Sunday, April 09, 2006


Los Angeles Times
Players' prospects
With more music school graduates than jobs, what does their future hold?
By Chris Pasles
Times Staff Writer

April 9, 2006

"There are now too many musicians in San Francisco, more than enough to fill all the 'jobs.' What we need is work, not musicians. Stay away from San Francisco. You will find it cheaper in the end."
— Notice signed "By order, Board of Directors, Local #6, San Francisco"
and posted in the American Musician in 1898.

Anyone who supposes that American musicians have a tough time finding jobs compared with their forebears obviously hasn't looked into the matter. The advisory at above shows just how little times have changed.

Yet in at least one respect, the situation for musicians at the beginning of the 21st century differs markedly from the one that prevailed a hundred years ago: In those innocent days, there were just a handful of American music schools.

USC had opened its music department in 1884, four years after the university was founded, and upgraded it to a college of music only in 1893. The Institute of Musical Art — precursor of the lofty Juilliard School in New York — started 12 years later. But even then, USC's music enrollment was a mere 100.

Things began to accelerate in 1924, the year that Douglas Fairbanks soared through "The Thief of Bagdad" and George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" premiered. Meeting in Cincinnati, representatives of six American music schools decided they needed to band together to work out problems and curriculum concerns. In short order, the National Assn. of Schools of Music and Allied Arts was formed, with an initial membership of 16 institutions. USC joined in 1925. Within three more years, there were 32 member schools. In three decades, there were more than 200. Today, the figure tops 600.

In the 1980-81 season, according to one study, more than 1,100 members of the American Federation of Musicians competed for 47 full-time positions. Now, an estimated 2,700 music performance majors graduate from American centers of higher learning every year. The usual number of jobs available: 160 or fewer.

There's always room at the top for the very gifted, of course, in any profession. Even in academia, Yale announced last fall that, beginning in 2006-07, it will join the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia in providing free tuition to all its advanced music students. But keeping a music school healthy requires something more than the cream of the crop — it takes a steady stream of hopefuls. As one music school recruiter bluntly put it: "If you want a circus, then you've got to have animals."

No easy answer

Still, that raises the question: Does he mean a nurturing playland or lambs about to be slaughtered? What are the real prospects for music students today?

The answer depends on which side of the academic fence you're standing on.

"We have too many outstanding music colleges turning out too many graduates for whom there will be no work in music," says maverick British critic Norman Lebrecht.

"It's close to false trading. You take the kids into schools, fire them up with the idea of making careers, knowing from the outset there will not be opportunities for most of them. Very few conservatories are giving students any kind of alternative programs or a sense of the reality ahead for them."

Nonsense, counters Derek Mithaug, director of career development at Juilliard.

"That's the vocational prism that people use in their evaluation of music colleges," he says. " 'What is the placement rate?' That model is disturbing. The idea behind a college or conservatory training goes way beyond being a performing musician."

Juilliard graduates enter many fields, says Mithaug. "Performing is just one of them. Education is another." Others include producing, consulting, directing, journalism, publicity, marketing, advocacy and community outreach. "In these areas, you'll find a wide range of our graduates."

Robert Cutietta, dean of USC's Thornton School of Music, agrees.

"Our students get a full college education that prepares them for all kinds of things," he says. "So many of them are involved with teaching, playing, recording, almost running a small business — and they are the business."

Cutietta is happy to report that 74% of USC's music alums over the last 10 years earn their primary income from music.

"I'm surrounded by people who make a living at music," he says. "It's a very lively profession, especially in a city like Los Angeles."

Such issues were more recently brought to the fore in freelance oboist Blair Tindall's book, "Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music," which details Tindall's and other musicians' successes and failures in securing livelihoods. But most critics focused only on Tindall's kiss-and-tell adventures, dismissing her analysis of the job situation as sour grapes.

"OK, maybe I failed," says Tindall, who attended the Manhattan School of Music. "But what about the 99% of the other grads? We can't all be untalented, undisciplined and without goals. There's just not that much work available."

Others argue the opposite. There are jobs available, says Raymond Ou, a former pianist at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, part of Johns Hopkins University. But they might not be your first choice — and you have to go where they are.

North Carolina was "ripe with possibilities," says Ou, 31. After earning a master's in piano performance at Peabody in 1998, he headed south for three years to teach at a North Carolina private music school and work as a church organist.

"With a performance degree from Peabody, doors opened," he says. "But in the end, what made it work was I was willing to do the jobs instead of just aiming for the top. Lots of conservatory graduates aim high, not wanting to do anything they consider beneath them. But the bottleneck is tight at the top."

For all that, Ou is now on the other side of the fence. He switched fields, going back to Peabody in 2001 to become director of the residence life program. Although he occasionally performs, he sees his immediate future in administration and recently buttressed his credentials with a second master's, in clinical psychology.

Even musicians who make it have complaints. In 1996, J. Richard Hackman and Jutta Allmendinger surveyed members of 78 professional orchestras in the U.S., Britain and Germany, examining their sense of job satisfaction in comparison with 12 other professional groups.

For general job satisfaction, orchestra players ranked seventh, right below federal prison guards. They ranked ninth, again just below prison guards, for growth opportunities. (On the other hand, members of string quartets ranked No. 1 in both categories.)

This unhappiness squares with a recent report in Britain focusing on orchestral musicians who had quit their jobs because of low pay, lack of opportunities for advancement, the repetitive nature of the repertory and the necessary stifling of individuality to fit into a group.

"To be told every day to play a passage in a way you might not agree with — it's like being told to sing out of tune," former Hallé Orchestra violinist Morris Stemp told the Guardian Unlimited in February. "The notes get played but without your own feeling. And the money is so poor that if you lose your artistic integrity, what have you got?"

Soloists are not immune. Naida Cole, a 31-year-old Canadian pianist who won prizes at the Van Cliburn International Competition and recorded two discs for Decca, is abandoning her concert career to study medicine.

She feels her life wasn't "balanced" by being on the road all the time, and she missed having more contact with people.

"As much as I love music, what I enjoyed most was meeting people afterward, after the concert," she says. "I looked forward to the receptions, where I connected with people and found out if I communicated something. When you go onstage, the audience is 10 feet away, sitting in the dark. You go on alone, leave alone and wonder, 'Did I actually do anything?' "

She also felt constrained by what she called the "compromises" required to build a professional career. "You're very restricted in what you can play at a concert. It gets in the way of making the best music you can because you're told you must do this and not do that. It's a struggle."

Given this turmoil, some members of the academy are posing alternative ideas about how best to educate their students.

"We are not producing too many musicians," says Leon Botstein, a noted conductor and the president of Bard College. "We are producing too many musicians the wrong way, too many in a very old-fashioned, very out-of-date system of professional training. Conservatories are still training people to win the Queen Elisabeth Competition 50 years ago. And to that, nobody's listening."

Botstein thinks that every musician should be trained to improvise, "to write his or her own material the way pop musicians do and classical musicians used to do." He also feels they should rethink concerts as "a form of theater that is not reproducible on a recording" and learn to connect more immediately to audiences.

Last fall, to supplement these goals, Bard started a mandatory double-degree program requiring all its conservatory students to also earn a bachelor of arts with a major in a field outside music.

"We're not doing this because we think there will be no jobs and this will be a safety net," says Robert Martin, Bard's Conservatory of Music director and vice president for academic affairs. "We think it's what musicians should have, what young musicians deserve and need. Our view is that musicians need a broader education."

A bigger-picture approach

Bard is not alone in offering double degrees. So do such other schools as Peabody, the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. But only Bard's program is mandatory.

Still, it's not always easy to navigate between the two worlds, as Juliette Wells found when she embarked on a dual-degree track at Peabody and its affiliate, Johns Hopkins, studying violin and English.

"I was constantly explaining at both ends," she says. "It was a lot harder to explain at the music school than at the college. At the music school, from the beginning, I was asked, 'Why are you doing this other thing? If you were a real musician, really committed, you wouldn't be doing this.' So I found a lot of resistance to even trying to train in both things."

A repetitive stress injury — a result, ironically, of typing too many term papers, not over-practicing — ended Wells' music career. She's now an English professor at Manhattanville College in New York.

"Both careers are really competitive," she says. "But it's harder to win an orchestra position when it comes down to three minutes to make an impression. With academic jobs, you have more of a chance to make an impression."

As things stand now, many if not most graduates of even the best conservatories will fail that three-minute test. And they may not find themselves prepared to do anything else.

"Some will make it," says Tindall. "Somebody has to make it. But there are so many music conservatories out there, cranking out more people than the market can bear, it's important for people to consider what they're going to do with their training in music when they're out of school."

Short of an unlikely explosion in job opportunities, "the tragedy," writes "Music Matters" author George Seltzer, "is that there are so many fully qualified applicants for any orchestral vacancy.

"For each outstanding talent that is permitted to be heard in our orchestras, there are probably 99 equally outstanding talents that will fall silent. A terrible waste."

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