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Discussion: Careers in Music
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Regarding careers alternative to getting a "major" orchestra job, Steve Ledbetter has the following to say:

The discussion of helping music students "face facts" in the "real world" is a very interesting one, but it overlooks one aspect that I have found significant over the years: the number of people who study music as undergraduates because they love it, but don't actually anticipate going on in the field, and the number of graduates who find a job in which their experience in music has a tangential (but important) connection to whatever they end up doing.

I should probably explain that all of my teaching (and learning!) experience has been in music departments of liberal arts colleges, so there is already a qualitative difference from the students of conservatories, though a good number of the students I had (at Dartmouth, for example, or my classmates from Pomona College, my undergraduate school) went on to conservatories for advanced study if performance was their main goal.

At both Pomona and Dartmouth, a rather large--perhaps surprisingly large--percentage of music majors were also pre-meds, planning to become doctors. I'm sure you know how many "doctor's orchestras" there are around the country and what a high percentage of the medical profession is very musical. At both colleges the orchestra rehearsals could NOT be scheduled at a time when biology labs were held!

But there are those who DO plan to go on as performers but find the competition too great for them to succeed in that line. So what do they do?

On a number of occasions, I have been asked to speak to students at the New England Conservatory on musical careers outside of performance. I supposed they asked me so that I could explain about the life of the symphony orchestra program annotator, but there are so few of those (and many orchestras who have had full-time annotators are now outsourcing, to independent contractors) that I don't think it deserves greater emphasis than many other possibilities.

I've pointed out that there are many areas in which competence as a performer and knowledge about the theory and history of music are important, even vital, adjuncts to a fulfilling career in a related area. Some of these include:

  • Work in the technical areas of recording or broadcasting. [I once watched an experience NPR editor at work putting together a piece focusing on the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. The piece involved an appearance by the then-governor of Vermont narrating the "Lincoln Portrait," and it included clips from Copland's music as a near-constant background to the interviews about the orchestra. I was absolutely amazed at the ear of this editor (who was a horn-player) and his ability to pick, unerringly, the point at which he could edit the clips together in order to provide a seamless background, without a noticeble break between sections of the piece.]

  • Publishing music, and also publishing books or magazines about music; editorial skills and a sharp eye for editorial or typographical inconsistencies are important here, but equally so is knowledge of music.

  • Working on the staff of a musical organization (I was well aware of the number of conservatory graduates and performers or former performers who were on the staff of the Boston Symphony, in areas ranging from concert production to educational outreach to fundraising.)

  • Musical scholarship and librarianship. This requires further study toward a degree (the Ph.D. in the one case, and the Master of Library Science in the other). For a person with the right skills and interests, both of these can lead to satisfying and stimulating work that remains closely tied to music. As a grand, but generally useful, stereotype, let me point out the following difference between musicologists and music librarians: musicologists are primarily interested in their OWN work; librarians share a code of helpfulness and love helping OTHERS find and develop what they need. One's personal attitudes might be a guide in choosing one or the other of these areas (which actually overlap, because many of the most important music librarians are also substantial scholars in music, and vice versa).

    And then there are the people who, like the pre-meds of my experience, studied music passionately in college because they loved it, but never expected to make a living from it. They wanted to devote at least SOME part of their lives to a particular passion, but then moved on to become doctors, lawyers, business people of all kinds. They are extraordinarily valuable, because they will help form the core of support for our musical institutions--as donors, board members, and as parents who will encourage their children to study music.

    Of this latter group, I can't resist mentioning one of the best ideas I've ever seen a college offer to new or current students (and especially to their PARENTS!) about choosing a major. When my daughter attended Ithaca College, we naturally visited the place with her. Each department of the college had prepared a handout for students and parents that discussed some of the career possibilities that DIRECTLY grew out of that major (philosophy, English, history, music, etc), but--more important, I think--they added a list of perhaps 25-50 recent graduates from that department with a note about what kind of work they were doing now. This was very eye-opening: the majority of students in ALL majors were working in fields that were unrelated, or only tangentially related, to their college major. Either they had changed interests or, more likely, had pursued what the really ENJOYED in college, got a good education, and then turned that into the work force in a variety of ways.

    In other words, parents did not need to worry that their offspring who chose to major in music, or drama, or philosophy, or classics, or any other "impractical" major would not be able to find work after college. Employers are happy to find well-rounded, interesting, well-educated people with the ability to focus on what needed to be done. And MUSIC is certainly a field that teaches that kind of focus!

    Steven Schaffner has a similar perspective:
    While it may be true that there are many more musicians graduating than there are full-time professional performance jobs, there are some facts that are often overlooked. Musicians working as performers are most often self-employed. There are many free-lance opportunities in many areas of the country. There are per-service orchestras large and small, small ensembles like brass and ww quintets, string quartets, etc. The better players will have much to do. The bad ones will have less. Many times competent musicians who have been around a while and who have proven dependability (not virtuosity, but being there on time, in tune, and playing the part well) will have more work than the recently graduated young, inexperienced musician. This comes with the territory in just about every field, not just music.

    There are also jobs for FINE music teachers (not your run-of-the-mill music ed. graduate). There is also work for music editors, copyists, repair people (who really should be musicians of high caibre as well as fine technicians), music engravers, contractors (people who can get work for others and themselves because they are good salesmen as well as knowing who can play the part best for any particular style of music). There are also music librarians for those who want to go the extra mile and do some coursework in library science. There are recording engineer jobs for musicians with computer skills and an excellent ear. There are rental library jobs for musicians who want to get into the publishing end of the music business (the amount of musical knowledge required for this is quite substantial--one should be able to recommend works to a conductor depending on the size and proficiency of an orchestra).

    There are also opportunities to write program notes, reviews, and on various subjects to do with music. One's music degree is a qualification for this, and the better a musician is, the more respected his/her opinions are. Encourage students to look at all the things a music person can do besides performing. Musical talent shouldn't be wasted being a bank teller. Leave that to people who have talent in that area. Probably the easiest way to show a student what is likely to happen to them in terms of finding a full-time orchestra job is to take them to a full-time orchestra player and have them play in an ensemble situation with them. Stories from the pro will happen naturally.

    IF the student is musically talented and capable of holding their own with the pro (playing duets, for example) in terms of range, pitch, reading, and so on, it may be a possibility. The student will also find out just how far they have to go, and will sometimes work harder to get there. Of course, we know that being able isn't enough. One has to be able to play well under the pressure of an audition and happen to be the best player in the room on the day of the audition. This is going to mean several hours a day in the practice room, learning every possible excerpt. Listening to recordings of good performances of orchestral materials so you're not caught out with a radically wrong style or tempo, and being able to play the required solo material FLAWLESSLY is also essential.

    The student has to ask him or herself if he/she is prepared to make those sacrifices needed to get there. It is hard work. Competence is not enough, as you know. Artistry is a requirement. Nerves of steel won't hurt either. Self-confidence is paramount. For free-lancers, a pleasant personality is a plus. No one wants to work for a complainer, someone who makes sly, sarcastic remarks about colleagues or conductors, or anyone else on the job. For very bright people, keeping one's mouth shut is often difficult, but mandatory.

    These are things I would tell a student. And if they fail to meet any of the above requirements in the learning environment, they need to be taken aside and reminded. In reality, most of the folks I've known in full-time playing positions have been able to play their instrument very well since they were in junior high or maybe even earlier. If a student comes into a lesson unable to play an etude without major errors at the college level, they probably haven't the "right stuff". College really ends up being the place to refine skills, not gain them wholesale. While there are exceptions to this, they are rare.

    I have played with a great many very fine musicians. I have often thought some of them should be in the major league orchestras. Some haven't bothered to try because they are afraid of auditioning. Some have decided not to do it for other reasons, but do sub or play extra in major orchestras. A good friend plays the guitar, and is first call with a major orchestra for any and all fretted instrument parts, that is anything from banjo to balalaika, so versatiliy in his area is paramount. He did not learn these skills overnight. Imagine not learning one instrument, but several well enough to perform with a top orchestra. A cellist with a major orchestra I know also played piano with that orchestra whenever one was called for. This is the kind of talent we are dealing with. And these people at this level are NOT uncommon. All this can be told to a hopeful student. It is hard work, and that is the real stumbling block for most students.

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