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.


Filed under crisis in classical music, majoring in music, Sandow

9 responses to “Too many musicians? Is it the fault of conservatories and music schools?

  1. Emily


    yes. yes yes yes yes.


    I’m in love. 🙂

  2. Since your post doesn’t touch upon the cost of music school, you might find it interesting to look at what a “top” music school actually costs. Tuition alone at the Cleveland Institute costs more per year than I am lucky to make in three years.

    Click to access costs.pdf

    • Well, Elaine, that’s certainly an issue and thanks for the link.

      A couple of thoughts.

      One is that as I said, you have to be crazy to go into music. This is another piece of evidence for that.

      Another: most students at don’t pay the “sticker price.” They fill out the paperwork, the amount they and their families can be expected to pay is calculated, and then a financial aid package is developed. Depending on the resources of the institution, much of that “need” may be covered by grants. In others, an insane amount may be covered by loans. (And depending onsupply-and-demand issues, there may be enormous merit scholarships.)

      So there may an enormous, almost irresponsible, level of financial investment and incurrence of debt. But the same thing can be true for people who go to an expensive private college or university (like the one where I teach) and major in something like classical studies or psychology. It’s an investment not just in one’s earning potential, but the quality of the rest of one’s life.

      There are all sorts of arguments over whether any college education–especially an expensive one–is “worth it,” financially speaking.

      The choice then, to go to a place like CIM, or any other expensive school, is a choice. And I think it is because we are crazy, crazy in love, that so many young musicians (and their families) make these sorts of choices.

  3. I’m always led to a couple of additional thoughts on this issue. One is that classical musicians, I’ve noticed since since my student days, often haven’t been a part of a lot of other institutions, and so seem to think that the institutions that they are a part of should conform to some idealized notion in their heads rather than be like other similar institutions. Music students always seem outraged that, say, piano competitions and orchestral auditions aren’t always purely meritocratic, transparent processes. They can’t point to other processes in the world that are in fact this way, to use as models, because there aren’t any. They just get mad that the competitions aren’t like they can imagine them in their heads.

    No university is operating for its students’ best interest in any department. That information is out there. Humanities grad school programs are a pyramid scheme and everyone knows it. Research universities explicitly tell their faculty their first loyalty is to bring in money to the institution. So I am not sure what anyone wants of conservatories. The recent survey, which everyone should find heartening, , suggests people are happy with what they learned in arts schools and their experiences there.

    My life doesn’t much resemble what I was trained to do in my Master’s program. But that program was a gateway to all the fulfilling things I found afterwards, and to coming into myself. I wasn’t expecting it to be vocational school.

  4. Great essay, with several useful phrases to use when speaking to parents of students contemplating a future career in music.

    I don’t think conservatories/ music schools are “the problem”, but few colleges offer realistic advice on any career, whether it’s nursing, accounting, or music. The “problem” is that the college industry measures success by output of students, not by placement in employment.

    For example, every year the academic system produces a very large number of well trained tuba players, who hope for employment in major orchestras. But there are only a very few top tuba positions, most of which are occupied for decades before they open to auditions. That means all these frustrated tuba students find work in other related situations – like teaching in smaller colleges, and then they too produce even more students, increasing both the overall number and quality of tuba players.

    This is the way of the world in all professions and fields. The cycle of competition in the music industry gets personal because it is about more and more people playing musical chairs in a very limited field. And a game now, where the chairs are being taken away. Teachers have a duty to speak honestly and directly to students about expectations and potential success in music. A satisfying musical life can have many different pathways.

    • Thanks, Mike. I think our situation may be an example of “many are called but few are chosen.” Music schools as a whole can do a much better job of explaining the realities. But if you’re a musician, you’re a musician, and pretty much stuck with it!


  5. I recall having a discussion regarding this with Greg Sandow some time ago on his blog. The whole issue of “being a musician” and the general lack of opportunities, regardless of whether the climate was better in the past or just as problematic in its own way, boils down (for me at least) to what exactly does it mean to be a musician?

    I mean, obviously this is supposed to mean something along the lines of being someone who enjoys playing music (or to follow along your lines–someone who has to play music).

    But sometimes that seems to be at odds with the whole idea of making money, or at least making a comfortable living doing music. I’m almost reading your post as an apology for being one of those folks who just don’t have any choice but to be a musician. Not that I necessarily disagree, it’s just that sometimes the rationale behind assuming that role of musician (at least here in the states) means not worrying about whether or not you can make a living doing it–to the point that it’s almost seen as a bad thing to do so.

    And you hear this from pop musicians as well, so it’s not something only classical musicians (not that all feel this way) do–you know, hearing things like “I’m doing it for art’s sake” or “cover bands are only in it for the money, but musicians making original music are doing it for themselves”–things like that.

    I find this to be a particularly Western phenomenon and can be traced at least as far back as the romantic bohemian idealism that also has that other trope of the “starving artist”–but it’s not as prevalent a viewpoint (though that is starting to change with Westernization) of other cultures. And not that other cultures haven’t had a similar lack of respect for [certain groups of] musicians. The Rom of Eastern Europe and Rembitika of Greece come to mind immediately.

    I guess my point is–and it was something I was implicitly stating in my recent blog post–there are far more opportunities out there than most of us not-so-entrepreneurially-inclined-folk realize. It’s just up to us to find them and, well, “exploit” them.

    I guess that’s why I blog so much about underserved audiences–because it’s not that there aren’t enough musicians out there to play music–in face, there are probably too many as you and everyone else is stating. But the demand for music from these audiences should be more than enough to start filling some plates (pun intended). Hell, I still have to turn down nearly as many shows as I accept–have been doing that for the past few years despite the so-called recession and some folks’ stating (e.g. Greg Sandow) that even freelance musicians are having a hard time finding work (which makes me wonder what freelancers in New York are doing to get gigs).

    But going back to what I said on Greg’s blog (and I’m too lazy to go find the post) it had very much to do with how we define ourselves as musicians. I think I gave an example to the effect of, well–if I view myself (my role) as being that of an orchestral cellist (or even classical cellist) then sure, there are diminishing opportunities for me in this depressed market. On the other hand, if I view myself as a musician, who just happens to be able to play the cello (amongst other instruments including my voice) well, there’s a whole world of opportunities to be had.

    I guess I shouldn’t complain too much–as long as cellists and classically trained musicians accept a narrow role of what they mean by being a musician, that just means more work for me! 😀

  6. Pingback: Too many (classical) musicians? « Mae Mai

  7. Pingback: The State of Music Education | Mae Mai

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