DIY: Music Career

Conservatories are teaching the business of the business

By Brian Wise

On a cold evening in early March, an unusual concert took place in Boston. Titled “Musical Diplomacy,” the program featured orchestra pieces based on politics and wartime, including one premiere about prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. It was followed by a discussion on “rights and responsibilities during wartime” with heavyweight panelists from the fields of national security, human rights law and journalism.

What made this more than a routine academic seminar was its genesis as part of a new push at New England Conservatory to encourage and teach entrepreneurship. The evening was conceived by Brian Kaufman and Michael Reichman, two second-year master’s students majoring in conducting at the school, and was part of a larger series in which Kaufman and Reichman combine topical music with panel discussions on weighty issues (e.g., race and music). They plan to expand the series in their post-conservatory careers.

At a time when colleges and conservatories are producing more musicians than ever and the job market is stagnating, the New England program is emblematic of how American musical training has shifted in the twenty-first century. Instead of the pure education-of-an-artist approach that dominated undergraduate music programs through the 1980s and ’90s, students are now encouraged to think entrepreneurially in a notoriously competitive field.

The result is something of a dilemma for both educators and professionals, who fear, on the one hand, that vocational training robs student musicians of necessary artistic exploration and, on the other, that schools have to do a better job of preparing musicians for the grim realities of professional life.

“I think there are some alarming trends when it comes to orchestras, because that’s obviously a major source of employment,” says Tony Woodcock, president of the New England Conservatory, which this year fielded the largest number of applications in its history. “Orchestras are hurting, some are folding, others are reducing their seasons, and still others are reducing the number of musicians that they employ. But that’s only one area of employment.”

Despite what seems like a boom in online outlets and alternative venues such as bars, clubs and galleries, audiences for classical music have been dwindling. The National Endowment for the Arts’ 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts reported shrinking audiences for many art forms between 1982 and 2008, with attendance at classical music events experiencing a twenty-eight-percent rate of decline (a twenty-percent decline took place from 2002 to 2008 alone).

At the same time, the number of students pursuing undergraduate music degrees has never been higher. The National Association of Schools of Music, which accredits some graduate and undergraduate programs, reported 622 schools offering music degrees in 2009, up from 552 schools in 2005 — a thirteen-percent jump. Meanwhile, the number of undergraduate music majors increased six percent from 2005 to 2009. Some schools saw record numbers of applicants, even at the height of a recession that might have been expected to push people into more profitable fields. The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, for instance, reported a fifteen-percent increase in applications this year, a record for the school.

“We are turning out a large number of incredibly skilled and proficient musicians,” says Robert Sirota, president of the Manhattan School of Music, which saw a modest three-percent increase in applications this year. “There’s no question that not all are going to have satisfying careers as performers. The issue is: how do you create a preparation for them where they can do a number of things in musical life and still have fulfilling careers?”

Most performing artists have at least dabbled in teaching, administration and outreach. But instead of leaving their graduates to cobble these skills together into a functional career, some music schools are embedding entrepreneurship in their curriculums in an effort to make their students more business-savvy. This fall the Manhattan School of Music will launch the Center for Music Entrepreneurship, an assemblage of courses, services and workshops to teach practical career matters like marketing, copyright law, grant writing, presentation and programming.

New England Conservatory is instituting Entrepreneurial Musicianship, a campus-wide program focused on skills like presentation, marketing and outreach, following similar initiatives at Oberlin Conservatory and the Eastman School of Music. At still other schools, including Curtis, Juilliard and San Francisco Conservatory, courses in “the business of the business.” with lessons in public speaking and headshot composition, are becoming as steadfast a part of the undergraduate curriculum as music history, ear training and counterpoint.

The concentration on vocational matters is a necessity, educators and professional musicians say, both as a way to entice top students and to reassure their tuition-paying parents. As college costs have skyrocketed (tuition alone at Juilliard this year is $32,180, compared to $22,850 in 2004), educators also view career preparation as something of a moral imperative.

“Given the economic realities of our time, the fact is there is great parental and student concern over what are the practical applications for a musical career; there is a heightened demand and need for this kind of collateral instruction,” says Sirota, who adds that all undergraduate students will be required to take one course in the new program. There will also be elective projects such as developing a concert series or a new media venture, plus internship opportunities with publishers, radio stations and concert venues.