It’s Time For Academia To Remove The Rose Tinted Glasses

The 3/8/2009 edition of the Chicago Tribune published an article by Howard Reich that reports on the continued rise in applicants to music schools across the country. Based on a wide variety of quotes from a broad cross section of music school administrators the article paints an idyllic picture of opportunities that await graduates but the simple fact is these institutions continue to earn a failing grade at adequately preparing students for the realities of a career in this business…

music schools have a greater responsibility than cobbling together a few simplistic business-for-dummies style workshops.
Music schools have a greater responsibility than cobbling together a few simplistic business-for-dummies style workshops.

On the positive side, several administrators were quoted saying that their respective institutions now offer courses that promote entrepreneurialism. One school indicated they offer courses designed to teach students how to “start non-profit organization or create a digital score” while Oberlin asserts they teach “entrepreneurship, how to start an LLC, [and] tax law.”

A few years ago, these sorts of offerings weren’t even on a school’s PR radar so hearing them talk about it in a major newspaper is a step in the right direction. On the other hand, you don’t catch up by going slower and although I have not investigated course offerings since the 2007/08 scholastic year I’m willing to bet that none of these courses are required for performance majors. At best, they are electives offered on an infrequent basis and at worst, are limited to workshops or voluntary lectures.

In general, American schools of music continue to do the field a disservice by painting an entirely unrealistic picture of what students can expect once they graduate. They fail to prepare performance majors with the comprehensive skill sets they’ll need to lead a successful and satisfying career (regardless if their focus is orchestra) yet happily accept more and more students. As early as 2004, I designed a series of courses capable of adequately preparing music students to maximize the likelihood of success in their specialty of choice although a key component in this program is the courses must be required for graduation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this garnered little interest and no action from academic administrators from a host of established conservatories and schools of music.

Nevertheless, I like to remain optimistic and think that if any of the academic representatives quoted in Reich’s article are sincere about preparing their students and positioning their institution as a leader in training arts professionals for the new economy, they’ll begin to show and equally sincere level of interest in the ideas I defined several years ago. But the current round of hit and miss electives and workshops built around feel good buzz words will undoubtedly play out as platitude designed to ease parental anxiety and prevent students from demanding more out of their education. Although I’m not going to hold my breath, I welcome the music school or conservatory with the moral fortitude to examine the programs I’ve designed with a critical eye and an open mind. I’m confident that the inherent value and ease of implementation are self evident.

On a related point, Reich’s article made me think back a few years to a post from October, 2006 entitled Improving The Sustainability Of Classical Music Though System Dynamics. It explores the dynamic lifecycle of a musician and the interactive systems model designed by Bill Harris which allows users to explore how shifting variables can impact the business. What is most important here is that the model doesn’t begin examining the life of a musician from the point they embark on a career, but from the point of childhood when their interest in music is first piqued, through their formal education, entrance into the arts workforce, and eventual retirement.

Ultimately, music schools have a greater responsibility to their students than saying there are more career opportunities than just performing and cobbling together a few simplistic business for dummies style workshops. They need to spend less time constructing what Reich describes as aggressive marketing efforts and redirect those resources toward designing substantive programs and follow up by tracking student progress once they leave the institution.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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10 thoughts on “It’s Time For Academia To Remove The Rose Tinted Glasses

  1. Schools will post info about opportunities to develop “entrepreneurialism,” and there are excellent programs developing offering exactly that. But usually that language is after they have started with “XYZ School is beyond excellence as evidenced by the vast number of graduates performing in major symphony orchestras around the world…”

    To the doe-eyed 16 year old facing decisions of potentially entering into a program to become a professional musician, including the prospect of taking on what is in essence their first mortgage to do so, the rest of the language is translated into “BLAHBLAHBLAHBLAHBLAHBLAH” as they lay their heads on their pillow with visions of their favorite major metropolitan orchestra dancing in their head. Combine that with uninformed yet supportive parents who are led into a believe that their child is uniquely gifted (which they certainly are in many cases), and unfortunately any hope for logic goes out the window.

    • No argument there James, I’ve given my fair share of lectures on these issues and in the cases where it was for a class as opposed to a workshop, there are always those among the students who spend most of the time looking at the ceiling or reviewing music.

      In order for this to have real impact, it will take a change in the way all academic stakeholders perceive value. Add to that course material that actually challenges the students to demonstrate knowledge, apply skills, and measures their understanding (i.e. relevant testing and not rubber stamping them through the course) and you have a shot at getting around the “BLAHBLAHBLAHBLAHBLAHBLAH” syndrome.

  2. I may be an idiot, but would there ever be any merit to setting up a system like college athletics, where there are no degrees such as “Pro Football Playing,” and all of them have to pursue an actual degree alongside their “passion?”

    “I didn’t make it” means in most cases a degree and still having a job tract in something else.

    • Here I disagree a bit if I am assuming correctly that you don’t believe academic institutions should offer music performance degrees. In fact, I’m all for dropping the hypocrisy with sports programs and allow schools to develop professional athlete degrees.

      • Drew,

        I completely agree with your statement about developing a degree for athletes. I’ve been saying the same thing for years. The current requirements and restraints on student athletes are beyond hypocrisy. I’m glad to see someone else put this in writing.

  3. I’m not saying schools should drop performance degrees (I have two myself). I just see a correlation between the scarcity of jobs in professional sports (even including minor leagues) and the relative scarcity of orchestral positions, when compared to the huge pools of talented newcomers in both worlds.

    So I am not sure… I’m not advocating axing perf degrees… but maybe there are some schools offering them that should not be. I have personally witnessed some schools that have no business taking money from kids in exchange for a performance degree, but to the music department it becomes a way to legitimize itself, and less about the lives that will actually come through the institution.

    • Thanks James, that makes complete sense. I agree that far too many schools offer performance degrees. In some cases it seems more like an attempt to secure additional tuition fees than a sincere effort to build a successful academic program. It just goes to prove the old adage, Caveat emptor!

  4. My sense is that the increase in School of Music applications has less to do with any changes at these schools and much to do with changes in the broader economy. When I entered college two decades ago, getting a pre-medical or -law degree meant one was all but guaranteed a lucrative career, so one could “play it safe” and make music on the side. These days, no career track offers a guarantee of a job and few undergraduate degrees allow a student to compete for one successfully. With degree inflation a masters is not required in many fields.

    Thus, a music degree doesn’t look that much more unrealistic than the alternatives and knowing that all careers are difficult encourages some to follow their passion / dream. I think many music majors know that their dream is a long shot at best, but their love of music and the knowledge that they can fall back on related careers or transferable skills, may make that risk palatable.

    I do agree that even so such dreaming is unrealistic for many. The tales of undergrads landing major orchestra jobs (see the trumpet section of the NYPhil or the low brass of Philadelphia) give many the fantasy that they will be the next exception. I just hope that such courage serves these students down the road if (more often when) they don’t land a full-time performing gig.

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