Break the System

Our music education system is broken. As I wrote about last week, we have a glut of very talented musicians being trained for a very small subset of the work available in the larger music industry. We’re stuck in the 20th century by assuming that the best way to prepare a new graduate for the world is to focus on how to win an audition, when winning auditions is no longer a prerequisite for a successful career. Before we jump in to looking at how institutions can change in order to serve the needs of today’s student, I’d like to make one thing clear- being proficient on your instrument of choice is an absolute must. I am not advocating for bringing down the level of musical or technical excellence by even the slightest bit. That being said, let’s dig into it.

Stop Hiring Orchestral Teachers

Just kidding. The title of this section should read “Stop Hiring Orchestral Teachers That Don’t Teach Anything But How To Prepare For An Audition”, but that’s not nearly as catchy. While the local orchestra musicians are certainly some of the most technically proficient in town, by slanting the hiring process in favor of these musicians due to perceived prestige and putting them on a pedestal as the only model of success we do not do our students any favors. We need role-models that are innovative in their teaching styles, emphasize the strengths of the individual student, and have had experience ‘making it’ beyond the walls of the tenure-track position.

I propose a shift in the way we look at the hiring process. Due to the current glut of qualified musicians and teachers, the master’s degree is the new bachelor's, and to even get looked at for a teaching position at many universities, one must have a terminal degree. Most job postings at a music school will look something like this: “Minimum Training and Experience Requirements: Earned graduate degree in music (DM or DMA preferred) or equivalent professional experience.” Rather than taking the pool of 100 applicants and throwing out the 75 without DMAs, I suggest that schools weigh the ‘professional experience’ part of the equation more heavily, not only in favor of the full-time orchestra musician, but the full-time freelancer as well. The expanded definition of what it means to have ‘equivalent professional experience’ is the key, for it brings a whole host of other skills into the equation beyond the playing. This proposed shift in weighing experience will come with a shift in the mentality of hiring committees.

This focus on equivalent professional experience also will allow schools to select musicians that fit the focus of their specific school. While the vast majority of schools should be shifting away from training orchestra musicians, and moving their hiring process accordingly, places like Juilliard or the New England Conservatory that fairly regularly produce orchestra musicians should continue to do things the way they currently do it. In light of a trombone professor opening, it makes sense to hire Jim Markey of the Boston Symphony at NEC or Joseph Alessi of the New York Philharmonic at Juilliard, since that is the focus of those schools and they are relatively successful at it. For almost everyone else, though, they should be hiring musicians that can teach towards an expanded definition of success. The instructor is ultimately a role-model for the student, and part of the problem in the system is the fetishization of orchestral work.

Get Rid of the Mandatory Theory and History Track Hear me out before I’m burnt at the stake. Recently, Harvard University has decided that it is in the best interest of their students to get rid of the standard theory and history track that is ubiquitous at every other institution that I personally know about. Their reasoning goes something like this:

  • The theory and history sequences, by virtue of studying western classical music, are heavily biased towards that same music, excludes non-western and non-classical music, and limits diversity in the student body

  • If a student has a career goal of performing anything other than the specific music covered in these sequences, this heavy focus puts them at a competitive disadvantage

  • Alongside a solid advising structure, if each student plans a personal course of study that serves their career goals, they will ultimately be served better by the institution

  • If the institution opens up the course offerings to include other courses that may be more suited for a more diverse set of goals, students will emerge after graduation with a unique toolbox that makes sense for them

It makes absolutely no sense for someone who has goals of being a singer-songwriter to study gregorian chant, or for an early-music specialist to study the history of Electronic Dance Music. Why do we force them to? Why do we sit everyone down and decide that the one-size-fits-all approach is appropriate? Instead, if we force students to justify their course of study and why it’s going to benefit their career, I’d bet on the result being that we produce more diverse and more qualified musicians overall. This more freeform approach also has the benefit of allowing us to introduce the below into the curriculum. Introduce Business, Marketing, and Branding

There are too many professional musicians being produced in the United States. In order to make a living doing what we love in such an environment, the fact of the matter is that we must develop skills that the generations before us have never needed. We need to ways to stand out from the crowd, let people know what we’re about, and show what we have to offer that is unique and compelling. The advent of the digital world has created constant change in how we consume content, and that process will not slow down. In order to stay relevant as individuals plying our craft, we need to know how to reach audiences in a media-rich and evolving world, develop innovative funding models for our musical endeavors, and forge ahead both broadening and changing the paradigm of what it means to be a musician. That means giving a set of tools to our graduates that allow them to innovate, explore, and let the world know what they have to offer. That’s why a basic understanding of business, personal branding, and marketing are necessary. In this vein, I would like to highlight one school in particular that I’m extremely impressed with at the moment- the University of South Carolina. The students in their program have access to what they call the ‘Spark Lab’, which includes everything I’ve mentioned above and more. In addition to that, their bachelor’s of music degree has a concentration in either Entrepreneurship, Music Technology or Chamber Music built into the major. I don’t know of any other school right now that is doing this. Big high five to them.

Get Teaching During my time at UCLA, one of the experiences I credit with having the most substantive impact on my career today was the Gluck Outreach Program. Because of the generous support of the Max H Gluck Foundation, students were not only given the opportunity to present outreach concerts in student ensembles to places like elderly care homes, but to teach at low-income schools in the Los Angeles Area. While those opportunities are outstanding for those on the receiving end of the philanthropic efforts, the real bonus for the me was the ability to start honing my teaching ability from my freshmen year and to get paid to do so.

Teaching will almost certainly be a part of a portfolio music career after a student graduates, so it blows my mind that somewhere with a stellar reputation like the Oberlin Conservatory no longer offers Music Education degrees at the BA level, or any way to advance their student’s teaching ability during that degree path. It shows an absolute disregard for what the majority of students will be dealing with as soon as they graduate since that skill is a necessity for the vast majority of performance minded-musicians. Why do we allow graduates to go through a program for four years without at least offering relevant institution-based opportunities, and encouraging them to develop a vital skill to their career? I was lucky. During Pat Sheridan’s time at UCLA, I was a little snot, but in spite of being a little snot, I was also given an extremely valuable piece of advice by him. Pat told me, in no uncertain terms to start teaching- yesterday if possible. Find some private students, find a school that needs a brass clinician, find something to give yourself a sandbox in which to hone your teaching ability. He told me to look at him, look at Jens Lindemann, and look at Jim Miller. They were all world class performers, and yet, they were still teaching. It took years for them to hone the craft of instruction just like it did to play their horns. In no uncertain terms, Pat showed me that it was a necessity in the business. This, admittedly anecdotal evidence, has proven to be true over and over again for me and my colleagues. School that are serious about preparing their students for a career need to be looking seriously at including some sort of practical teaching experience into their curriculum.

Overhaul the Senior Recital

The senior recital is supposed to be a culmination of all of the blood, sweat, and tears that a student has put in over the course of 4 years. This is a great idea! It really is a culminating event that symbolizes the progress that they’ve made over that time. The problem with the implementation is that it no way relates to what students are exposed to in the real world. Instead of thinking of this event as a ‘recital’, schools should start thinking of this event as a ‘capstone project’. What I mean by that is the following:

  • Relax the requirements for what style/genre/type of ensemble music that the student must perform. Allow each student to put together a performance that reflects their interests at the time of the recital, guided by a faculty mentor

  • Add a requirement to publicise and market the concert, putting in place a minimal attendee number

  • At least a portion of the recital should be an ensemble that the student has put together themselves. It could be as boring as a brass quintet, or as crazy as they’d like it to be.

  • Do not provide a venue for the project

All of these suggestions are simply reflections of what it means to be a performer in the world. Professionals are not relying on others to tell them what they should play during a recital, nor do they have a captive audience, or free and available venues to fall back on. Force students to think through what it means to prepare a concert beyond the music. Force them to find a venue, put butts in seats, and to fulfill themselves artistically. That is how you create a versatile set of skills that can adapt to the needs of a constantly changing musical landscape.

Publish the employment numbers

That’s it. Publish how many of each school’s students are still working in the field after 1 year, 5 years, and 10 years. Show the world general stats on their income. For those that move out of the field, publish reasons why they did so. Was it out of financial necessity, or was it a change in career independent of financial constraints? These numbers will be telling, and I honestly don’t think a single university music department will publish them, even though most should have them. The reason is that they are most likely abysmal. We need to start being honest with ourselves in that we’re producing too many musicians that are entirely ill-prepared for the world. Let’s have the schools that are doing well show us that they’re doing well, give students an opportunity to make informed decisions on where to study, and find what works and what doesn’t in our training grounds. Asking questions about why any specific school is doing well or not doing well is a starting point in overhauling the system, and that is only possible with a frank discussion about the numbers.

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