Contrabass Conversations co-host John Grillo pointed out a recent Chicago Tribune article by Howard Reich, one of my longtime favorite critics (I fondly remember him doing a music business chat for one of my classes at Northwestern about 15 years ago). Howard writes:
With the economy in free- fall and unemployment taking off, it’s no wonder college students these days are clamoring to study … music?
Yes, music. As in symphony, opera and jazz.
Applications are soaring at music schools across the country, often mirroring the overall rise in college enrollment but in many cases surpassing the interest in other disciplines. Never mind that the chances of landing a paying job in a decent-size symphony orchestra have diminished, with many ensembles going out of business in recent years. Never mind that jazz clubs are becoming an endangered species.
More students want to stake their futures on the seemingly rarefied art of music. And parents are not only letting them—they’re paying for it.
This, to me, is a fascinating trend, especially considering how grave our current economic climate has become. Despite the recession in which we are now mired, student applications at music schools are actually increasing, surprising considering how impractical the study of music may seem upon first glance. Is an education in the arts a liability these days or an asset? It seems like more and more people are viewing it as the latter.
Related Music School Articles
I’ve written about this topic many times over the years, so you may be interested in checking out some of the following links:
- Influx in Music School Funding (April 22, 2008)
- Refocusing: Musical Entrepreneurship (June 5, 2007)
- Rethinking Music Performance Degrees (May 14, 2007)
- The Northwestern School of Music is Falling Apart…Literally! (December 27, 2007)
- Tainting the Academic Waters with Par-Per-Student Teaching (December 20, 2006)
- Success in the Private Lesson Studio (January 12, 2009)
Arguments against a music degree
I initially thought about writing a list of arguments against becoming a music major, quickly realizing that much of my blog actually is an argument against a career in music. I don’t want to perennially beat this dead horse of a topic–just check out my blog series Road Warrior Without an Expense Account for details on the potential perils of a music education. Thankfully, it sounds like more and more institutions (and the students attending them) are taking a more practical, entrepreneurial approach to their music education, incorporating elements of a business degree into their studies. Reich reports:
Even at Juilliard, perhaps the country’s most celebrated institution for producing performance virtuosos, young musicians can study how to start a non-profit organization or create a digital score. At Oberlin, “we teach entrepreneurship, how to start an LLC, tax law,” said dean David Stull.
“The students are hip about the professional realities,” said Michael Manderen, director of conservatory admission at Oberlin. “They know that someone who comes to a conservatory and just learns the trade of playing the oboe is somewhat limited.”
This statement truly is music to my ears! There is so much value and power in music, both abstract and concrete, and my primary concern these past few years (and something I’ve struggled with personally throughout my schooling and beyond) is that musicians are raised in a distortion field through their secondary and tertiary schooling, only to find, to their horror, that there isn’t a job waiting out their with their name on it.
The Old School
Former Chicago Symphony Orchestra musician Francis Akos gives a classic “old school” orchestra player point of view in this article, indicating that “there are just so many orchestras and so many jobs […] and now, there are many more people who are looking for jobs.” This is an outlook that, while correct from a certain point of view (there are fewer and fewer orchestra jobs), seems to be changing in younger generations of musicians. Reich indicates that young musicians are expanding their definition of what constitutes a successful career. It appears that many young musicians realize that they will be inhabiting a more entrepreneurial role as a musician, creating a career for themselves rather than winning a chair in a full-time ensemble, the ranks of which continue to diminish with each passing year.
The New School
In addition to broadening the notion of what constitutes a professional career in music, young musicians are looking at music as an academic discipline that teaches the broad range of critical thinking, problem solving, and collaborative skills that are needed in nearly all careers today. Reich continues:
Moreover, many of today’s undergrads view studying music as an effective steppingstone to other careers.
Music deans say their students’ success in getting accepted into business, law and medical schools, among others, owes specifically to the skills the students develop in music school.
“They know what it means to chase excellence,” said Oberlin dean Stull. “Musicians have the discipline to work in focus for hours, they can collaborate, they can attain high performance levels in the 10 minutes that count.
“If you ask a CEO what are the great life skills you need to succeed, it’s a lot of those.”
Added Indiana University music admissions director Townsend Plant: “Music students—we’ve seen for a long time—exhibit a remarkable set of transferable skills which can be applied to many careers. … They are good at collaborating and building consensus, they’re great at public speaking, they have drive and focus that comes from a real desire to master something. And that’s a remarkable collection of traits that make you successful in many fields.”
Arguments for a music degree
I think that there are many valid reasons for studying music without any real expectation of a career as a professional performer:
1. College isn’t necessarily vocational training – What, specifically, is the “purpose” of a college education? Mind-expansion? Vocational training? The past 50 years have witnessed a transition from the former to the latter, as more young people shun a traditional liberal arts degree in favor of computer science, engineering, and other such disciplines. From a historical perspective, college has traditionally been about developing mental capacities and dialectical thinking more than acquiring knowledge related to a specific area of study. More recently, young people have opted for a more specialized education rather than a broad liberal arts education, and music school has (in many institutions, but not all) taken on more a vocational approach, training students for professional orchestras and other such ensembles rather than the broader set of skills associated with a liberal arts education. According to Reich’s article, it seems that this approach is changing in an increasing number of schools, and that young musicians are looking at their music education as part of a broader framework rather than as specialized vocational training for performance ensembles.
2. The world changes fast – Are those skills you are picking up in those supposedly “practical” classes going to be outdated in a couple of years? One of my colleagues here in Chicago has dual bachelors and masters degrees in cello performance and electrical engineering (making me feel about as smart as a bump on a log). I recall chatting with him about how disparate those paths seemed to me; he told me that “the most valuable thing about the engineering classes is that they taught me how to think–to use my brain and solve problems.” It’s no surprise that he was also drawn to music, for I see the same set of skills in music as well.
3. Our world is social – As our economy has transformed from a manufacturing to a service and information economy these past few decades, good people skills–being able to work well with others and interact successfully with a diverse range of people–has become ever more important. Music teaches collaborative skills, obviously, but I’d argue that it teaches a special kind of collaboration, one more subtle and flexible than simply being able to put together a group project or play a sport with others. Music is a language as well as an art form, and learning to communicate with others in this arena develops certain mental capacities is a way that other disciplines cannot. I wish I could be less vague in my language, but I just don’t have the words to really nail it down. I know, however, that musicians reading this will identify with what I’m talking about. This thing we do as musicians is simply different from other forms of expression and communication, and it establishes cognitive pathways that would otherwise remain undeveloped.
4. Chasing your passions is inherently valuable – Going after your dreams, even if they don’t come to fruition, is likely to make you a more creative, flexible, and inventive person, driven by passion as much as by the desire to make a good income. So many of the things that we take for granted now in our modern society are the result of inventive individuals pursuing their passions, not from people being trained, assembly-line style, to become little cogs in the grand machine of social efficiency. New roles are invented and new paths are forged through creative and fluid thinking–the exact sort of mental processes that music helps to foster!
(image via newparkmusic.com)
An argument could be made that most of the previous points apply to any liberal arts degree, not just to music. Why, then, are music schools in particular exploding in enrollment, even though evidence points to students being aware of the difficulties of a career in music after graduation?
I have to think that it’s the dynamic, creative, and just plain fun elements of music that inspire ever greater numbers of students toward these pursuits. Perhaps, in an era here in the United States marked by staggering amounts of pen and pencil testing thanks to No Child Left Behind, music becomes an even more attractive refuge from regimented academic thought. Music gives students a chance to be expressive and creative, and to interact with others in a way that other areas in life cannot replicate.
It’s also something that we do socially, something away from computers (for the most part, though I suppose that’s changing as well), and with more and more jobs ending up involving you sitting in front a computer monitor sipping coffee and not moving for eight hours a day, music remains an activity that we humans do in real time and together. Music, unlike many of the other things we do, stretches back in time as far was we can conceive, a comforting thought considering that much of what we occupy our time with these days hadn’t even been invented even 20 years ago. Music is part of the greater human experience, an element present throughout history that connects us with something timeless, something much more significant than Twitter or Facebook (not that there’s anything wrong with using these services–I do all the time!).
What Do You Think?
How do you feel about this continued rise in music school applications? Is it a positive? Alarming? Let me know!