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…