What we aren’t teaching

A Violin.com blog post by the violinist Michelle Jones has been going around Facebook this week. Half my professional musician acquaintances seem to love it, and the other half are making fun of it. Jones’ central argument is that the modern university is not keeping pace with the music profession, and should adapt to meet the needs of a fledgling professional.

I agree with Jones that many music students are graduating without the skills they’ll need to succeed in the profession. But to suppose, as she does, that we professors aren’t teaching our students survival skills such as entrepreneurship, recording studio tactics, concert dress and so on, let alone the principles of music theory, is simply wrong. (Ah, professors. Was there ever a more hated profession, politicians aside? Who doesn’t love to deride fusty, out-of-touch academic types, sitting coddled and overpaid in their luxurious university offices while the rest of the world suffers and struggles?)

I’m not sure which universities Jones is talking about, but I can say truthfully that I don’t know, or know of, any professor of music under the age of 45 who isn’t deeply concerned about teaching professional skills alongside scales and etudes. That’s because we’ve all been freelancers recently enough that we know how hard the work is, how dispiriting the lack of opportunities, how little money one has to learn to live on. We also know that it isn’t necessarily the most talented musicians who end up fully professional: it’s the ones who stick at it, who doggedly pursue their dreams long after most of their friends have “real” jobs, reliable cars, nice clothes, savings account, houses, the works. We know the sheer amount of behind-the-scenes administrative drudgery that goes into maintaining a career. Of course we teach our students about this: we would be fools if we didn’t. Sometimes it’s within the context of the old classic administered to a lazy student: “Have you any idea how hard this profession is? Have you any idea of the number of people who will be competing with you for an ever-shrinking number of jobs, people who will stop at nothing, people who are going after these jobs with a kind of ruthless ambition that would shock you if you could see it? How do you propose to compete with these people if you won’t practise/answer e-mails/return phone calls/cultivate a reputation for reliability/stay on top of paperwork/show up on time/be a good colleague?”

This is why Jones isn’t entirely misguided when she suggests that music students should study business. What she appears not to realize, however, is that most music schools, including the one I teach at, already offer degrees in music business. Even if a student doesn’t choose this major, most schools have elective classes in music business skills. Today’s students aren’t dumb–in the middle of a recession, they have willingly entered degree courses in a subject that never leads to an easy professional life even in a good economy–so chances are they already know that the brutality of the music profession tends to weed out those who can’t look after themselves.

Where I disagree with Jones is the necessity of a double major. The truth is that it’s not that hard to pick up the necessary business and administrative skills for a music career. Nor is it hard to figure out how insurance works, or how to claim business expenses from your taxes. There are many tax software programs out there, some of them free, that can do that for you. There are plenty of books on financial literacy, business administration and so on. An actual business major would require many hours of class attendance, reading, essay writing and exam-taking, and I think this time would be much better spent learning what, after all, is the most important skill to musicians: music.

Jones’ other points are less directly in opposition to my own feelings. A luthier friend of mine strongly discourages her recommendation that string players should learn how to reset a fallen soundpost, but a good working knowledge of general instrument maintenance wouldn’t do any harm. Neither can I argue with the need for preventative self-care, although many schools already teach classes in this. (Some even employ full-time Alexander Technique practitioners.) But her insistence on the necessity of learning non-classical styles and amplification techniques reflects her own career preoccupations rather than the actual demands of the job market. No doubt I reveal my own out-of-touch professorial fustiness by considering these skills optional extras for those with a genuine interest in that kind of music, but I’d really rather my students spent the time working on, you guessed it, scales and etudes. There aren’t, after all, too many jobs of any kind for people with no technique.

This isn’t to say that we couldn’t improve our students’ chances in the profession. To this end, I have my own list of skills that I wish students learned more about.

1) Arranging (including transcribing recordings). My undergraduate institutions didn’t require performance majors to study arranging, although composers had to. I thought I was lucky to have “got away with” not having to, but I regretted this later when I realized how useful it was. It’s surprising how much this skill comes in handy when you’re doing wedding gigs, which are always the bread and butter of the emerging professional. If the father of the bride asks you to arrange a Frank Sinatra classic for string quartet, for example, it’s good to have the skills to do it in a relatively timely, hopefully non-agonizing fashion. I taught myself how to arrange music later in life, but my husband, who studied it formally, is an absolute wizard of transcribing and arranging and can do it far more quickly than I can.

2) Orchestral excerpts. Of course, these are taught everywhere. But I sometimes wish they were accorded more emphasis. In a world where orchestras are filing for bankruptcy and orchestral jobs are even scarcer than they were in economic boom times, it’s great to be prepared. I don’t just mean that students should sit all day in a practice room with a metronome and the cello parts to the major symphonic repertoire. I also mean analytical score study, critical listening to a wide variety of recordings, and the chance to play all the usual audition repertoire in a really good orchestra. This should be a given in any music institution. Sadly, it’s not.

3) Writing. It would be a very fine thing if music students learned to write better. Not just thoughtful essays about musical works, performance practice, the music profession, and so on, but practical pieces such as the well-crafted press release, the informative programme note, the CV, or the biography. I’ve heard of professors who require their students to write blogs, or to contribute to a class blog, to improve their writing. There is no place in the music world for ignorance and inarticulacy. The modern musician, I earnestly believe, should be as fluent in words as in notes.

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