The Problem with Conservatory Training

The career of a performing musician is no simple thing. There are no entry-level jobs or internships, and there are very few salaried positions with benefits. Nearly everyone needs a non-music job to make ends meet when first starting their career, despite numerous degrees and years of education. Many of us are freelancers. I have seen a countless number of music majors graduate with a music degree but ultimately end up doing something entirely different.

Why is this? The classical music world certainly isn’t an easy place to make a living, but making music for “work” is inarguably a luxury.

A huge part of the problem stems from the way conservatory training is handled in America. The focus is on perfection and technical accomplishment while there is a huge, gaping hole in practical career skills. As a conservatory-trained musician with multiple degrees, I’ve witnessed these weaknesses first-hand. Here are some of the major problems.

1. A strong focus on perfection.
Let’s be upfront from the start and say that perfection does not exist. While classical music is a highly technical art, it is still an art. I’m not saying we should disregard intonation and accuracy, but we have set an unrealistic, unreachable standard (thanks in some ways to the age of flawless recordings). Your audience doesn’t care if you were a little flat for half a measure or if you fumbled over a note or two in a fast passage. They care if you made an emotional connection to the music and if your music spoke to them or moved them in some way. Your competitive colleague may have noticed, but who will ultimately be buying the tickets to your concert?

2. No (or little) career training.
As I mentioned earlier, there are very few full-time jobs as a performing musician. We spend all of our time in conservatories practicing for our private lessons and our orchestra seating auditions. Many of my colleagues spent hours in distress as they practiced for their orchestra auditions, but had no idea what they were going to do when they graduated. Even if you’re sitting in the principal seat and mastering a virtuosic concerto while in school, no one is going to hand you a job after graduation. Professional orchestra auditions are unbelievably competitive; they’re a tremendous challenge for the most proficient musicians in the country, and sadly, orchestra jobs are rated very low for job satisfaction. Despite that, many conservatories train classical musicians to do one thing: audition for orchestras.

Classical musicians should be trained for many possible career paths: forming a chamber group or ensemble, going on tour, or performing in outreach concerts. They should be taught to consider how and why their art is relevant and how they can bring it to a supportive audience. Without innovation or self-direction, the majority of classical musicians are doomed.

3. No marketing training.
A huge part of what we do as musicians is market ourselves. We present ourselves, or our chamber groups, to the public. We try to get people to come to our concerts. Sadly, “Classical Music Concert, Friday 8pm, Tickets $30” is not enticing to anyone, especially in a place where the average citizen can’t tell the difference between Bach and Brahms. This is where marketing comes in: What makes your concert interesting or different? Why should someone come to your concert instead of seeing Batman for the third time? This is rarely discussed in conservatory training.

And what about promotional materials? You’ll likely need flyers, postcards, and email invitations to let people know about your concert. Without knowing how to make tasteful, interesting, and enticing promotional materials, what is going to make your concert stand out?

4. Discouragement and competition.
In my undergraduate years, I was a bit of a runt. I came into my conservatory with only 2 years of private instruction while most of my colleagues had 10. As a young cellist I was commended for my passionate, expressive playing, but I suddenly found myself criticized for my unrefined technique. I felt disrespect from faculty and colleagues alike. In a discussion about music, what I was saying was not valued because I wasn’t “good.”

Despite my technical challenges, I developed a clear musical vision of what I wanted for myself and my career. In my case, it was early music, and I began attending festivals and academies across the country to learn more and refine my skills. Suddenly, I had a realistic idea of what I might do and how I might do it, while my more “advanced” peers had no idea where to begin. And, thanks to plenty of practice and hard work, my technique improved.

Classical music is not a dying art. There are significant holes the curriculum for classical musicians, and these holes lead to uninspired, cynical musicians. Musicians should be joyful about what they do and excited to share it with others—they just need the right tools and training.

Now I’d like to hear from you. Musicians, how was your experience in conservatory? Did you come across these issues? Do you wish your instructors would have told you more, or less? Let me know in the comments.

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4 responses to “The Problem with Conservatory Training

  1. Hi Emily,
    After “Hi Emily” I had a long cigaret break trying to figure out how to start this comment…
    Though you are writing about the things that probably every professional musician thinks about most of the time, I think you are just touching a very tip of a big iceberg.
    My thoughts about it are very confusing even to myself…

    I am not a good writer at all, so I will just try to get some of your quotes and conciser them as some sort of questions…

    “…The classical music world certainly isn’t an easy place to make a living, but making music for “work” is inarguably a luxury….”

    It is a hard, hard, hard work with suffering and up’s and down’s.
    With the long way of proving your point and vision to a bunch of critics or/and managers. Going through countless numbers of competitions, playing countless numbers of “free” concerts to “invest in yourself” (God knows how I hate this words!!!) trying to prove that you worth something. Asking and asking and asking again!
    It is a net of “connections” and relationships. Unfortunately…
    Our world is up-side-down… We live in the world where managers are employers!!! Can somebody tell me how we ended up like this?
    Where did I miss the point? Is it marketing tools that you are talking about? So we ended up in the world where marketing is dictating the way our careers are going? And we all see it… More money someone invest into the artist, more outcome they get… No meter how they play…

    “…The focus is on perfection and technical accomplishment while there is a huge, gaping hole in practical career skills…”

    Unfortunately, there are NO career skills in our profession. None! Zero! There’s no way to prepare one for the orchestral audition, there’s no way to teach people how to get concerts under their belts, there’s no way to teach a student to built a career… Our biggest problem is that we can’t admit this fact… We can’t admit the truth about our profession and we always hope that there will be someone who will come and say “This is exactly what you need to do and this will lead to this exact result!” … And it is SO easy to prove! Take the MOST famous and powerful manager in this, or any other country (Japan does not count here…) and tell him that you will pay for everything he/she wants and ask him a single question “What can you guarantee?!” and the answer will be “Nothing!”… There is no tool to make people buy tickets or bring them to the concert hall except music… Except professional skills… Emotional connection…

    “…Your audience doesn’t care if you were a little flat for half a measure or if you fumbled over a note or two in a fast passage…”

    True that! But there are also critics… Who will go and write a pretentious review in some “……..Times……..” or “…….Globe……” or whatever and unfortunately people will trust them… Without actually going to the concert and listen… They will never go for the simple reason “I know this guy! “fake name” wrote that he was awful in the Sunday paper! I’ll never go there!!!”. Is it fare? No!
    “Fake name” can hate the composer or particular piece… “Fake name” has emotions… He can have cold… Or had a fight with his girlfriend before the concert… or thousand other reasons! And I’m not saying that all of the critics are like that… Not at all… And it’s not addressed to critics at all… I am addressing it to people who read what they write! Pick up your butts and go to the hall to hear something yourself! You might like it for God sake! Even if somebody doesn’t, you might actually like it!!!!
    Though I secretly agree with you on this point, I need to admit that this is not audience who need to care if I’m flat… It’s ME who need to do everything that it would not happen…

    “…there are very few full-time jobs as a performing musician…”

    In fact… There are NONE!
    We don’t have benefits. We don’t have health insurance. We don’t have weekends and vacations. We don’t have set hours. We don’t have holidays… Jet leg is our best friend and companion during travels… And list can go on forever…

    “…forming a chamber group or ensemble…”
    There’s no way to be trained for it… Sorry…

    “…going on tour…”
    There’s no way to be trained for it as well…

    “…Without innovation or self-direction, the majority of classical musicians are doomed…”

    We are doomed unless somebody (a LARGE amount of people) will admit that the music is lacking support, interest and that without it people will not survive!
    Just try to imagine what would happen if music will get the fraction of funds that sports are getting? Imaging concert series that has a serious budget! Towns are getting funds to build concert halls!
    Musicians that are getting top prizes on the international competitions are treated like Olympic medals winners!!!They ARE REPRESENTING their countries!!! No? Music is a given! It doesn’t need support! Yes it does!!!! Otherwise… People of all countries, when the flags are coming up… Will be standing in silence…

    “…what is going to make your concert stand out?…”
    Music! And word of mouth…

    ”… Musicians should be joyful about what they do and excited to share it with others…”

    If the musician is not… RUN!!! Run for your life from this profession!
    If it’s not for beauty of it, what the hell is it for?!

    • Thanks for your comment, Sergey. You make some excellent points. I think classical music in America is especially bad in terms of funding, like you mentioned. From what I’ve heard, it seems like a lot of European countries support the arts and artists better. The only thing I’d say is that I DO think there are ways to help musicians be better prepared for starting a chamber group or going on tour. While there are definitely certain aspects that cannot be taught, there can be some steps given, things to consider, reminders, etc. from professionals who have experience.

  2. Hi Emily,

    Great post. It hits on the crux of all that is wrong and so challenging in the field of classical music. There is no conservatory anywhere that prepares its students for the real world with all it’s obstacles and
    challenges. There should be courses and classes in being up to date with travel booking and travel restrictions, making cold calls and follow-up calls, organizing and maintaining professional websites, contract law, insurance law, trademark law, copyright law, setting up an ensemble as a not-for-profit organization, how to run a board, how to fundraise, how to develop an audience and make it grow, how to monitor your audience attendance, how to develop online and on air presence nationally and internationally, how to develop an outreach or children’s show… The list goes on. Advanced music management courses should be made mandatory for all undergraduate seniors as well as graduate students.

    The future lies in the younger audiences. They must be hooked in and informed. They must be convinced that music is so essential to being fully and deeply human, and that it is not just for the higher society, that it is a personal adventure that has no prejudices or boundaries…

    I’m glad that you found your musical calling and niche…

  3. Emily,
    You have touched very important points about any musician/insrumentalist carreer. I am a cellist, livind in Italy since 2010. I have studied at my city concervatory and also in the US. and the only thing I realized is to become an orchestral player like many of my friends did. It was until I came to Europe that I ralized I had many options. I worked very hard, I got a degree from the Mantua Conservatory on Modern cello and a baoque cello degree from the Verona conservatory and working on my last exam for my viola da gamba degree from the Parma coservatory and I am working with master Roberto Gini. I have find here teachers that have told me things that noone told me during my student years in Mexico and the US. I have grown and matured as a cellist and artist thanks for devoted teachers. Certanly it is hard to earn a living only playing concerts as a free lancer here. But in my case I am very lucky to play a vast reperoire from renasance to late romantic periods and these hd alllowed me to get many many concerts in my area here in Italy. I also teach. So here they gave me many many options. In Europe if you get a teaching position in a high school you have all goverment benefits and they pay you more in you have children. I’m not saying that here is a paradise for any musician, one must work very hard, practice, be at a high level and also music education is now changnig here. It is not an easy life for a musician but we can find many ways to develop our art. Greeting from Italy.

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