically in any given art form. But with the economic crisis, many of these local institutions (like most financial institutions) have become tight with their funds. This is common business sense, but we may not fully realize the impact it has on the arts.

When it became painfully obvious after earning my degree that there was NO music graduate alumni support and that I really wasn’t equipped with any skills for seeking performance opportunities other than playing exceedingly well at a very high level, and I had my baby to raise, a roof to keep over my head, food on the table, and clothes on our backs, I began actively spreading the word that I was accepting private students. I created my own ensemble and listed it in print advertising and in the phone book. (Obviously this wasn’t yesterday.) I joined leads groups. I talked, I listened, I showed up, I tried hard, and I still do. Always promoting, networking, face-timing, social-media-izing, researching, talking, listening, reading…everything to stay relevant.

This illustrates the common reality of the classical musician, hence the need for the critical business, marketing, and legal knowledge essential for what we can call a “comfortable survival.” More than that, it is a way of increasing productivity of the workforce… which in turn boosts the economy… which in turn makes banks and corporations more profitable… which in turn makes them more able to support community arts… and which in turn provides a better environment in which classical musicians who attempt a business of their own creation can thrive.

What Do You Think?

These issues have been discussed many times before, but to see such a vibrant discussion on social media is indicative of where some of these conversations are now taking place. In the next part of this article series we’ll take a look at reinventing classical music… but with a twist. Following that we’ll share some other relevants aspects of this discussion which often take a back seat to the issues presented in this first part.

What are your thoughts on the topic? Do you agree or disagree with some of the arguments shared above? What do you think the primary aim of improvements in the classical music world should be?

To close this first part, I leave you with a quote that one of the LinkedIn members said regarding earning a living as a musician:

I like to eat and wear clothes that don’t have holes in them.”

Regardless of what you think of the musical and professional perspectives shared here… most of us agree that the starving artist lifestyle isn’t as romantic as we might have once thought. That alone makes this conversation worth having.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts below!

6 Responses to What Classical Musicians’ Lack, Part 1

  1. Hans Jensen February 26, 2013 at 10:05 am #

    Great article Colin. Very important topic and can’t be talked about enough.
    Thank you

  2. DCG February 26, 2013 at 10:08 am #

    Actually, today’s musicians are much more qualified than prior generations. They are better educated (BM, MM, DMA rather than just BM), have had to be more flexible in the types of gigs they do and styles of music they perform, have better access to resources such as scores and recordings than in the past, and have more experience teaching in a variety of ways. Now performers are expected to be able to teach group and individual lessons, lead workshops as Teaching Artists, teach other related instruments, and general music appreciation, history, theory and musicianship classes. If prior generations of musicians had to hustle the way younger musicians now have to, they would be shocked and thankful that it was so easy to get their jobs back when there were actually a decent number of audition postings by the union and demand/money for orchestras. And let’s not forget that most of the musical employment pool 2 generations ago was (white) men, leaving out competition from more than 50% of today’s workforce.

    These days conservatories have excellent programs on entrepreneurship, community outreach, marketing and other practical training. I think today’s graduates are doing as well as they can despite growing debt from higher education, the growing tendency of colleges to cut liberal arts departments such as music (and primary/secondary education having already cut these programs), a national hostility toward placing value on the arts as compared with science, business technology, and a difficult economy that makes older generations cling with gusto to music jobs within the establishment. Just because you quote a couple clueless graduates does not mean they are a representative sample.

    Leave recent graduates alone; problems with the music scene preceded them.

    • Colin Cronin February 28, 2013 at 9:07 am #

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I will be working some of these ideas into the remaining parts and see if I can address some of the points you raise.

      I would say, however, that there are problems unique to today that didn’t exist “2 generations” ago as you say that require more specific thinking, especially as regards the way times of change. I’m by no means saying that the fault lies with recent graduates. In fact as you notice I place a good portion of that responsibility on the programs at the schools. And while yes I do believe that conservatories have improved in terms of their offerings for entrepreneurship, marketing, etc. I would disagree that many of them are “excellent.” There is still much work to be done, and there are still many schools lacking in this area.

      I will try to expand on this in the subsequent parts. Again, I appreciate you sharing you your thoughts!

  3. Cellimom February 28, 2013 at 3:54 pm #

    Thank you for so important topic for all musicians!
    Please expand your review about not only conservatory but also music program at University.
    There are several music industry program at some Universities but prestigious University music department does not have such program in general. Why they do not add such program at their curriculum? Many music parents worry about it.

    • Colin Cronin March 4, 2013 at 11:40 am #

      Thanks for your comment. Part 2 is now up and addresses some of this question about programs in non-conservatory schools. While you can find such programs in universities, there are many reasons why you might not see it. Conservatories are much more easily able to implement such programs because of greater autonomy and financial control, as well as greater dedicated resources for music.

      Here is the link for part 2 – http://stringvisions.ovationpress.com/2013/03/what-classical-musicians-lack-part-2/

  4. Shelly July 6, 2013 at 10:34 pm #

    doesnt matter what you got post surname.
    ask why those musak “dean$” get paid very well, and pump out hundreds each year with false hopes, bs, and enthusiasm nonsense. or those musak profs who need to create relevance and keep their gravy train job by false hopes to sheeple students.

    it is not fun not eating.

    america does not respect classical musicians nor music. sinking ship. other countries popoulus are far more intelligent and sophisticated that usa dumbos.

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