Category Archives: majoring in music

Too many musicians? Is it the fault of conservatories and music schools?

People who care about the financial viability of the classical music field, especially that of large institutions like symphony orchestras, are in the throes of mutual attacks as to whether or not there’s a crisis (of declining interest and support for classical music), and what to do about it if there is one. Lisa Hersch’s post from last Friday, This Week in the Death of Classical Music, is a wittily annotated set of links to recent articles and blog posts.  Well worth reading if you have the time.  And if you care about these things, well worth making the time to read.

There’s much to celebrate in classical music today–the wealth of recordings and videos available (even if this means there’s a much smaller market for new recordings of music that’s been recorded a zillion times before), the high level of technique and musicianship all across the country, and the flow of dedicated young people fighting to get into conservatories and music schools despite the well-known issues facing the profession.

On that last point, some people think part of the crisis is that too many high-caliber musicians are being trained.

They have a point. There’s a declining number of full-time orchestra jobs and the number of full-time teaching positions in higher education seems pretty much finite.  There is an oversupply of qualified, high-level players.  And, sometimes, conservatories and music schools take the blame.

But what else is new?

We don’t go into music because it’s a good way to make a living.  It’s always been a challenging, frustrating way to make a living. We go into music because we can’t help being musicians, and we get the best training we can because we want to be the best musicians we can be.

Conservatories and music schools don’t make false promises.  Do you think anyone, anywhere, really says, “Yes!  Major in oboe!  You’ll get rich!”? The entire culture screams that this is a near-irresponsible path to take.  I’ve never heard any musician say that their conservatory or university teacher recruited them with promises of financial security.

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, family friends, parents, and even the occasional other musician would try to talk me out of going into music as a profession. My dad kept offering to pay for me to go to medical school until my sister did and he got his doctor in the family.

Ever since I started teaching, I’ve told young people that if they could be happy in a career other than music to do something else instead.  Only do music if there’s no other option for you, if it’s who you are.  In my twenties, I tried to quit several times, frustrated with my playing and my career. Eventually I gave up quitting, because I’m most alive when I’m making music, and I kept coming back to it.

Greg Sandow has very generously been letting me sit in on his Classical Music in an Age of Pop course at Juilliard this semester (while I’ve been in New York on sabbatical).  The last session is today.  Earlier in the semester, he paraphrased Arnold Schoenberg talking about composers being like apple trees.  All an apple tree can do is grow apples, and it doesn’t get to pick what apples it grows.  I just found the quote, on Classical Net (which doesn’t give the original source).  Schoenberg is defending George Gershwin:

An artist is to me like an apple tree: When his time comes, whether he wants it or not, he bursts into bloom and starts to produce apples. And as an apple tree neither knows nor asks about the value experts of the market will attribute to its product, so a real composer does not ask whether his products will please the experts of serious arts. He only feels he has to say something; and says it.

It’s like that for performers, too.

My daughter is studying acting here in New York, at one of the finest programs in the world.  I attended an amazing, moving production at her school this weekend, acted all by second-year students.  Their level, not just of technique but of emotional commitment, is extraordinary.

Not one of them, I’m sure, has any fantasy that she or he will ever have a full-time, long-term salaried, with-benefits job as an actor.  That just doesn’t exist in the world they are entering.

They are studying acting because they are actors.  They can’t help being actors anymore than an apple tree can help being an apple tree.  They know it is next to impossible to make a living acting.  Most of them expect to do other work in addition to acting to make ends meet.

Young musicians will keep going to music school just as actors will keep going to acting school and visual artists will keep going to art school. Because that’s who they are.  Being who you are is more important, especially to apple-tree artists, than ignoring your artistic drive and impulses and studying something in school that you don’t really care about.

It doesn’t make sense to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on a college-level music education.  But it never has. There’s never been a good market for classical musicians.  There have always been more qualified players than there are orchestra jobs.  People go to music school to become good musicians so they can have a life making music.  Their families and friends warn them that it’s not a secure way to make a living.  They don’t care.

Musicians, and other artists?  We’re crazy.  Crazy in love.  People in love do reckless things.

Like going to music school.

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