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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