Symphony Era – say goodbye

The era of the symphony orchestra is done. I’ve said this with a heavy heart for the past fifteen years. It has gone the way of dozens of other artistic mediums (portable mp3 players replaced CD players that replaced their tape predecessors; digital photos taken by camera phones replaced film that replaced its predecessors, etc.) It is no longer commonplace for every city to have a professional symphony orchestra, but rather a luxury for certain cities and for those patrons that can afford to keep it going (private and corporate.) Don’t get me wrong – I really hate stating the obvious, especially since I am a lover of classical music. I love playing it, studying it, practicing it, and teaching it. The history of each piece is so unique and representative of the times in which they were written. The great works will always withstand the test of time. However, the number of people who will pay to see them performed live is dwindling. The costs are going up, yet the demand is going down.

On a similar note, the universities are putting out more and more excellent symphonic musicians than there are available jobs. The Supply is LARGE, but the Demand is SMALL. Economics scholars will tell you that when the supply is greater than the demand, the price goes down. Unfortunately, this cannot always be the case when it comes to the supply/demand of the work force. People need paying jobs to live. Housing, food, transportation and other essentials of life cost money, and those costs are only increasing every year, regardless of the number of jobs available.

Then why are the universities sending out thousands of graduates into a field where they can only hope to land a position in a rare, well-funded orchestra? These graduates are not only not finding jobs, but are missing most of the skills necessary to find other work, or more importantly, having the skills to create their own work.

I have a theory.

Universities are slow to change. The bureaucrats and academians (yes, I made up this word) are not as open-minded as one would think. They want to protect their jobs more than they care about the students that merely pass through their halls. It’s self-preservation for them. By creating more graduates, they increase their numbers and tenure. Since only a tiny minority of the music school graduates land the coveted symphony jobs, those that don’t usually end up doing a career not in their chosen field, or end up teaching themselves. Universities expand to meet the demands of the higher population of students going to college, and they expand the departments where people want to major. Since most universities only want professors who have masters or doctoral degrees, those who have these credentials get the jobs. Those who usually have these credentials also were a product of the same university system where the goal is to get and keep their job. Many of the university professors that I have encountered throughout the past twenty-plus years have not had to create their own businesses and make a living as freelance musicians. They have had the regular job of teaching as their “fall-back” and have not been forced to make the same decisions that today’s students face.

It’s a perpetual cycle. I don’t see a change coming, yet. But I’m hoping for it. And this is what I propose:

1. All music students should be required to double major in business. The music program teaches you how to play music, but the business program will teach you how to make a living performing music. Marketing, taxes, accounting, licensing, advertising, legal, etc. are all extremely important subjects to know to be a freelance musician. Most musicians don’t realize what they can and cannot deduct on IRS forms, and have to pay an accountant to deal with it. Most also do not realize that they are offering a service; this service needs to be marketed and advertised.

2. All music students should be required to learn about unions. This is not just the musicians’ union, but all unions in the field of the performing arts. Not all states have the same rules or laws, and many times music graduates hope to work and tour all over the world. These students need to know the policies and procedures, as well as the laws, of every potential performing arts venue.

3. All music students should be required to learn about insurance. This is every type of insurance from instrument to liability to even health insurance.

4. All music students should be required to learn about contracts and the legalese. Even if they are offered a position with a prestigious symphony, it is usually under a contract, and each person needs to be able to read it and understand it. They need to know that everything is negotiable, and they should never sign it without reading it thoroughly. This subject of contracts is even more important when you are freelance, as all work should take place under a contract. Details should be in writing to avoid confusion, and it binds all the parties involved to certain responsibilities.

5. Universities should offer classes in multiple styles and genres, and encourage students to study those other than their chosen major style. Jazz studies will help classical music majors with improvisation, while theory classes will help vocalists understand chord patterns and progressions.

6. All music students should learn about recording arts. I’m not asking that each musician learn every detail of a mixing board, but rather to understand the specific microphone placement and recording of their chosen instrument(s). Most musicians will have some experience with recording during their lifetime, especially if they are submitting a recorded audition for a symphony orchestra.

7. In addition to learning about recording arts, all music students should learn how to play to a click track/pre-recorded track. This is especially helpful to have some experience with this, as many of the jobs that require a symphony are film and television studios.

8. All music students should learn how to amplify their instruments electronically. They should learn the difference between pickups and microphones, wired and wireless, amps and speakers, direct-input boxes and pre-amps, etc. More and more of today’s jobs include specific amplification of instruments for live settings and large venues.

9. All music students should learn the basics on how to clean and care for their instruments, including minor repairs. This seems so obvious, yet I know professional string musicians that still are not sure how to reset the sound post if it falls, or even how to shape a bridge to their liking. Yes, I do leave major work to the professionals, but in a bind, I know how to repair most any problem without doing major damage so the professional luthier can later do a permanent repair.

10. All music students should learn preventative medicine. For this, I am specifically referring to how to stretch and warm-up properly before every practice session, as well as every performance. Diet, exercise, and overall health are essential to being able to perform, regardless of instrument. You have to learn how to stay healthy in order to prolong your career. Professional athletes have a much shorter career than most professional musicians, yet musicians are sometimes required to do more physically every day. Taking care of your body will ensure you have a longer and rewarding music career.

11. Universities need to hire experienced, professional musicians who have been in the field and know how to teach it. Degrees are wonderful, but the experience should weigh more when it comes to wanting students to understand the realities associated with a music career.

12. And finally, as old-fashioned as this sounds, all music students should be required to learn how to act and dress for each role. Musicians must be versatile in appearance in order to fit the jobs. Symphonies prefer traditional appearance (no strange hair colors, no tattoos, neutral fingernail shades, conservative makeup and jewelry, long-sleeved blouses, long dresses, well-fitting tuxes, polished shoes, etc.) Jazz ensembles sometimes prefer a mix between symphonic dress and all black attire with nice suits being an option to the tuxes. Rock ensembles usually prefer nothing traditional where most anything is acceptable. The working musicians I know fit into ALL these styles of appearances, and more. When I need to fit into “rock,” I sometimes wear hairpieces in bright colors, paint my nails, and wear short skirts and fishnets. When I play with a symphony, I wear long black formal attire, conservative makeup, no or clear nail polish, natural hair in a neat style, sheer black hose and closed-toe black heels.

Just as most companies are slow to change, schools and universities are slow to change, too. Today’s society and marketplace seem to adapt quickly to the constant fluctuations and “improvements,” and I simply think that our educational institutions need to adapt, too, by giving us graduates that are actually trained and employable immediately. Perhaps our employment rate would be different overall if the educational system really did recognize what companies want in their graduates, and would only graduate those students that are truly ready for those jobs. Again, it’s just my theory.

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