Educating for the Orchestra of the Future

Anyone attending the League of American Orchestra’s recent conference in Atlanta was surely struck by the industry’s determination to adapt and change. At the opening “Orchestra R/Evolution” session, attendees were polled and not a single vote supported the status quo. Russell Willis Taylor general session keynote the next day, “There Are No Crises, Only Tough Decisions,” took the reverse approach, lecturing attendees ironically on the best strategies for going out of business and fast.

Yet when it came to identifying just how orchestras must or even could change, I was left a bit puzzled. Much of what was proposed should be described as updates and refinements of ideas that derive from the founding days of America’s orchestras in the late 19th-century: the orchestra as community service, better engaging an audience, pops programming, educating new generations of listeners, public partnerships, etc.

As a professor of music history at an American school of music, I’m not really surprised that American orchestras, their boards, administrators, musicians, and audiences, feel trapped in a century-old model. Our schools of music have enriched and codified a curriculum that is similarly unchanged, and it isn’t easy to build a 21st-c. “r/evolutionary” ensemble on 19th-c. foundations. All of us who studied classical music formally have been indoctrinated into the tenets of this heritage. On one hand, we can hope that such traditional foundations offer true strengths—namely the commitment and skills to make great music. On the other hand, I wonder what you as a reader of Adaptistration would like to see our schools of music doing to prepare musicians for the “r/evolution”? What skills do musicians / cultural leaders / audiences need to help orchestras succeed today? Are these the same skills as a century ago? Are today’s musicians entering the musical world prepared to help orchestras thrive? What have you learned that is now critical to your musical career that you could have learned earlier, maybe as part of your school of music training? Or maybe you think the traditional approach remains valuable and that musicians can learn anything else they will need “on the job”?

From my vantage point, two things are happening—both propelled by the incredible competition for full-time orchestral employment. One strategy is an intense focus on traditional training. Many students are spending even more time in the practice room, to the exclusion of any distraction. And indeed this approach works in some cases—a handful of young players are winning auditions. A second strategy is to add entrepreneurship training to the traditional music degree. The New England Conservatory’s “Entrepreneurial Musicianship Department” is merely the newest and most comprehensive form of such initiatives that began with the Eastman School’s Institute for Music Leadership in 2001. Knowing that fulltime musical employment is limited, schools of music are trying to broaden the skills of graduates to provide options beyond public school music education (a traditional alternate career) to include everything from operating a private studio, jobs in arts administration, and even transferrable skills valued outside the music industry. The University of Michigan’s Arts Enterprise effort, for example, has placed students into jobs ranging from artist management agencies to Google’s Adwords.

Personally, I’d like to see schools of music include discussion about how to earn a living and thus support artistic work incorporated throughout the traditional curriculum. Studio classes should cover private teaching strategies. Music theory classes should include exercises in arranging music for weddings. Music history lectures should cover how Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven paid the bills—what kind of royalties did they get from publishers, what was the typical fee of their musical commissions, what did they charge for lessons? Complaints I hear from former students suggest to me that many of the tensions in the industry today begin in music school. The animosity between musicians (labor) and arts administrators / boards (management), for example, is bred in schools of music where faculty tell students little about the inner workings of the institution. At the very least future musicians need to understand the non-profit economic model and how boards, staff, and overall fundraising are critical to their own musical success.

Change in America’s schools of music will be slow if left up to me and my colleagues. As in the orchestra world today, it is difficult (maybe impossible) to consider structural changes that threaten current assumptions. Yet, I promise you that orchestras have the power to change schools of music in the near term. At one of the final League sessions I attended, the issue of musicians (especially conductors) speaking from the stage came up. To general laughter, one panelist proclaimed that “as soon as schools of music start sending us musicians who can talk, we’ll start having them speak.” Yet, this is part of a fatalist chicken and egg scenario. Trust me, as soon as orchestras start having musicians talk during their auditions, public speaking will become essential to music school curricula and all performance majors will be required to speak to their audience as part of the standard graduation recital. Improved public speaking skills for all musicians will result.

If you, as musical employers, need the 21st-century musician to have certain skills or attitudes as yet latent or underdeveloped, please let teachers know. It’s a win-win scenario for schools, for ensembles, for musicians, and for orchestral music. I look forward to our discussion…

About Mark Clague

Mark Clague, Ph.D. serves as Associate Professor of Musicology in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance at the University of Michigan, where he also holds appointments in American Culture and AfroAmerican and African Studies and serves as Director of the University’s American Music Institute. A frequent speaker at national and international conferences and colloquia, his research interests range from American orchestras and composers to the history of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He has been a pre-concert speaker or writer for programs by the Detroit and Chicago Symphonies and is currently a historical consultant for the San Francisco Symphony’s centennial celebration; with Michael Mauskapf and Joseph Horowitz, he hosted the American Orchestras Summit at the University of Michigan in January, 2010. He also serves as Project Editor for the Second Edition of the New Grove Dictionary of American Music and as founding faculty advisor and board member of Arts Enterprise.

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7 thoughts on “Educating for the Orchestra of the Future”

  1. I couldn’t agree more about the changes necessary in our music schools. As a Conservatory-Performance-Graduate-turned-Orchestra-Administrator, how I wish that the hours I spent memorizing the key characteristics of Perotin’s organum triplum had been devoted instead to learning how an orchestra operates! So many of us finish school wide-eyed and ready for any audition, yet in complete ignorance of the business we aspire to join. As a result, the vast majority of my learning has been on-the-job. A required Introduction to Arts Management course in music schools could achieve so much: Orchestra musicians would come to their jobs with a better understanding of the business model. College musicians might discover that a job in orchestra marketing sparks their interest. More people with a solid understanding of what it means to be a performing musician will enter the field of arts management. It’s worth a try–it couldn’t do more harm than testing us on rounded binary form for the 18th time.

    • @Meghan: You’re right on target here and I hope you’ll share these insights with your former conservatory.

      At basis of all of this are ideological foundations which attempt to elevate the status of art music by pitting art against money, by defining art as beyond commercialism. This protects the symphony from assault from popular music, Beethoven from Lady Gaga, but at the expense of hiding Beethoven’s own financial life. What I think is most damaging about this is that students, such as yourself who graduate with idealist visions of a pure aesthetic life devoted to music might feel as if they’ve failed if they ever have money worries. Beethoven had money worries, so there’s no embarrassment to earning a living as an artist, and composer/critic Virgil Thomson exploded this myth in 1939 in his essay “How Composers Eat.”

      The other major problems are time and money. School of music curricula are already full at 120 units, so adding a required class in arts management necessitates cutting something else — which means faculty turf battles. Further, schools today are trying to cut expenses and certainly music school tuition can’t get higher in an environment where the typical student can’t expect big money upon graduation to pay off loans. Yet to teach arts management well, schools need to hire faculty who have real expertise in this areas. One stopgap measure might be to have people like you visit schools of music to talk about the industry. Arts Enterprise and the many other new entrepreneurship initiatives often host guest speakers and you might reach out to your local schools to offer your expertise.

  2. Thank you for an informative post. I think I would have enjoyed having a course about how Bach made a living, or Beethoven’s stormy dealings with the aristocracy! I agree that conservatories and schools of music could improve students’ understanding of the business of making music – whether it be as a musician in a full-time orchestra, a freelance musician, teacher, or administrator. I think comparing the different models around the world as well, particularly European orchestras, would be quite useful.

    I’m interested to know how your former student’s opinions about labor/management animosity were formed in school. I had a very different experience in conservatory, where I was introduced to many of the people who served on the board of my hometown orchestra. I got to know and develop friendships with them. The relationships I observed as a student were quite respectful – in spite of my teachers playing in a union orchestra. It wasn’t until I got a job where I understood what collective bargaining was and why it is important.

    I believe that any arts management curriculum must include classes that provide a view from the labor movement. The history of musicians within the labor movement in the United States is fascinating and can provide some context for the complexity of current relationships between musicians and management. After all, one person’s definition of animosity is another person’s definition of activism.

    • Thanks Adam. I couldn’t agree more that the history of the American Federation of Musicians needs to be incorporated into music history courses. Surprisingly, there’s not much in today’s textbooks that does. One book I’d recommend to everyone in the orchestra industry is Julie Ayer’s _More than Meets the Ear: How Symphony Musicians Made Labor History_. Ayer is a violinst with the Minnesota Orchestra and was active in ICSOM herself. Her book is especially helpful in understanding why the broadest possible participation is a requirement of union action (and thus union communication takes a long time) as well as the burden of past sacrifice that is on the shoulders of today’s union reps — to make concessions is to betray generations of musicians who risked their careers to make instrumental music arguably the most successful profession for an artist. Musicians and administrators need to know this story.

      I also agree that some sort of study of conservatory graduates views on the industry should be done. The biggest problem may be that students graduate with little knowledge of industry dynamics and few experiences of the type you describe in getting to know union reps and board members. (Sounds like you had great teachers!) This makes it difficult today for young musicians and arts administrators to form their own opinions and thus permits conventional wisdom to perpetuate and thus inhibits improving these relationships.

      One thing I’ve always wondered about is if schools of music are training future arts leaders (a claim often made by deans) why don’t schools of music have strong student governments? The ethos of most schools of music with which I’ve been associated is more of a don’t-rock-the-boat mentality, probably because art training is so personal and the relationship between student and studio teacher is so critical. Thus, leadership or activism runs the (at least theoretical) risk of injuring these connections and thus is better avoided. Yet, the savvy to balance a variety of personal and institutional needs is critical to the success of any arts institution and by denying students the opportunity to practice these skills in the relative safety of higher education, we impoverish their skills for the future.

  3. New England Conservatory’s new Entrepreneurial Musicianship program is indeed predicated on the idea of incorporating career-building skills into all facets of the curriculum. That includes the studio, the classroom, and a variety of experiential learning opportunities, some funded by small grants.

  4. Honestly 90% of people in music teach or have other “day jobs” to make ends meet. A small percentage can rely on freelancing which does not last a lifetime. In classical music, tenure in an orchestra, is like a government job: most people holding these positions are not having a good time playing other peoples programming choices. Don’t read bitterness into this. The only chance we have is be creative, assert individuality, to make yourself an entertainer, to run an efficient business, to create excitement and satisfaction in every performance you give, and most importantly be an artist, which means give up the idea that you will play with perfect technique. This all contrevenes what we learn to get a job in music, but it is also ironically absolutely necessary.

  5. @Ellen & Rainer:

    I hope all current and aspiring conservatory musicians read your comments and take them to heart. Too often, I think, we forget that the full-time orchestra job is truly exceptional and that throughout history most musicians have made ends meet as you describe — through what is known as a “portfolio career.” This means that artists combine multiple streams (maybe 4 or 5) of income into a complete financial package. So, musicians perform, teach, repair instruments, compose and arrange music, sell instruments or manufacture / invent accessories, write method books or program notes for an orchestra, teach music appreciation or lead an ensemble at a public school, etc. Basically many part-time jobs = a full-time living.

    Certainly the emphasis on orchestral auditions in most schools of music today is an improvement on a singular focus on playing solo concertos, but it’s still atypical. What I fear is that students who later end up working in a per-service orchestra and teaching a private studio of 30 K-12 violinists see themselves as falling short — as failing to accomplish their goals, rather than succeeding in the much the way Beethoven and Mozart did. The added bonus that you point out is that the portfolio career offers the potential for a varied and pretty satisfying creative life. Any one job in the arts may be precarious, but the overall portfolio is diversified and pretty stable, while also being challenging and stimulating for both the artist and her/his audience.

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