DIY: Music Career

Conservatories are teaching the business of the business

By Brian Wise

Kendall notes that as a music school within a university, Michigan is better equipped to provide cross-disciplinary music training than a conservatory is. The school is bringing in the latest technology — digital music libraries, state-of-the-art recording studios, fiber-optic networks to disseminate audio and video — and encouraging student composers to pursue commercial fields such as film and video-game scoring.
Some schools go even further on the latter effort. Berklee College of Music offers four classes a semester on video-game audio and hosts a Video Game Music Club. The Yale Music School, New York University and the New England Conservatory have also developed classes and programs in the art of game composing, expanding into a field that barely existed ten years ago. (The twenty billion dollars the video game industry makes every year equals, roughly, the combined revenues of the film and music industries.)
David Stull, the Oberlin dean, believes conservatories are getting the message. “For years, colleges and conservatories saw themselves as serving only a very particular role,” he explains. “Very intentionally they kept themselves distant from the profession itself. That was part of the mantra of the institution. There’s much to be gained from that. But you also begin to have the courage to look out and ask, ‘Where is this headed?’”

Increasingly, conservatories and music schools are coming to terms with the widening definition of classical music itself. The bluegrass¬-classical fusion string trio Time for Three is an example of how the “alt-classical” scene is considered a viable outlet for graduates. The ensemble started a decade ago as a way for three Curtis students to let off some steam through informal jam sessions. Last season the group, whose members are now in their early thirties and also hold jobs in orchestras or as freelancers, opened the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s subscription series with a concerto written for them by Jennifer Higdon. It also released its first major-label recording, with songs by Leonard Cohen, Imogen Heap and the fiddler standby “Orange Blossom Special.”

“They created a career for themselves, if perhaps not their completely own genre,” says John Mangan, the dean of Curtis. “They’re all graduates of Curtis and they come back regularly. When they do, we try to steer them toward a classroom where students can talk to them.”

Still, the glamour of a job with a symphony orchestra or opera company - however elusive - is a powerful draw for young musicians. The Curtis website welcomes visitors with gauzy images of attractive young orchestra players (though not soloists) on a darkened stage while the phrase “Where Legends Begin” flashes across the screen. For a field facing seismic shifts in audiences and presentation modes, today’s legend may look very different from that of a generation or two ago.